If the sight of a 10-year-old girl acrobatically and graphically hacking up a roomful of muscle-bound drug dealers makes you squirm, then Kick-Ass is not your kind of film. Also, we probably can’t be friends.
Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, a semi-parody of all things crime-fighting and Spandex-clad (adapted from the comic by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.) takes pains to accentuate the differences between Dave (Aaron Johnson) and more conventional superheroes. For instance, Dave has no powers, just a couple of billy clubs, a discount wet suit, and a vague idea that people should help each other out. He also has no special training or ability, no technological advantage, and no particular motivation for fighting crime (the one tragedy in his life was his mother’s death, which came not at the hands of some master criminal or street thug, but at the kitchen table, thanks to a singularly undramatic aneurysm). The early, expository scenes of Kick-Ass strongly recall the early scenes of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (2002), and while they’re amusing enough, they really only illustrate director and co-writer Vaughn’s laziness. What in Kick-Ass is more or less perfunctory is rendered, in Raimi’s film, with a sense of fun and discovery that makes it seem fresh. Vaughn, who made his name with the overrated action-crime drama Layer Cake (2004), seems eager to get to the action scenes. It could be that these early scenes in Kick-Ass were meant to parody Spiderman, but it’s hard to satirize a film that had as well-developed a sense of its own occasional silliness as Raimi’s film.
The movie picks up as Dave’s crime-fighting career as Kick-Ass begins to draw public attention, thanks to a YouTube video and a MySpace page, but it isn’t just the good people of New York who are noticing — it’s also the bad ones, specifically crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his minions. A price is put on Kick-Ass’ head, and he would soon have been delivered to D’Amico were it not for the city’s other superheroes: Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who’s nursing a murderous vendetta against D’Amico; Hit-Girl (the astonishing Chloe Moretz), Big Daddy’s daughter, who’s been trained to kill, well, every criminal in the city; and Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), D’Amico’s son, who has an agenda of his own. (One of the things that contributes heavily to the overall DIY feel of the film’s world is the overwhelming lameness of the names the heroes choose). As the movie becomes crowded with competing plotlines — Big Daddy’s pursuit of D’Amico, D’Amico’s pursuit of Kick-Ass, Red Mist’s shifting loyalties — it begins to find its rhythm. But a problem arises: Most of the other characters are more interesting than the bored, horny high school student in a wet suit. The Kick-Ass storyline is never exactly dull, mostly because Johnson handles the numerous demands of the role so well. He’s just masculine enough to plausibly talk tough and get the girl; just vulnerable enough to curl up into the fetal position and cry when he realizes that being a superhero is hard; just dorky enough to be humiliated by his school’s popular kids and bullies. But it’s hard not to be impatient for the movie to get back to the other characters and storylines.
The main attraction here is Moretz, who earns every bit of the buzz around her, her performance, and the character she plays. Hit-Girl is equal parts lethal and cuddly, daddy’s girl and lone wolf, gee-gosh innocence and gleeful sadism. It’s not quite fair to say she steals the film, but when you leave the theater, don’t be surprised if most of the scenes and moments that stick out the most feature her. Few movie moments this year are greater than the one when Hit-Girl, having just dispatched a roomful of thugs, spots the lone survivor and sees that he wields a butterfly knife. “Hey!” she exclaims. “I have one of those!” Her face registers unfiltered joy, and her voice has the tone most little girls reserve for talking about their favorite sparkle ponies. She produces her knife and puts on a prodigious display of blade-flipping butterfly knife dexterity. The moment captures everything that’s great about the character and Moretz’s performance, but it also manages to capture the spirit of the film itself, a giddy blend of graphic ultraviolence and slapstick playfulness that, at its best, is as much fun as a movie can be. The fact that we know exactly how the scene will end — with the knife planted in the bad guy’s chest — doesn’t distract from it in the least.
Naturally enough, Hit-Girl has proven controversial, and those who consider it their duty to worry about such things have called the character irresponsible, exploitative, or worse, and blasted everyone from Vaughn to Millar and Romita, Jr. for putting her on the screen. There will always be people who are uncomfortable with any pairing of childhood and violence (not to mention the pairing of childhood and words like “cunt” and “motherfucker,” which Moretz delivers frequently and with relish), and the impulse to protect children is a noble one. But this is a comedy, and comedy is often about juxtaposition. If the sight of a 10-year-old girl acrobatically and graphically hacking up a roomful of muscle-bound drug dealers makes you squirm, then Kick-Ass is not your kind of film. (And also, we probably can’t be friends.) As for the welfare of Moretz, I leave it to her parents.
Interestingly, the hysteria over Hit-Girl’s violence and profanity obscures a subtler, perhaps more troubling (and certainly more interesting) issue common to comics and comic-based films: the question of how females generally, and the female body specifically, are represented. It’s temping to give Kick-Ass credit for creating such a strong and independent female character, until you remember that, in fact, comics are full of such female heroes. What’s different here is that, unlike She-Hulk or Red Sonja, Hit-Girl is not built like a gym-rat Barbie or dressed like a streetwalker (fair or not, the reputation of mainstream comic readers and creators as under-sexed and under-socialized is seldom contradicted by female superheroes, which remain predictably absurd projections of the most-adolescent male fantasies). Hit-Girl is, of course, a child, ostensibly pre-sexual but dressed, nevertheless, in a pleated, schoolgirl skirt. Is it fair to suggest that any character dressed in such a costume is meant to be seen sexually? In the case of comics, probably. It’s possible that the skirt was meant to be a commentary on the issue, but there’s little in the film to suggest it has that much on its mind. At one point, a high school-aged character, having just watched Hit-Girl work over yet another gang of criminals, announces his love for her. When his friend points out that she looks like she’s about 10 years old, the smitten teen vows to save himself for her. It’s a funny line, but the anticipation feels all too plausible.
Where Kick-Ass is concerned, maybe it’s pointless to bother pondering such things. As weakly as the movie starts, it ends strongly, with a gunfight finale that plays to Vaughn’s strengths as an action director with a good eye and ear for deadpan comedy. Bad guys die, good guys overcome, stuff explodes, and it’s all executed with the perfect silliness and humor. And Hit Girl? The character is about 10, but Moretz herself is 13, so by the time the sequel rolls around she’ll be close enough to legal for fanboys everywhere to drop any pretense of restraint.