Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review Double Feature: Kick-Ass (2010) and Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Much like I did with the first two Hangover films, I'm reviewing both Kick-Ass films today, having seen the sequel (out in theaters this past weekend) first and then gone back to rewatch the original. Does the original still hold up from how awesome I remember it being, and does the sequel compare well to the original? Read on...

Kick-Ass (2010)

Years later, I enjoyed this film as much as I did the first time I saw it. This felt like a superhero movie by way of Troma or Tarantino, armed with an indie-on-a-bigger-budget aesthetic and filled with all manner of gruesome special effects and downright sick gags that toe the line of good taste. It's never so offensive that it's hard to laugh with, yet it's definitely not for the kids whose idea of what superheroes are comes from Marvel's run of largely family-friendly blockbusters. It is a great sendup of the superhero genre that takes great pleasure in riffing on its cliches and some of its more unsettling elements, while answering the question of why nobody does this sort of thing in real life.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a teenage boy in New York with no superpowers who, after getting mugged one too many times, decides to follow through on a lifetime of comic book geekery and actually put on a mask and fight crime. Calling himself Kick-Ass and wearing a modified scuba suit, Dave's antics go viral, earning the attention of a pair of real superheroes, the Batman/Punisher-esque Damon Macready, aka Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), and his adolescent daughter Mindy, aka Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are at war with the Mafia, led by Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), and when Frank finds out that a mysterious masked man is destroying his business at the same time that he hears about the Kick-Ass phenomenon, he mistakenly assumes that Kick-Ass is trying to bring him down. This leads to him dispatching his spoiled brat of a son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to pose as a superhero himself, known as Red Mist, in the hopes of tracking down Kick-Ass and making an example of him.

The result combines one of the most lightweight, breezy, and downright fun experiences I've ever had watching a superhero film with a twisted sense of humor that will frequently make your jaw hit the floor in "oh no they didn't" shock. The main purveyor of this is possibly the 13-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl, easily the film's standout character, who scores many of the film's most shocking moments with her astoundingly foul mouth and her propensity for violence. I'm hardly surprised at the lengths that Moretz has had to go to remind people that she isn't like that in real life, since her performance here is incredible, especially for somebody her age. Hit-Girl is both crazy-awesome and tragic, denied a childhood so that her father could have her follow in his footsteps, making her dedicate her life to grueling physical training so that she can become a superhero like him. While the original comic focused heavily on how screwed-up little Mindy's life was, this film figures that the world doesn't need another Dark Knight, and so while it touches on that and implies a lot of dark stuff about her and her father's life, it never lets it dominate the story. Nicolas Cage brings his usual craziness to the role of Big Daddy, getting a badass action sequence and showing a lot of heart as Hit-Girl's father. Mark Strong and Christopher Mintz-Plasse play evil well, but here it also has a kind of flippancy to it, with Mintz-Plasse's Red Mist in particular making for a dark foil to Kick-Ass. Last but certainly not least, Aaron Johnson does a very good job riffing on Peter Parker in the title role, at times coming off as being even dorkier than Parker himself, and possibly more foolhardy as well.

This film is powered by two fonts of awesome, its action and its comedy, and it delivers on both. The action scenes here all look incredible for what is, by Hollywood standards, a low-budget production, with every character getting at least one moment to shine and (ahem) kick ass. Hit-Girl's much talked-about fight scenes, of course, are the standouts, but everything here looks and feels like it came out of a much bigger movie, only with a lot more violence than you'd expect from an Iron Man or a Captain America. Is it just me, or am I noticing that the lower-budgeted action movies typically have superior action scenes to the big blockbusters with the nine-figure budgets and mind-boggling special effects? I don't think this is an accident; in fact, I feel that the two are related. With the bigger movies, you have a lot more money, leaving you with more room to cut loose but also more ways to get lost in special effects and forget to engage the audience, while with a smaller budget, you have to tighten up everything in order to impress. Compare The Matrix, with its modest $63 million budget and its mind-boggling action scenes that brought Hong Kong-style "heroic bloodshed" to Hollywood (to say nothing of said inspirations, still remembered as action classics in both Hong Kong and America), with its bloated sequels that went up their own asses with pseudo-philosophy.

Anyway, enough of that tangent, back to the review. Like I said, the action was stellar, but it was the comedy that really pushed this over the top. It takes turns riffing on superhero tropes and engaging in the sort of pitch-black humor that you'd expect from Reservoir Dogs or American Psycho. From a parody of Uncle Ben's death, to a mob boss father sending his son to the movies while a suspected rat is being tortured in the background, to one epic Scarface shout-out, most of the gags here landed right on target. The film also packs a sharp satirical bite, as in the many scenes where the main characters ask themselves why superheroes don't actually exist in real life, only for that question to be answered when Dave gets mugged and nobody nearby tries to help him. I couldn't help but be reminded of the infamous Kitty Genovese case, the moment that created the lasting stereotype of New Yorkers as being callous assholes who only care about themselves, and wondered if Stan Lee et al. picked the wrong city to base Spider-Man out of.

If I had one problem with this film, it's that, at times, it can come off as being a bit too flippant regarding its subject matter. I said earlier that it was a good thing that Kick-Ass didn't go the "darker and edgier" route like the source material did, and I stand by that, but at the same time, some more acknowledgement of just how messed-up Big Daddy and Hit-Girl's lives are supposed to be would've been nice. It's the same problem that ultimately stopped me from giving Dance of the Dead (a film that, come to think of it, is quite similar to this one in tone) a 5 out of 5, the fact that it implies a lot of horrifying stuff yet seems to ignore it too often in favor of maintaining its lightweight tone.

Score: 4 out of 5

Must... resist... obvious... joke... ah, what the hell, this movie kicks ass! There. I said it. Kick-Ass is a damn good action-comedy with a mountain of laughs, even if they do come at the expense of the film being much more than popcorn entertainment.


And now, for the sequel.

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

(WARNING: this review will contain some strong language. That's what happens when your main villain is named the Motherfucker.)

Kick-Ass 2 is largely more of the same, only cranked up, which means that your enjoyment of it will depend on whether or not you thought the first film was a gem or garbage. While the gore is largely unchanged, the gags are a lot lewder, on a number of occasions treading pretty far over the line of what I'd call good taste. I'd be hard-pressed to say that this film is as good as the original, but if you can get past its more questionable and jarring moments, it still makes for a fun matinee.

For me to go over everything that I liked about the film would be me largely repeating myself after my review of the first film, so I'll make this brief. The action here was as solid as in the last film, with two of the highlights being the "battle" where Mother Russia single-handedly curbstomps ten cops (while a rock remix of the Tetris music plays, no less) and the van fight that has featured in most of the trailers. If you liked the brutal violence in the first film, then you're in for a treat here, as it is back in force. The acting here is just as solid, particularly from Moretz, who does a great job carrying a high school "mean girl" subplot that would've fallen apart with a lesser actress, from Jim Carrey as the born-again ex-mob enforcer Colonel Stars & Stripes, who gets way too little screen time as one of the film's most entertaining characters, and from Ukrainian bodybuilder Olga Kurkulena as the hulking ex-KGB woman Mother Russia, whose aforementioned standout action scene was truly, singularly badass.

Where this film started to lose me was in the realm of story and comedy. Most of the problems I had with the former came in the subplot that Mindy is forced into for two-thirds of the movie, where, thanks to her adoptive police guardian Marcus (played by Morris Chestnut), she has to give up being Hit-Girl and become a normal teenage girl. This leads to her getting sucked into a Heathers/Mean Girls ripoff plot that is dropped entirely around the end of the second act courtesy of what I feel to be a perfect example of this film's humor not being up to snuff with the last one -- an extended shit and puke joke that only brought some chuckles out of me. Outside of a spot-on parody of One Direction (which, upon further digging, turned out to be a very real boy band), the manner in which Mindy's high school story is never brought up again after it's over, and doesn't factor into the third act at all, left me thinking that the whole thing felt like it didn't belong in the film. It's a testament to Chloe Grace Moretz's talent that I was able to largely bear it, not really thinking about how pointless it was until I sat down to start writing this review.

A thought (and minor spoilers incoming, so skip to the next paragraph if you're looking to avoid them): a good way of integrating the high school plot into the main story, which revolves around Kick-Ass and his budget superhero team Justice Forever battling the Motherfucker, would be to have the mean girl Brooke serve as the mole, finding out about Mindy's (and, by extension, Dave's) true identity and going to the Motherfucker to offer her services as revenge. As it stands in the film itself, it's Dave's friend Todd who turns traitor for the Motherfucker and reveals his identity after a falling-out with Dave, in a subplot that takes up a lot less time than Mindy's high school adventures. Having Brooke become a villain would've made the stuff set in high school feel a lot more important, making it play a role in the main story beyond just giving Mindy a reason to put on the Hit-Girl suit again -- it would've enforced to Mindy that Hit-Girl is who she truly is, as her attempts to become "normal" instead blew her cover, while ensuring that it served a purpose beyond the second act. It also would've made for a great gag: given the Motherfucker's lecherous behavior (which is a whole 'nuther bag of worms I'll discuss below) and the scene where he gives his non-white goons costumes and names that are largely ethnic stereotypes (one of the funniest scenes in the film), I could easily imagine him recruiting Brooke into his Legion of Doom and giving her a highly sexualized costume that would have her rolling her eyes and arguing with him over every detail. A funny gag on its own, and a good parody of the superhero genre and its predilection for having superheroines and villainesses dress like strippers.

As it stands, though, this film doesn't have nearly enough of that sort of superhero parody that elevated the first film, instead playing all of that angst and drama straight. If the first film's goofiness held it back from greatness, then this film goes in the opposite direction, expecting us to take it completely seriously. That becomes a problem when you still have the same sick sensibilities as the first film, dialed way up to the point where they actually got in the way of my enjoyment on more than one occasion. There's the shit and puke joke I mentioned earlier, and then... well, let me offer a trigger warning right now for anybody who's been sexually abused or assaulted. Okay? Good. In one scene, the Motherfucker is strongly implied to have raped, or at least tried to have raped, Dave's girlfriend/teammate Nightbitch, and while we thankfully don't see it, the setup to it is played for laughs. Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, or a "pussy", but for me, that scene crossed the line into some very mean-spirited territory. In light of how the first film manages to be shocking and crazy without being offensive, that "evil dick" scene is perhaps the clearest sign that writer/director Jeff Wadlow, who replaced Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman from the first film, wasn't up to that duo's degree of finesse.

Score: 3 out of 5

The bloated plot and one moment of shockingly poor taste made me dock this film's score, but when this film is otherwise on the ball, it comes close to standing with some of the original's finest moments. The jokes that work are great, the action is thrilling, and it's overall very well put together and a good time at the movies (the nastier shit notwithstanding).

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