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Tonight the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival kicked off proper with a kick to the ass. Director Matthew Vaughn introduced his adaptation of Mark Millar’s hyper-violent, deconstructive superhero comic Kick-Ass to around 1,000 fans and film lovers inside the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin, Texas. While Vaughn may have been jetlagged after a flight from London, the amped-up crowd seemed to have no such problem.
“Why hasn’t anybody in real life ever tried to become a superhero?” That’s the question Kick-Ass uses as a launching point, as voiced by thoroughly average high school student Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). After Dave decides to turn his spandex fantasies into reality as a costumed crime-fighter for the YouTube generation, Kick-Ass answers that question in brutal, hilarious fashion. It kicked my ass. It kicked the audience’s ass. Here are six reasons why Kick-Ass will kick your ass, too.
Most people reading the Kick-Ass comic have probably had the same reaction I did: “There’s no way in hell they can make this into a movie.” Kick-Ass the movie may not be quite as over-the-top as the comic when it comes to gore – for those of you familiar with the source material, the “car crusher” scene doesn’t play out in extreme close-up like it did on the page – but for the most part the film sticks to its guns. And knives. And bazookas. And industrial-size microwaves. Kick-Ass makes no apologies, pulls no punches, and only gets crazier as it goes.
Matthew Vaughn has made a name for himself with the slick Layer Cake and the underrated Stardust. His style meshes perfectly with Kick-Ass’s blend of four-color craziness and harsh, bloody reality. Remember when Ang Lee tried that weird thing in Hulk where he tried to cinematically evoke comic-book panels with split-screen? Remember how it didn’t really work very well? Lee could learn a few things from Vaughn. From shots that mimic panels from the source material, to Big Daddy’s illustrated rogue’s gallery and comic-style backstory, Vaughn’s Kick-Ass speaks the language of the source material without ever becoming distracting or showy about it. Vaughn manages both the blood-soaked action and the comedy equally well, which is crucial. With material this out there, you’ve got to land the laughs if you hope to carry the audience’s suspension of disbelief past the 11-year-old with the fondness for butterfly knives.
Kick-Ass reunites Vaughn with screenwriter Jane Goldman, who collaborated with him on Stardust. While the film has its weak points, it’s a lean, efficient translation from comic page to screenplay. Fitting eight issues of comic into a couple hours of movie time isn’t that tricky, but Vaughn and Goldman have smartly reconfigured and restructured the story from the page in several ways. Some of their changes are surprising – making Red Mist’s secret identity apparent from the get-go – and some are just bizarre. Kick-Ass’s means of entry to the big climactic showdown, for instance, is hilarious in the moment, but oddly out of character with the rest of the film’s more realistic approach (well, as realistic as a movie starring a katana-wielding pre-teen can be). Still, most of the changes give the story a more cinematic pacing than the comic. Most importantly, Kick-Ass is damn funny, both porting over and building upon Millar’s bleak sense of humor.
Nic Cage as Big Daddy
Not Big Daddy the character so much as Cage’s specific portrayal of him. He’s got a lot to answer for after that whole bee incident, and if anything will get him out of the dog house, it might just be his Big Daddy. Played pretty straight on the page, the big-screen Big Daddy is just spectacularly odd. The snorting laugh. The extra facial hair he glues on before going into battle. The inexplicable speech pattern he takes on while in costume, one part William Shatner, one part Rain Man. To be honest, I have no idea why Cage does half of what he does in this film. I’m not even sure if I like it. But I’ll sure as hell remember it.
If there was one element I expected to be watered down from the comic, it was Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz). However, Kick-Ass doesn’t shy away at all is its portrayal of Big Daddy’s sidekick/daughter. The movie never once winces as the pint-sized death-dealer slices, shoots, and stabs her way through dozens of mob goons…but you might, especially during an introductory scene that will send parents groups into paroxysms of outrage once word gets out. It’s brazen, it’s insane, and it’s a little uncomfortable, quite frankly. If you don’t find yourself so offended that you walk out, Hit Girl has some of the movie’s best moments. The big question, however, is just how many audience members will stick around long enough to see them?
The Best Friend
Early in the film while cataloguing his ordinariness, a pre-Kick-Ass Dave admits that he isn’t even “the funny one” among his group of friends. Best friend Marty (Clarke Duke) then spends every scene he’s got proving that thesis. Aaron Johnson does a perfectly fine job as a sort of real-life Spider-Man without the webs or the wall-crawling, but anytime he’s on screen with Duke, he doesn’t have a chance. Coupled with Sex Drive, this is the second time Duke has played a second-banana best friend who steals every scene from the supposed lead. Forget Johnson; I want to see that guy try his hand at saving the world.