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Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

kickass_two_xlgIt’s hard for me to discuss Kick-Ass 2 without sounding like a hypocrite. I enjoyed the first film’s visceral thrills, style, and satire of superhero tropes. The sequel gives me more of the same except not nearly as well polished, and in typical sequel mentality, it goes bigger, expanding the world and the height of the sick puppy violence. Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace-Moritz) are trying to live ordinary lives but keep feeling the need to don their suits and fight crime. Kick-Ass joins a ragtag team of other costumed vigilantes to battle a super villain team, lead by the former Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). For long stretches, the movie seems like an unwanted Heathers knockoff as Hit Girl attempts to fit in at high school. She has some particularly nasty vengeance against a popular bully, and if there is a line, it may have been crossed here. I don’t know what it says about me, but I guess I’m fine with a pint-sized kid slicing up bad guys and cursing like a sailor, but making a woman simultaneously vomit and defecate herself, watching both projectile streams spray out her ends, is too much for me. This is a darker, cruel, and mean-spirited feel with the material, and writer/director Jeff Wadlow fails to compensate for the lack of creativity this go-round (I miss you Matthew Vaughn). The humor is still lively, but the plot is predictable at every step, the characters behave in ways that don’t make sense, and the action sequences are poorly filmed, leading to an anticlimactic ending that simply peters out. Kick-Ass 2 won’t be knocking anyone out.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Kick-Ass (2010)

Based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s popular eight-issue comic, Kick-Ass takes the world of superheroes and makes it one step closer to reality. Granted, it’s still a heightened reality with flexible rules erratically administered, but it’s almost recognizable. Nobody in Hollywood wanted to touch this movie, so it was produced entirely outside the studio system. That hesitation may be because Kick-Ass begins as a goofy teen comedy and morphs into a bloody action caper with off-the-wall violence. But it’s also preposterously entertaining.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is just a typical kid who reads comics and wonders what else could be out there for him. He’s pretty much a nobody at school who routinely gets beat up. His life’s biggest tragedy is the loss of his mother, but she was not taken by some dastardly villain but by an aneurysm. Dave questions why nobody ever tried to be a real super hero. Tired of being a nonentity, Dave orders a wet suit and fashions a costume for a superhero alter ego, Kick-Ass. His first few encounters don’t go so well, landing Dave in the hospital, but in short time his exploits become a YouTube sensation. His MySpace page becomes full of admirers all seeking super hero help. He inspires others to don cape and cowl, like Damon “Big Daddy” Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter, Mindy “Hit Girl” Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz). But they have their own reasons for cleaning up the streets. Big Daddy worked as a cop but was wrongly imprisoned when he went against mob kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Damon has been plotting his vengeance and training Mindy to be an efficient killing machine. Unfortunately, their mob hits are being blamed on the hapless Kick-Ass. Frank D’Amico enlists his wannabe gangster son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to pose as a superhero and lure Kick-Ass out into the open. It’s like The Departed but with more eyeliner.

Kick-Ass is a fairly subversive work, notably in the relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy. He has been training her (or brainwashing) to become a tool of vengeance, but he’s also making sure that his little girl will be tough enough to handle the evil the world may throw at her. A father/daughter outing includes dad firing live ammunition into his daughter’s bulletproof wearing chest. He’s doing this so that she won’t be afraid when, not if, she gets shot. She will know what it feels like. He then promises that they’ll go out for ice cream later. This demented sense of parenting, as presented, actually becomes strangely endearing. They become the heart of the movie, and I was surprised that during some major scenes how emotionally involved I was. We have a beguiling sense of protection for Hit Girl, much like her father who even in moments of great agony screams helpful tactical suggestions to his little girl (to answer any concerns, Moretz and the character are not sexualized even with a Catholic schoolgirl outfit). Unlike Kick-Ass, they have something very concrete to fight for, which is why we feel for them and hope for their success.

The tone of this movie, as you might be able to tell, is wildly uneven. Kick-Ass exists in a reality closer to our own, and Hit Girl and Big Daddy exist in a different fantastic reality where they can perform Matrix style maneuvers at a moment’s notice. But I actually believe that these two different tones and approaches compliment one another. Kick-Ass is a realistic portrayal of what would happen if somebody with no training and nothing but complete naivety would don a costume to fight crime for the greater good. In Kick-Ass’s first confrontation with the criminal element ends with him getting stabbed. His superhero wish fulfillment is brought back to a stinging reality thanks to that blade in his side reminding him that violence is real and painful. His first successful encounter with criminals is not because suddenly he has developed super martial arts skills or any sort of power, it’s simply because he has a stronger will power to continue fighting, even as he staggers back and forth likely to pass out from exhaustion. He wins through sheer will power and little else. He’s got heart but not the ability, thus we watch him receive many pummelings throughout the film. And throughout the movie, Kick-Ass keeps to this edict. He doesn’t succeed through any sort of cunning; his only “special ability” is his above-average tolerance for pain. On the flip side, Hit Girl is the ultra stylized fantasy version of a superhero that we’re more familiar with. She has an amazing talent for death and deception, and even her back story feels ripped from the comic pages — raised to avenge the death of her mother by the hands of gangsters. She is much more in line with our anticipated pop culture sensibility of what makes a super hero. So she and Big Daddy exist as the contrast, an exaggeration that heightens the vast difference between the fantasy super hero and the harsh reality of the ordinary (Dave). It’s a satire that indulges in its targets. While the movie toggles back and forth between the two tones, I never felt chaffed by the alternating styles.

And while we’re on the subject, while the film may be called Kick-Ass but he’s the least interesting aspect of it, perhaps because he is a mirror to the audience. He’s weak, wimpy, and is delusional as far as where his lack of abilities can take him. Which sets the stage for the film to be completely stolen by Hit Girl, played to foul-mouthed, steely perfection by breakout star Moretz. She is a one-woman wrecking crew and dispatches bad guys with stylish, wall-flipping ease. The incongruity of watching an 11-year-old child turn into a killing machine both serves as commentary on the preposterous nature of the comic book world, and it also makes for some seriously wicked fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy a pint-sized little crime fighter with a profane vocabulary? Parental activist groups, I suppose, who have complained about the movie’s portrayal of young Moretz, going so far as to argue that any child should not be made to say the off-color language that she does in Kick-Ass (have they listened to school yards this century?). But here’s the point: it’s supposed to be shocking exactly because she’s a child and that battery of behavior is not expected. She lures opponents into a false sense of security because, after all, she’s “just a little kid.” But Hit Girl is anything but. She’s one tough chick and Moretz gives a performance full of swagger. Film fans, get ready for her lead role in the Let the Right One In remake this fall. It should prove to be another launching pad for Moretz.

Director Matthew Vaughn started as a producer for Guy Ritchie’s films, but with every new film under his belt it looks like Ritchie might become an asterisk for the mighty career of Vaughn. After the tense gangster thriller Layer Cake, the whimsical fantasy Stardust, it seems like Vaughn is getting to be a better director whereas Ritchie appears to be getting worse from film to film. But I am here to praise Vaughn and not bury Ritchie. The movie has splashy visuals and some grand action, especially during an all-out assault on D’Amico’s lair as finale. Pretty much like Hot Fuzz, in the last act the movie degenerates into what it was parodying earlier. But by this time I’m already hooked. Let the fireworks commence and I’ll keep munching my popcorn. It’s a rousing, action-packed finish that manages to acknowledge the irreverent ludicrousness of the whole film while still being, well, kick-ass. Vaughn makes excellent use of music, nicely pairing muscular pieces of epic instrumental rock like “In the House — In A Heartbeat” by John Murphy from 28 Days Later. There are some smart additions like having Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” play at a fiery moment of anger, and a kitschy kid song playing during our first introduction to Hit Girl, magnifying the absurdity.

Vaughn also coaxes a good performance from Cage, meaning the actor has strung two good performances in a row (please see Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). Cage has an eerie sense of determination but he plays his character in an “aw, shucks” Mr. Rogers style, even borrowing the speech patterns of Adam West when he dons his costume.

The movie does have some issues. It’s stuffed with too many subplots that go into more detail than they have to. The gangster goons have way too much screen time and are, at best, bad caricatures. The subplot with Dave’s love interest, cute girl Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), thinking Dave is gay goes on for too long just to offer some third-rate Three’s Company misunderstanding gags. The plot is also completely self-referential without stooping to explanation. As stated earlier, the tonality shifts will not play out the same for everyone, and the plot pretty much switches protagonists halfway through, becoming the Hit Girl show. Then again some might argue that the film would be better off without Kick-Ass.

Kick-Ass plays like a juvenile romp, nothing to be taken seriously. This is not The Dark Knight by any account. I was not feeling the same sense of moral unease that I felt during the depraved, consequences-free killing-as-personal-self-actualization film Wanted, also based on a Millar comic book series. Kick-Ass is never really mean-spirited or cruel or casual with human life, despite the central themes of vigilantism and vengeance. In fact, the movie posits that more people need to make a difference and stand up to injustice, granted he movie ignores the justice system in lieu of fisticuffs. The movie doesn’t deconstruct the world of superheroes like Watchmen, but at the same time it holds it all up for ridicule, saying, “Isn’t this all ridiculous?” and offering escapist thrills. Kick-Ass is a visceral, absurd satire of the realm of superheroes that also manages to mine that same realm for polished genre thrills. Vaughn keeps the movie from feeling disjointed, even as it swaps tones from comic to dramatic, from (moderately) realistic to geek fantasy wish fulfillment. It won’t be for everybody, but consider me apart of the throng that cheered when an 11-year-old managed to make a guy shoot himself in the head with his own gun. There’s probably something wrong with me.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Wanted (2008)

Wanted isn’t so much a movie as a fetish vehicle for teen males, with sexy cars, sexy guns, and sexy tatted-up Angelina Jolie, daring the predominantly male audience to decide which is sexiest (I am not a car aficionado nor a gun person, so I’ll say that Jolie easily outpaced her competition).

Wesley (James McAvoy) is a pathetic office drone that sweats out his days never raising his voice. His best friend is constantly screwing Wesley’s bitchy girlfriend, his boss constantly harangues him into panic attacks, and, saddest of all, a Google search results in nothing for Wesley Gibson’s name. He tells us he has done nothing with his life. This all changes when a mysterious woman named Fox (Jolie) tells Wesley that the father he never knew has just died. Not only that, Wesley’s father was one of the world’s greatest assassins and he might just be a chip off the old block. Wesley is recruited into The Fraternity, a thousand year-old organization whose membership includes the best-trained killers. Sloan (Morgan Freeman) is the leader who assigns the targets. He gets his orders, literally, from the Loom of Fate, a weaving loom that writes binary letters via stitches. The Loom of Fate decides whom the planet would be better off without. Fox and her cohorts train Wesley to accept his destiny and avenge his father’s murder.

The movie fails to establish any form of internal logic or continuity, so anything preposterous suddenly becomes accessible. That means people can jump from one skyscraper to another, you can outrun a moving train, cars will do the damndest things, and that you can curve a bullet simply by rotating your hand and shutting off that little part of your brain that says, “This is defying all laws of physics.” For some reason, people are able to shoot bullets down in mid-air as a defensive maneuver but they rarely take aim at the person, surely a bigger and slower target. It’s like The Matrix outside of the Matrix with no reason for being Matrix-y. The idea is that these super assassins have super hearts that beat like 400 times faster, which pumps more blood and allows their senses to heighten. This somehow allows them to slow down time, zoom in on subjects, and react extra fast. It doesn’t make any sense but then again this is a movie where the killers are taking orders from the Loom of Fate. While I’m on the topic, really, a loom that stitches targets in binary code? Isn’t there an easier way for fate to decree who should be bumped off than someone scrutinizing the stitch work of a rug? What happens when it lists a name with more than one owner? How many “John Smiths” must be killed to secure that the correct Mr. Smith has been erased? My father thought the Loom of Fate was the most bizarre and interesting aspect of the movie.

Despite the freewheeling action, there is something decidedly depraved about fully embracing Wanted. The premise of awesome killers demands awesome carnage, and Wanted dishes out violence as an act to be savored and glorified. Wesley’s self-actualization is linked with getting better at making others suffer, and in the end the film advances a questionable message to follow suit. The movie exists in a hyper-realistic video game universe devoid of consequences. I can see future news reports of idiot teenagers playing their own deadly game of curving bullets (they may have to establish a Wanted category for the Darwin Awards). But yet the most disconcerting feature of Wanted is its dismissive nature toward human life. I’m not even talking about the assassin premise, though trained killer flicks usually work better when the pros have some sort of personal code. Wanted is a fetishistic worship of human bodies being taken apart in loving, gory detail under the auspices of being “cool.” Innocent life barely merits a half-hearted shrug. When Wesley and Fox bring their fight on board a train the eventually force the vehicle off a cliff, and the movie makes no mention of all those innocent people plummeting to their doom. That would get in the way of the film being “cool.”

With all that said, Wanted can feel like a high-octane rush to the senses. This film is soaked in adrenaline. The stunt work is astounding and the action is ramped-up to ridiculous levels. I say ridiculous because the film never establishes any form of internal logic or continuity, but I also say ridiculous because the action can be tremendously exciting and embellished with stylistic flourishes. Wanted is a slick and imaginative action movie, and the fact that it often dances with satisfaction makes me sick for enjoying it so. Summer is the perfect opportunity for empty calorie movies with style to spare, and Wanted is a five-course meal of glossy, disposable artifice. Director Timur Bekmambetov previously directed the Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch, but Wanted is a giant leap forward in budget and sheer scope. Life inside this man’s head must be crazy. He takes the outlandish and makes it seem common.

The story is rather derivative and smashes the plots of Fight Club and The Matrix together, proving that not only were screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas alive in 1999 but they were also furiously taking notes. The whole notion has been done to death, a loser who secretly harbors superior talent and ability waiting to be realized. It still proves to be a popular and mostly pleasing storyline because it taps into a universal desire to be special. Brandt and Haas aren’t so much constructing a story as they are constructing a series of eye-popping moments. There is very little substance beneath all the fireworks (stand up for yourself and slay your antagonists?). Normally I’d take issue with a film’s trashy vapidity; however, when that film happens to be so good at being so good looking.

McAvoy is rather believable when he plays the dweeb eking out a miserable existence. He knows how to play meek and anxiety-riddled while maintaining a vulnerability that stops his character from coming across as a figure of annoying inaction. He sure gets beaten up a lot and I’m not quite sure why this is supposed to make him more inclined to join The Fraternity, but then again it hasn’t stopped thousands of college males from wanting to join their own fraternities. McAvoy is less believable when he suddenly transforms into a super soldier, like a pint-sized Rambo. Jolie relies on her exceptional sex appeal in lieu of acting, which is fine with me. It’s good to see her in a role where she can fully make use of her physical talents. Freeman is essentially in the Samuel L. Jackson role and even gets a chance to drop an MF-bomb.

Wanted is a crazy cool and mostly crazy action thriller that is more than a little sick in the head. Its video game universe covets beautiful bloodshed and exquisite carnage. It’s rather depraved and morally questionable not in approach but in execution (no pun intended, well maybe). Wanted is a gory, profane, darkly humorous action movie that secretes adrenaline with every frame. The imagination on display is impressive but you may wish that it had been used for better purposes.

Nate’s Grade: B

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