Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Film review: Comic-hero sendup 'Kick-Ass' aims too low

Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass.

By John Thomason

Oh, Kick-Ass. You so want to eat at the big boy’s table, but you’re just not there yet.

“There” being the level of comic sophistication of Judd Apatow, Adam McKay and their coterie of followers, who have rewritten the rules of hipster comedy for the 21st century with a deceptively simple formula: R-rated gross-out humor mixed with a syrupy sweet center, esoteric cultural references, the occasional life lesson and, almost always, Paul Rudd.

This trend relates to Kick-Ass because, while watching Matthew Vaughn’s (director of Stardust) comedic superhero flick, I couldn’t help but think how much better the Apatow-produced Pineapple Express worked as an ironic sendup of the action blockbuster and buddy film. Vaughn could have used some of this self-reflexivity to similar effect in his efforts to steer the comic-book film away from the fantasy worlds of special powers, indestructible villains and fictitious metropolises and toward the earthy relatability of the teen-geek romance.

But with its straight-faced action-movie montages and a script that rings of lazy, Michael Bay-movie soundbites, Kick-Ass embraces more clichés than it satirizes.

Relative newcomer Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a horny and sexless teenager living an anonymous high school existence of guzzling Mountain Dew, jerking off and hanging out at the comic book shop. But he has the secret ambition of becoming a real-life superhero, wondering in voiceover why nobody has ever tried it.

So he purchases an ugly green wetsuit from eBay and proceeds to wander the streets and tackle whatever crime he stumbles on, despite having no perceivable martial or athletic abilities. Adopting the moniker “Kick-Ass,” he quickly becomes an Internet sensation, thanks to the hordes of gawking teenagers who record his inept exploits – and the vicious, life-threatening drubbings he suffers – on their camera phones (here, the film makes one of its most cogent points as a critique of a new form of bystander apathy that replaces Samaritan assistance with voyeuristic self-satisfaction).

Through a series of misunderstandings, the city’s top mobster (Mark Strong) comes to believe that Kick-Ass is sabotaging his every scheme and dismembering his staff, so he sends his cloistered dweeb son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, forever condemned to playing socially awkward permutations of his role as McLovin in Superbad) to parade as a rival superhero and lure Kick-Ass into a trap.

In a parallel storyline, a father-daughter team of more legitimate superheroes (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz) is targeting the mafia on its own vengeance mission, and their covert paths inevitably cross with the increasingly popular Kick-Ass.

Meanwhile, Dave, the man behind the scuba mask, is trying to woo the high school hottie who befriends him because she thinks he’s gay – a misconception he’s all too happy to uphold if it means all-night sleepovers and nude back massages. It’s a matter of time, of course, until she finds out the truth. This is one of the more hackneyed plotlines of Kick-Ass, one ripped less from comic-book panels than any number of generic teen sex comedies.

The film fares much better in its treatment of over-the-top, B-movie violence, which marries John Woo’s early pistol operas with Tarantino’s inspired Grand Guignol splatterfests. The action scenes are pulverizing and unrelenting, made all the more fun because most of the carnage comes courtesy of the 13-year-old Moretz.

Kick-Ass will be box office gold, destined to achieve popularity well beyond the comic-con cult (the story actually began as a comic miniseries at the same time filming commenced). This is a commercial blessing but something of an artistic hindrance.

Impressive as some of its accomplishments may be, Kick-Ass is a film that would rather aim for disposable mainstream acceptance than become a tongue-in-cheek, revisionist take on the superhero genre, which has seen far better – and funnier – satires in the likes of Mystery Men, Orgazmo and The Incredibles.

KICK-ASS. Director: Matthew Vaughn; Cast: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mark Strong, Omari Hardwick, Lyndsy Fonseca, Michael Rispoli, Clark Duke and Nicolas Cage; Rating: R; Release date: Friday; Venue: Most area theaters

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