If you read my recap of the tumultuous opening day of SXSW, or if you've read my BNAT review of the rough cut of this film with the temp score still in place, then you might guess that I'm probably going to give the finished film a good review.
The thing is, I wasn't really expecting the reaction I had to it tonight. I was on set for some of this one. A good chunk of it actually. And I've known Matthew Vaughn for a while now. This was pretty open book filmmaking as far as process was concerned, and they were kind enough to let me publish those pieces a while ago. I thought I knew the film after seeing it in December, but I really didn't. I had a surface read on the movie. I liked certain things about it, but I didn't really look at those things closely.
This time around, I'm more certain that the film is a sort of a genre classic, a movie that both is the thing it's riffing on, and that still manages to make cogent conversation of the conventions of the genre so far on film. "Kick-Ass" benefits enormously from the casting, and not in one role or two roles, but across the board. Matthew Vaughn put together a lovely ensemble from top to bottom, and what they each contribute to the film is one of the specific pleasures of it... each one a different flavor.
Aaron Johnson is flat out iconic in the lead. It's a young Michael J. Fox performance. He's the kid who thinks up the idea in the first place, the one whose idle notion -- why doesn't anyone ever really dress up like a superhero? -- starts all of the trouble in the film. The pleasure he takes from not only the suit itself (he's a little kid when he gets it, absolutely all about looking at himself in the mirror and thinking about how cool it is) but from the fame (his compulsive checking of his MySpace page sums up self-worth in the Social Media age) is tactile, part of the near-chemical kick of the film. But when things get ugly, that's when Johnson gets to play his best material. Once Kick-Ass truly does, it's the end of a long and wild journey for the character, and I think Johnson plays each step with precision and charm. His love story is simple and effective, and he manages to make it work in just a few key moments because of his good chemistry with Lyndsy Fonseca, best known for TV work like "How I Met Your Mother" and "Desperate Housewives," who is also playing a big part in "Hot Tub Time Machine" and the upcoming John Carpenter horror film "The Ward." They're cute together, and it means something when she sees him in danger. It feels like it counts. I've spoken to one critic who didn't really care for the film, and part of his complaint was that Kick-Ass was way less interesting than the supporting cast, and we'll get to them in a minute. I think that's actually part of the point of the film. But there comes a moment late in the picture when he was to make a choice, and that's when I think the film finally becomes his movie. It's important that early on, he realizes that there are real heroes in his world, and he's not one of them, so that if he does finally take the step and do something heroic, then he earns all of his mistakes and all of his time spent pretending.
He's inspired by the real superheroes he meets, and it's only right that they're cooler than him. Chloe Moretz is truly impressive at Hit Girl, but it's the little grace notes that impress me more than the acrobatics and the bloodshed. There's an early scene where she saves Kick-Ass and clears a room, and it's uber-cool and violent and funny, but underneath, the reality there is that she's a little girl who never gets to interact with anyone but her father, and then suddenly, here's a new playmate. When Kick-Ass stops short of jumping rooftop to rooftop with her, she's disappointed. She wanted someone to keep up with her, someone who could understand just how fun this particular game can be. She's very much a kid, and it's really nice the way Vaughn treats her character. Nicolas Cage does such great work in the film, his characterization going much deeper than just the "OHMYGOD!" factor of whose voice he uses when he's in his superhero outfit. He's a broken man, and he's doing his best to put together a world that makes sense, where his little girl grows up unafraid and unharmed. He's got some really sad moments, as well as some crazy funny moments that are just absurd and bizarre. It's a highwire act, and he pulls it off so well.
One touch that I thought was particularly great in the film. At the end of the scene I mentioned with Hit Girl wanting Kick Ass to keep playing, she's on a rooftop with Big Daddy, Cage's character. The two of them are standing on a giant billboard. I asked three people tonight what the billboard was, and none of them knew. They were totally focused on the scene, on Cage and Moretz, on Big Daddy and Hit Girl. The billboard is a giant sensual fragrance ad for Claudia Schiffer's signature line. Schiffer is, of course, Mrs. Matthew Vaughn, and here's a 50 foot tall image of his gorgeous model wife, and no one is looking at it in the scene... they're watching the human drama playing out in front of it. Hilarious.
And then there's Mark Strong and Christoper Mintz-Plasse as father and son, gangster and wannabe, crime boss and the Red Mist. They're both great, and Strong proves again that he's one of the most subtle chameleons working today. Mintz-Plasse finally puts McLovin' behind him with this performance. He proves here that he's able to create totally different, equally compelling characters, and he really is the most slippery person in the film. Who is he? What's his endgame? The answers are made even more intriguing by virtue of how original Mintz-Plasse's work is, how fresh his approach to character.
There are a handful of action scenes here that are just jaw-dropping, and special credit has to be given to Brad Allen and his team. Allen's one of the top action guys in the business, designing and shooting scenes that hurt, action with real impact. He knows how to build an emotional action beat, and knowing he also worked on "Scott Pilgrim" with Edgar Wright makes me positively anxious to see that stuff. The fight in the warehouse with Big Daddy, the hallway fight with Hit Girl, the final assault on the place they're holding Big Daddy and Kick-Ass... these are amazing sequences. They pay off because you're invested by that point, and because they are clear and clever and bone-crunching.
There's one point when Hit Girl's in the warehouse trying to rescue her father, and because of a strobe in the total darkness, Vaughn ends up with a sequence of literal still panels in which she blows away four guys in one static shot. It's a gorgeous nod to the power of the comic page, and it's electrifying, emotional cinema.
The final score on the film is an impressive accomplishment. Ilan Eshkeri, John Murphy, and Marius de Vries all worked on the score along the way, and the final version here manages to pay homage to the great superhero cues of other films and also stake its own claim on a superhero theme. Infectious, fun stuff.
Beat after beat, scene after scene, there's a lot to discuss here, and I have a feeling I'll be writing more about "Kick-Ass," but suffice it to say, the screening tonight was a great Austin experience, a ready-and-willing crowd that had a vocal good time, and who seemed energized by the film as the lights came up at the end. This is how you get an audience ready for a festival on opening night. This is just plain fun done right. I'm glad Matthew Vaughn made this movie almost just so he could prove wrong all the people who wouldn't make it. It's uncompromising, and it's borderline ridiculous, and it's very sad and serious and it's laugh-out-loud funny. All at once. It's just plain "Kick-Ass."
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