Sunday, April 25, 2010
Movie makers know that putting kids in adult situations will provoke controversy. It never fails. We've seen the cursing, adolescent Tatum O'Neil in "The Bad News Bears," the provocative Brooke Shields in "Pretty Baby," and the head spinning Linda Blair of "The Exorcist" and the various reactions they've gotten from critics and the movie-going public. Critics often shrug off the content of these films with talk about "context." But for some reason, the foul language and violence committed by Hit Girl in the new film Kick Ass has drawn some fire-- garnering a one star review from Roger Ebert no less (though he has fewer objections to child rape as depicted in Hounddog featuring Dakota Fanning-- go figure) because he doesn't see any context when it comes to the character of Hit Girl. I couldn't disagree more. I admit I was apprehensive about seeing "Kick Ass." I even voiced my reservations when I posted the red band trailer a few weeks ago. But I'm glad I gave the movie a chance. "Kick Ass" is based on a comic book written by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.. I don't know the source material, so I can't say how well it is translated to the screen-- I can only give my impression of how it holds up as a movie. Kick Ass, the superhero, is conceived by teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who imagines being a superhero the way only a teenage boy can. Wanting to be something other a than an invisible, milquetoast kid who fantasizes about his English teacher, he wonders out loud why no one has actually ever tried to be a super hero. Acting on his newly conceived idea, he buys a costume, christens himself 'Kick Ass' and promptly finds himself in way over his head. Kick Ass somehow stumbles into a moment of vague heroism, one that just happens to be caught on camera, and he soon becomes an internet sensation. Doing what any teenage boy would do in the situation, Dave sets up a webpage and basks in his glory as Kick Ass. Still unaware of the danger he is putting himself in, even following a near-deadly beating, Dave tries to help his high-school crush (who happens to think he is gay) fend off a violent drug dealer and ends up being rescued by a pint-sized, foul mouthed bad-ass known as Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz). Hit Girl, whose real name is Mindy Macready, is a cold-blooded killer who happens to be 11 years old. Raised by her father Damon (Nicholas Cage), who gives himself the handle of Big Daddy, Mindy has spent almost her whole life being trained to be nothing more than a tool in her father's arsenal to get revenge on local crime boss, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), who Damon blames for his wife's death. Unlike Kick Ass, Big Daddy and Hit Girl don't seek out media attention or seem interested in anything other than taking down D'Amico. Kick Ass's idea of crime fighting isn't particularly well thought out (he prefers to do his crime fighting on weekdays between 2 and 9-- or something like that). And getting caught in the trajectory that Hit Girl and Big Daddy are following brings him to the attention of D'Amico and his own socially awkward son (Chrisopher Mintz-Plasse--best known as McLovin' from "Superbad") who puts on his own costume and dubs himself Red Mist in an attempt to get close to Kick Ass. No one dons a costume with any real intentions of fighting crime; in the end it's all about personal gain. Or as Kick Ass attempts to sum it up--"with no power comes absolutely no responsibility." It's probably not coincidence that the most intriguing character is also the most controversial. Chloë Moretz is terrific as Hit Girl. Who knew a young psychopath could be so charismatic? A lot of attention is placed on the language used by Hit Girl and the incredible violence she commits-- with good reason-- but a lot of critics act like this character was just created for shock value and has no underlying story. Well, maybe shock value comes into play here, but there is context to the story as well. It would be simplistic to say Hit Girl has never had a childhood. This is a kid who's been trained in the art of taking a bullet by dear-old-deranged dad. Nicholas Cage brings his special brand of crazy to the role and somehow manages to convey a deep love for his daughter even as he cripples her ability to be a normal kid. We don't know at what age Damon set his mini-maniac loose on the objects of his vengeance, but she's a well established killer. Hit Girl can take down a room full of gun-toting bad guys, slicing and dicing her way through like a miniature Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill." There's a good reason the violence in "Kick Ass" is frequently compared to a Quentin Tarantino film. But we've seen this kind of language and violence before. What shocks us is the fact that it originates from the body of a young girl-- with the blessing and encouragement of her father. So why would I claim this movie has any redeeming qualities? What appealed to me about "Kick Ass" is that it seems to be an ironic statement about comic book heroes in the same vein as "Watchmen." Perhaps it's not as sophisticated as "Watchmen," but "Kick Ass" makes it plain that you probably have to be a little unhinged to put on a costume, give yourself a "cool" name, and start looking for crime to fight. Kick Ass's idea of heroism doesn't go much further than that of a teenager's daydream and he loses his desire as quickly as it appears; especially once he develops a life beyond his web-page. Big Daddy and Hit Girl also don't seem to have a plan beyond taking down D'Amico, so it's unclear whether they aspire to take their crime fighting beyond that point. The movie is violent in the extreme, but it's also funny and strangely endearing. All the actors do a great job but you have to really hand it to Nicholas Cage and Chloë Moretz as Big Daddy and Hit Girl. I love Cage's take on the character and the strange twist he puts on the endearments he uses with his daughter. I don't know how he does it, but he's creepy and touching at the same time. And if Moretz doesn't end up as the next big thing in child actors, I'll be shocked. And no matter how much fire the movie gets because of her foul mouthed vigilante, she makes the movie. Even as I cringed during the more violent sequences, I wanted to see more Hit Girl. "Kick Ass" is one of those movies that shouldn't really shock anyone because you know what you're getting before you go in; and frankly, I've seen video games more disturbing than this movie (one segment even seems to deliberately emulate first-person shooter games). No matter what Roger Ebert says, I think there's some redeeming value here, even if only as entertainment. And at least there is an attempt to put some reason behind the violence-- as opposed to some of the worst offenders in the video game realm. I think I'd rather my kids watch "Kick Ass" (though not anytime soon) than play some of the games I've seen. And, if nothing else, "Kick Ass" is a compelling movie, done well on a small budget. I definitely hope to see a sequel.