USA / UK 2010 Directed by: Matthew Vaughn Graphic Novel by: Mark Millar, John Romita, Jr. Written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman Produced by: Matthew Vaughn, Brad Pitt, Kris Thykier, Adam Brohling, Tarquin Pack, David Reid Cinematography: Ben Davis Editing: Pietro Scalia, Jon Harris, Eddie Hamilton Music: John Murphy, Henry Jackman, Marius De Vries, Iian Eshkeri Cast: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong
I remember when Luc Besson’s formidable LEON came out in 1994 and soon after all hell broke loose. How dare they portray a 12-year old girl as cold-blooded killer? How can you show her wield all kinds of guns on-screen? Not to mention her more or less intimate relationship with Leon, the hitman?!
It seemed to me that after the era of video nasties and a slightly more relaxed censorship landscape in Europe time was ripe for another discussion on violence in movies. So here it was, the next scandal, and this time it was not just about on-screen violence, but mostly about a minor being a full co-conspirator of hideous crimes.
Long before Hit-Girl Mathilda has been there, done that: smoking, swearing, playing Russian roulette with a .38, training seriously with modern weaponry, “executing” bad guys with paintball ammo and playing an indispensable role in Leon’s assignments. She may not have killed anyone but an especially obscene migration of violence from the periphery of movie making into the mainstream took place.
It had happened before. BONNIE & CLYDE was mainstream, and so were many of Peckinpah’s works. But it seemed LEON broke some new taboos and simply displayed bad taste by having a minor amidst all the killing that was going on. Many of the more drastic scenes including those showing more of Mathilda’s participation in the assignments as well as the relationship between the unlikely couple never made it into the theatrical cut, still it seemed to be more than the audience (and the critics) were willing to take.
16 years on KICK-ASS is starting the same debates all over again. This time the girl is 11 years old and does actually kill people. Different times require different measures I guess. As for the violence, KICK-ASS is far more restrained than other movies in recent memory, first and foremost NINJA ASSASSIN, but let’s also not forget PUNISHER – WAR ZONE, a fellow graphic novel adaptation that finally took violence to the level of the original comic series, something the previous PUNISHER movies didn’t dare to do (although Goldblatt’s version contained a serious amount of mayhem before it was cut out for the theatrical release; today it can only be found in bootleg versions of the film or early press tapes).
Hit-Girl however, same as the Punisher or Rain in NINJA ASSASSIN, is just a character, not a real person. She certainly is not a role model, but hardly any hero of any movie is. If Hollywood hadn’t let its heroes kill the bad guys without remorse or regret for a century, but instead had put the killing into a bigger and more meaningful context than just “they are the bad guys” KICK-ASS would have never happened. Too bad though: many generations grew up with cowboys killing redskins and heroes that were defined by their body count and not their ethical behavior.
It’s not the violence’s depiction that’s the issue, but the morale or the lack thereof. I have never heard anyone complaining about James Bond killing the villains by the dozen. Killing is what it is in most religions and societies It doesn’t require interpretation. Killing is a taboo. But what’s forbidden and unacceptable for us in real life we let characters do on-screen. And we never ask stupid questions so that we don’t get stupid answers. A mass magnet like James Bond however is much more of a role model for adults and kids alike (also due to the rating) so that it’s Bond who should be banned from the silver screen, not Hit-Girl.
As long as the icons of pop culture are getting away with killing and are even being admired for their actions we shouldn’t complain about KICK-ASS and the likes. Responsibility is a top-down game with the biggest player having the most responsibilities. As long as PG-13 movies do sanction killing for a good cause R-rated movies will sanction killing for any cause. That’s legitimate. If you want to discuss on-screen violence you have to start discussing JAMES BOND, BATMAN and friggin’ AVATAR.
I do not believe in uncritically defending violence in movies, but art is not subject to the status quo, it’s meant to go beyond it. We can’t always go all the way back to Luis Buñuel and Picasso and re-discuss the same old eyeball scare. We have to move on. Unfortunately KICK-ASS is a time machine. It brings back the same old discussions and proves we haven’t learned anything over the past decades.
Just a few words on the movie, finally: KICK-ASS does kick ass, but not quite the way they made us believe it would. Kick-Ass, the anti-hero, is not really developing into a hero of some sort, instead he remains a loser until the last battle and outgrows himself only thanks to the help of Hit-Girl. That is disappointing.
Kick-Ass was supposed to be the nerd next door who by the power of his will turns himself into a decent super-hero citizen. That doesn’t happen. Just as he puts it towards the end of the movie: all there was was a lot of ambition. It is impossible to identify with Kick-Ass. Also, the trailers and other marketing measures made us believe that Kick-Ass is joined by a group of like-minded superheroes. That is not the case. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy are the real superheroes, and they were there before Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass is nothing without them. They are not a group or work as partners. They co-exist. And Red Mist is fake, just a decoy to find Kick-Ass and get him killed.
What starts out as SUPERBAD on drugs luckily stays true to the adult nature of the novel and the script and despite various flaws and shortcomings in story and character development and some very bland bad-guy characters it does deliver the goods in the end. KICK-ASS is loser drama and exhilarating action movie in equal shares. In the second half the movie takes graphic violence to the mainstream limit, but by then it was about time, given that you can’t call a movie KICK-ASS and then emerge a lame duck.
I have to say clearly that KICK-ASS is not reinventing the superhero genre though. It never appears significant enough to transcend its genre. Too much of it feels like another genre movie exercise like, say, SHOOT ‘EM UP. It’s playing with genre conventions, but it doesn’t alter them. The rules haven’t changed, just the players have.
KICK-ASS’s real dilemma however is that without Hit-Girl and her screen presence the movie is average entertainment. Hit-Girl is the match winner, the joker, and just as most reviews see her as a problem they should have also seen her as the savior. Hit-Girl elevates the movie to a new level altogether. She may be the film’s Achilles’ heel, but she’s the one who injects life into an otherwise often bloodless movie.
I truly believe that KICK-ASS, the violence it displays and its meaning for the genre of superhero movies are vastly overrated. I also believe that it has no significance otherwise and hence should be enjoyed for what it is: a twisty superhero satire. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. If it works it works really well, if it doesn’t it really doesn’t. You’ll find yourself laughing out loud and the next moment wondering what the heck…
Bottom line is that Hit-Girl is probably a really good idea. A killer application. The most genius character in any movie I have seen in a long time (played equally great by Chloe Grace Moretz). She made me like KICK-ASS.
Maybe I’d rate the movie lower if most of the anticipated Hollywood films of 2010 wouldn’t have been utter disappointments. I definitely would rate it lower without Hit-Girl. In dubio pro reo. KICK-ASS gets away with it. This time.