I walked out of the theater beaming. Elated, really. Kick-Ass isn't a perfect film. There are only a few of those, and none of them involve self-made superheroes. I'm ambivalent about the entire superhero genre of films, as it is. It's too easy for Hollywood to cull easy silver screen fodder, searching for a franchise that can be wrung for maximum profit, diminishing quality be damned.
Kick-Ass' most direct antecedents are Mystery Men and Watchmen -- at least they're the first two I thought of; masked crime fighters who, in reality, are just regular guys (and a couple of girls) that feel compelled through dysfunction or indignation to don weird costumes and beat the living shit out of evildoers, sans supernatural abilities (Doc Manhattan aside).
Mystery Men was a mess that still managed to charm a little, though it had no real ambition. It had moments. Watchmen was loaded with ambition, being an adaption of Alan Moore's masterwork -- what is widely considered to be the Citizen Kane of graphic novels. But Zack Snyder's slavish adaptation, while quite adept, never seemed to breathe a life of its own. Worse, he lost all the subtext of Moore's satire.
Kick-Ass suffers none of these issues. In fact, it's the best of its kind.
The story itself is nothing new. It's the way Kick-Ass satirizes superhero tenets, and the icons of the genre, that makes it so violently audacious and joyous.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) decides, after getting mugged in front of a witness who does nothing to help, to become a superhero. He has no inherent talent for the job, he just can't figure out why someone hasn't tried it yet.
After he fashions a costume from a scuba suit and dubs himself "Kick-Ass," Dave goes looking for trouble, immediately winding up in a hospital and broken in so many places that the doctors have to reinforce his skeletal system as if he were Wolverine. He's also suffered nerve damage that makes him more or less immune to pain.
Although he still doesn't know how to fight and has no cool gadgets or lethal weapons, he is still instantly more qualified to actually be a superhero.
But Dave, after an ill-conceived attempt to intimidate a stalker, quickly finds that there are already a couple of costumed vigilantes out there, in the form of the lethal Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), Big Daddy's killing machine daughter. They are quietly working at taking down a crime boss, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) as retribution for D'Amico framing Big Daddy when he was an NYPD cop named Damon Macready. His daughter Mindy, who he raises to be Hit Girl, was born while he was imprisoned -- the birth killed his wife.
Frank D'Amico's sheltered son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is inspired by Kick-Ass, who becomes an Internet phenomenon after he's YouTubed by dozens of bystanders during his first successful assault on thuggery.
They become friends when the elder D'Amico -- believing Kick-Ass is responsible for the slaughtering of his men -- finances his son's superhero alter ego Red Mist, in order to ingratiate him with Kick-Ass, so that Frank can kill him.
Kick-Ass is a funny, kinetic, gory blast. Matthew Vaughn's vibrant direction imbues the film with a demented energy that matches well where one of the heroes is an 11-year old girl who deals out bloody, and imaginatively varied, death to anyone that stands in her way -- swearing like a sailor, in the process.
Vaughn wrote the script with Jane Goldman from the Mark Millar penned graphic novel. The film is peppered with references to iconic quotes and characters from comics and comics-based movies, scoring laughs and grinning approval. It also works as homage, at times subtly, with the opening credits that vaguely recall Richard Donner's Superman, to the not-so-subtle with Big Daddy's Batman-inspired outfit.
The story is a combination of some well-worn tropes, but it's giddy energy and delightful performances make it feel fresh. Vaughn shoots the action stylishly, often utilizing long takes, while not going too crazy with the quick cutting during the fight scenes (Hit Girl takes care of the quick cutting). He paces it all rather well. At two hours, the film suffers little lag.
Performances are fun across the board. Cage turns up the quirk again, and he's quickly making good on the faith I've had in him through his often spotty recent film record. He seems to be re-embracing his inner lunatic, which is a good -- and oddly comforting -- thing.
As Kick-Ass, Aaron Johnson is charming and funny and has considerable screen presence, holding his own not only with Big Daddy and Hit Girl as a hero, but also against Mark Strong's scenery shredding performance as Frank D'Amico. Johnson has a natural comedic rapport with Clark Duke, as Kick-Ass's best friend Marty, and also a nice chemistry with Lyndsy Fonseca as Katie, the apple of Kick Ass's eye.
Chistopher Mintz-Plasse sheds McLovin' to a degree as Chris D'Amico/Red Mist. The character itself falls into the Harry Osbourne mold, a basically good guy who winds up on the wrong path due to a megalomaniacal father. Plasse is earnest and sympathetic and is as fun to watch as the rest of the cast.
But the real eye opener is Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl, the pint-size assassin who's as vulgar as she is deadly. The character shouldn't really work -- the physics of it all are basically on par with Yoda whipping out a mini-lightsaber and going berserker -- but still disbelief was suspended. She plays the role with an inspired fervor that translates well when pulling off the fight choreography or when she lights up at getting a pair of matching butterfly knives for a present.
I had a grin plastered on my face for a large majority of Kick-Ass, when I wasn't laughing, or my jaw wasn't dropped. The film isn't for everyone. While I think Hit Girl is an empowering character, I'm sure some might find her actions and words off-putting. And to others Kick-Ass might feel like a knock off, though if that's the case I have to wonder how much they've been paying attention to Hollywood's output lately. And I might be tempted to check their pulse.
I loved this movie.
It's been a good weekend for me. After having one of the best times in a theater so far this year at Kick-Ass, I walked outside to cross the street and got hit by A Prophet.
Director Jacques Audiard (from a script co-written with Thomas Bidegain) weaves the compelling, complex story of an Arab Frenchman, Malik (Tahar Rahim) who is imprisoned for six years for a crime he may or may not have committed. He falls under the sway of a Corsican mafia boss, Luciani (Niels Arestrup) as an illiterate but quick-learning servant who soon finds his responsibilities to be growing more dangerous and lucrative.
The less said about the details of this expertly crafted tale, the better. A Prophet is a joy of pure cinema, knitting together great performances of deeply drawn characters into a tapestry of luxurious storytelling. It's epic, not in scope, but in its deft melding of dream-like symbolism with a vibrantly naturalistic narrative that becomes exponentially more riveting.
I kept being reminded of The Godfather, though A Prophet's visual aesthetic is a polar opposite to Coppola's sumptuously shot mafia epic. The story has a similar ethnic specificity, though in place of Italians in America we have Arabs in France, and it earns the audience's sympathy for what amounts to a bad guy because it allows us to grow with him from the beginning.
Audiard's lucid direction wonderfully accentuates the masterful writing, gamely flowing between the story's symbolic underpinnings and its uncompromising plot -- Malik is sometimes guided by the ghost of a man he murdered.
Audiard captures the society of prison life in all its grungy detail, from the winking system of graft that allows criminal organizations to operate on the inside, to the relationships between the rival factions that are often complicated by racial and religious divisions. He has a documentarian's eye for finding the intertwined layers of his fully realized story, uniting its events, characters and themes into a thrilling world that's rife for exploration.
Tahar Rahim's performance as Malik is a balancing act, but he never lost my goodwill despite the fact I wouldn't want to know him in life. His actions are defined by his world, and it's not a kind one. His performance subtly realizes the character with effortless naturalism. Rahim's resume is short, but you wouldn't know it here.
As Luciani, Niels Arestrup's expertly controlled arc from powerful don to a man slowly losing his control over his protégé, while being forced to depend on him, is fascinating to watch. His performance is so organic you might well forget you are watching an actor. Arestrup conveys it all with subdued menace and grandfatherly charm, utilizing every tool at his disposal.
A Prophet is a masterpiece that heralds a formidable talent in the form of writer/director Jacques Audiard. It's a sweeping tale, packed with compelling ideas and fantastic performances that leaves you with the sense you've been to a hypnotically scary alternate dimension.
Not to be missed.
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