Matthew Vaughn is a director of skill and finesse, as anyone fortunate enough to see Layer Cake can attest; he's also at an absolute loss when stuck with the wrong kind of material, as the seven people who saw Stardust will tell you. His latest picture, Kick-Ass, sports a poppy, jazzy look, and has individual sequences that are as wickedly entertaining as any in recent memory. But it suffers from a confused tone; Vaughn can't seem to decide the degree of seriousness with which he's taking the material, and leaves the viewer unsure of exactly how the hell to react to it.
It starts off badly, badly, badly. We meet Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a high school geek who longs to be a superhero, and while the set-up sequence is quick and efficient, it's played with the crass low humor (but none of the wit) of a high school comedy like Superbad. Throughout the first act, Vaughn's comic timing is just a little askew; the punch lines are obvious, and not brought off with any particular panache. Johnson doesn't help matters much--he isn't all that engaging as a lead, barely there as a placeholder for the far more interesting supporting characters.
Chief among them are Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). He's a former cop who did five years in jail after a set-up by dirty cops, ordered by crime boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong); she's his 11-year-old daughter, who he's training in martial arts, marksmanship, and swordplay. Dave stumbles into Internet celebrity as superhero Kick-Ass, but Big Daddy and Hit Girl are the real thing, ruthless and effective crime fighters with an eye on D'Amico.
The character of Hit Girl, and the abuse she dishes out and takes, was the subject of Roger Ebert's widely discussed one-star pan of the film. Re-reading that review after seeing Kick-Ass, one can see how he was off the mark (it's an altogether too-literal reading of the material), but his discomfort with the violence is understandable. Vaughn doesn't engage in "comic book violence," at least not in the traditional sense--these characters exist in closer proximity to the real world, so Kick-Ass is stabbed and hit by a car in his first crime-fighting attempt, and when he takes on a trio of gang-bangers in the encounter that makes him famous, the punches and kicks are real, bone-crunching, and bloody. There is, indeed, some stylistic flourish to the bloodshed, but it takes some time for the film to find it; in the early sequences, the incongruity of the real violence (mostly played straight) with the comic book sensibility is problematic. It's hard to snicker at the comedy when it's jammed up against real brutality.
But, contrary to Ebert's thesis, the film actually seems to find its footing in the Hit Girl sequences; the scene where she saves Kick-Ass from a room full of shifty characters is an absolute show-stopper. Much of that is thanks to Moretz (so memorable in (500) Days of Summer), who infuses the character with a giddy, charming enthusiasm; part of it is Vaughn, who may not know from tone but knows how to put a tight, tough action scene together. Hit Girl also gets the film's best action beat (given almost entirely away by the trailers), a slam-bang sequence that begins with a Morricone cue and ends with a bender of stylized gunplay and acrobatics reminiscent of vintage John Woo. Vaughn gives Cage's Big Daddy a similar set piece, taking out D'Amico's entire crew in about a minute flat, which should calm the nerves of anyone concerned about his upcoming gig directing an X-Men flick. As for Cage himself, well, his out-of-costume scenes with Moretz have a warm, grinning kick to them, though he adopts an odd, affected voice when in costume--it's a kind of cross between a robot and a Christopher Walken impression (is he kidding that voice Christian Bale uses as Batman, whose costume his resembles? Adam West's monotone readings as the TV Batman? Who knows). In moments like that, and his oddly overwrought final scenes, you wish he'd stop being such a weirdo and just play the damned scenes.
The other supporting performances are mostly stellar. Mark Strong is quite good, in a very different kind of villainous role than he played in Sherlock Holmes, while Sorpanos alum Michael Rispoli lends some weight and gets some laughs, as does dryly funny Clark Duke (from Hot Tub Time Machine). Christopher Mintz-Plasse doesn't punch past the surface, though, and while Lyndsy Fonseca is lovely, her romance with Dave is a dud. There's also a strangely 2006 vibe to the proceedings, what with all the MySpace references and heavy play for Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." But the throwaway gags are often good (an early scene outside a movie theater shows a marquee for The Spirit 3), and the film does in its third act what these stories do--despite the tonal unsteadiness, we're drawn into the story and have a real rooting interest in its outcome.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer nicely captures the bright, slick, candy-coated 2.40:1 image. Saturation is impressively vivid, though the bright teal of Kick-Ass's costume is a little unstable. Black levels are rich and deep, except for a couple of oddly grainy nighttime establishing shots (the quality difference is sharp enough to make one wonder if they were pulled from stock footage). Skin tones are natural and grain levels are just right, contributing greatly to a satisfyingly cinematic experience.
The DTS-HA Master Audio track is surprisingly front-heavy, seeming to only bust out the rear channels for the big action scenes. In those beats, the entire soundstage roars to life--a foot chase through traffic is so viscerally separated, it amounts to a multi-channel assault, while the big fire sequence and the barrage of gunshots in the night-vision scene and Hit Girl's climactic shootout are equally impressive. Effects are punchy and the triumphant score is brassy and full; one just wishes the mix were a little more atmospheric in the quieter scenes.
A French 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Lionsgate's selection of bonus features is both voluminous and well-assembled. First off, viewers are given the option of watching the film in the "Ass-Kicking Bonusview Mode," which is basically Lionsgate's version of the "Maximum Movie Mode." Here, the commentary by director Matthew Vaughn, behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with cast and creative personnel take over the screen, while the film continues to play in a smaller window at the bottom of the screen (or on the screen in front of Vaughn when the camera goes over his shoulder). I could just be infatuated by the novelty of this technology, but it really is a terrific delivery method for supplements, and this one is expertly put together. Vaughn's Audio Commentary, excerpted in the Bonusview Mode, is also available as its own stand-alone feature; he's an intelligent speaker, dryly funny and communicative, though the commentary is a tad redundant, since you'll hear most of the good information in the Bonusview.
"A New Kind of Superhero: The Making of Kick-Ass" is a series of four featurettes (1:53:04 total) tracing the project from Vaughn's initial contact with comic co-creator Mark Millar all the way through shooting and post-production. With a total running time that nearly matches the film, there's something of a sense of overkill--particularly in light of how thorough the Bonusview option is. Kudos to the filmmakers, though, for providing plenty of goodies for the fans.
Next is "It's On! The Comic-Book Origins of Kick-Ass" (20:36), a fairly comprehensive look at how the film's comic book inspiration came to be; extensive glimpses of the book are offered, in addition to interviews with creators Millar and John S. Romita Jr. "The Art of Kick-Ass" offers viewer-controlled looks at storyboards for seven sequences, costume photos and sketches for several characters, on-set photos, production design photos and renderings, and Romita's sketches for the excellent motion-comic section of the film that fills in Big Daddy's back story. The "Marketing Archive" includes the original theatrical trailer (2:30), the red-band Hit Girl trailer (1:16), and posters from the North American an international campaigns.
The disc is also D-Box, BD-Touch, Metamenu, and LG-Live enabled, though here's hoping they update the latter before street date (when I watched the disc, the ticker was proudly trumpeting the upcoming theatrical releases of Gamer and Precious). The Blu-ray is also accompanied by two more discs: a standard-def movie-only DVD version, and a Digital Copy for viewing on mobile devices.
The broadly comic first half of Kick-Ass gets the picture off to a wobbly start, but once director Vaughn and his cast get down to business, it plays. It's not a great super hero movie, or a great comic book parody--it's wildly uneven, but there's no denying that when it works, it really works.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.