film review: KICK-ASS (and DEFENDOR)

When I stop and think about it, I never actually thought the day would come when there would be a movie called Kick-Ass that would be opened in wide release, with advertising campaigns across multiple media platforms flashing the words “kick” and “ass” for the entire world to see. And along those same lines, I never thought I would live to see a movie quite like Kick-Ass, a balls-out violent epic about a teenager who dresses up like a superhero to fight crime. Seriously, you need to keep in mind that when I was a kid, we were constantly inundated with those urban legends about other kids who broke their necks jumping off roofs so they could fly like Superman or setting themselves on fire like the Human Torch. Hell, rumor had it that the animated Fantastic Four series in the 1970s replaced the Human Torch with H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot because of fear more impressionable kids would try to flame on. Even though this wasn’t true, the very notion that Human Torch was left out of the animated Fantastic Four series because some idiot kid might douse himself with lighter fluid and then flick a Bic was insulting, because me and my friends weren’t that stupid, and shouldn’t have been made to suffer. We didn’t want a wisecracking robot, we wanted superheroes that kicked ass. We wanted something like Kick-Ass.

Based on the popular comic book series by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., Kick-Ass starts with an interesting premise: What would happen if a person with no super powers put on a costume and became a superhero? Of course, Millar’s concept was done decades earlier as a character called Batman, which denies Kick-Ass of much of its originality. But what is original about Millar’s story is that it takes place in the mundane, everyday world, where people read comic books, but nothing truly fantastic ever happens. This single concept is the driving force behind what makes Kick-Ass different from other superhero comics and movies; although this concept itself has been done in films before. The nearly forgotten 1980 movie Hero at Large, starring John Ritter, is the forefather of Kick-Ass in much the same way the shamefully underappreciated 2006 film Special also explored similar ground before Millar’s book ever launched. But while Kick-Ass is not as good as Special, and far superior to Hero at Large, it also sets itself up as being different from the superhero films the public has come to know and love over the last decade or so.

Aaron Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski, a teenager with a love for comic books, driven by boredom and loneliness, who puts on a ridiculous outfit and becomes a superhero called Kick-Ass. His first adventure ends in disaster, with Dave nearly dying, and having to be put back together with steel pins and plates to hold his multiple broken bones in place. After his recovery, he still feels compelled to fight crime, and when his antics are captured on video and posted on the Internet, he become a pop culture sensation. The problem, of course is that Dave sucks at what he does, a fact made all too apparent when he crosses paths with Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), a ten year old unstoppable killing machine and her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who are waging a much more deadly war on crime. The blood-soaked, gut-splattered exploits of Hit-Girl and Big Daddy catch the attention of mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), who thinks Kick-Ass is the one that’s been messing with his operations. D’Amico’s son, an avid comic book fan, becomes Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), in the hope of getting close to Kick-Ass and stopping him from disrupting his father’s nefarious business dealings.

Although director Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the original comic series deviates a bit, especially during the second and third act, Kick-Ass remains largely faithful to the original source material. This should make fans of the book happy, but like the book itself, the film has some fundamental problems. Millar’s original comic is a great concept that never felt completely explored or as fully developed as it could have been. It read like the first draft of an idea that was rushed into production before certain story aspects could be properly worked out. The film version of Kick-Ass has similar problems in that it never feels fully developed. Both the comic and the film are driven by the theme of failed relationships between fathers and their children, but you might not know that unless someone pointed it out to you. Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and Red Mist all do what they do because their individual relationships with their fathers are totally screwed up, and though that is ultimately what both versions of this story is about, it is never fully delved into with any depth of complexity of character. Instead, these parent/child relationships are treated as quirky gimmicks or afterthoughts to keep the film and the comic from appearing too shallow. And if either version has a major failing, this is it.

As a piece of check-you-brain-at-the-door entertainment, Kick-Ass is a good film. It is not, however, a great film, nor does it rewrite the book on superhero cinema. Vaughn’s direction is solid and the performances all work, especially Cage, who does a brilliant impersonation of Adam West as Batman whenever he is in his Big Daddy costume. But the film belongs to Moretz, who steals literally every scene with her performance as Hit-Girl, and is the main force behind what makes Kick-Ass fun. Spewing an endless stream of profanity and hacking the bad guys to pieces, Hit-Girl takes over the film, which is both a blessing and a shortcoming. The relationship between Big Daddy and Hit-Girl is the most interesting part of Kick-Ass, and as the film moves into the second act, Hit-Girl shines so much that this literally becomes her movie. But this transition of character focus and then the lack of development that it produces is a bit problematic, creating an uneven balance. It almost feels like half way through the movie, Vaughn realized Hit-Girl was the more interesting character, and decided to make the movie about her.

Despite its problems, of which there are more than a few if you pay too much attention, Kick-Ass is a film that delivers a decent amount of lowbrow entertainment. It is not a revolutionary work of cinematic genius, and should never be mistaken as such. But it is refreshing to see a film that revels in its youthful violence without apology or concern that months from now some stupid kids might pick up samurai swords and go after neighborhood drug dealers. For those who enjoy a healthy dose of visceral violence, dark humor, and a ten year old girl laying waste to an army of goons while she swears up a storm, Kick-Ass provides the goods to keep you entertained.

By comparison, the same can’t really be said for writer-director Peter Stebbings’s Defendor. Arriving on home video just in time to cash in on the theatrical release of Kick-Ass, Defendor explores similar ideas—an everyday person in the everyday world, dressing up like a superhero—only it misses the target more often than not.

Woody Harrelson stars as Arthur Poppington, a mentally disturbed man who puts on a makeshift outfit and takes to the streets as crime fighter Defendor. It is never made clear if Arthur is retarded, insane, or some combination of the two, but he is presented as a likeable simpleton with such a winning personality that good people are drawn to him, while bad people despise him. Defendor’s war against crime and his dogged pursuit of the nefarious Captain Industry leads him to cross paths with corrupt cop Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas) and a junkie hooker with a heart of gold (Kat Dennings). These three characters are poorly developed clichés in a script full of poorly developed clichés in a movie that shambles at a sluggish pace, uncertain of what it is, what it wants to be, or what it wants the audience to feel.

Depending on any given scene, Defendor comes across like either a short film that was foolishly turned into a feature, or a decent concept that was poorly developed. There are interesting moments, and few that are generally entertaining—especially the scene where Defendor tortures Dooney by squirting lime juice in his eyes. But overall, this is not a good film. The characters are seldom if ever compelling, the story feels like it was never fully thought out, and even during its best moments, Defendor is boring and forgettable. You’re better served by watching the trailer and calling it a day. Better yet, watch directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore’s Special, which is all the things Defendor wants to be, but doesn’t manage to get right.

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