Kick-Ass

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A few weeks ago I posted a complaint on the Daily Mail message board for one of their articles about Kick-Ass. Predictably, they were bleating about its content, pinning the blame on Johnathan Ross’s wife, Jane Goldman, who co-wrote the screenplay – was there nothing this family wouldn’t stoop to?! My complaint was based on the fact that the entire article was written without once consulting someone who’d seen it. Press screenings had already taken place, so it wouldn’t have been hard to find one commentator who’d given it a try. I wasn’t defending the film, just reserving judgement until I’d actually seen it, and expecting journalists to do the same. Now that I’ve seen it, I can join the debate, but not having seen it didn’t deter the Mail from running another eight articles about it, including one that describes how film critics have blasted the film and BBFC (without citing any of them – Kick-Ass is one of the best-reviewed films of the year). There’s clearly too much outrage-milk in this particular news-cow. One of the nadirs of this avalanche of sniffy-hissy-fit-ism must be Christopher Tookey’s review, which summarises it in a single word: “Evil.” I find something perversely delicious about terrible, idiotically wrong-headed film criticism sometimes. Make no mistake, Tookey’s review is littered with blood-vessel-bursting idiocy. Exhibits A through Y:

Children committing violent and sexual acts should be a matter for concern. Children carrying knives are not cool, but a real and present danger. Underage sex isn’t a laugh. Recent government figures revealed that in this country more than 8,000 children under the age of 16 conceive every year. Worldwide child pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry. In Africa and South America, brutalised youngsters who kill and rape are rightly feared as members of feral gangs or child soldiers.

In Kick-Ass, childish violence of the most extreme kind – hacking off limbs, shootings in the mouth, impalings and fatal stabbings – is presented with calculated flippancy, as funny, admirable and (most perversely of all) sexually arousing.

The film-makers are sure to argue that there’s nothing wrong with breaking down taboos of taste – but there are often good reasons for taboos.

Do we really want to live, for instance, in a culture when the torture and killing of a James Bulger or Damilola Taylor is re-enacted by child actors for laughs?

The “a-vote-for-this-film-is-a-vote-for-child-soldiers-and-kiddie-porn” argument is pretty low, even for the Mail. For a start, the film has no moral equivalence with the killing of an innocent toddler, and it is bizarre to try and argue that it does. As a matter of fact, I remember Chris Tookey once telling his readers that he felt nothing when he saw somebody stabbed outside his home – he had been too desensitised by movies. That’s more of a personal confession than an indictment of the rest of us, Chris. But what’s that noise? Is it the sound of a hammer finally, after much flailing around and mis-aimed lunges at non-existent targets, hitting a nail on the head?:

As a rip-off of its Hollywood betters, it is sporadically funny, efficient, and well shot  –  hence my arguably overgenerous award of one star. The biggest problem of the movie, creatively speaking, is that it has pretensions to intelligence but is profoundly, irredeemably bone-headed. It starts as though it’s going to expose the huge gulf between comic strips and reality, but ends up reducing the real world to the most morally fatuous kind of comic strip.

Dear readers, it is with a heavy heart that I find myself in agreement with this summary. Daily Mail, let’s just admit that we found some common ground and move on. I’ll finish my review, and you can get back to defending the nation’s morals by hiding round corners to examine girls’ arses as they pass by.

(I should note that, despite the whiny, snitching tone of its professional writers, the Mail‘s message boards are overrun with smart cookies who make a point of deftly undercutting and overwhelmingly voting down the pomposity of most of the actual articles.)
Let’s be clear: Kick-Ass is not a bad film. It’s just not what I thought I’d been promised. For all the credit Kick-Ass is getting, you’d think it had invented the deconstructive superhero story. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable? Almost everything Alan Moore has ever done? Even Ang Lee’s Hulk had a go at fleshing out the humanity behind the mythos. An ironic right-wing vigilante revenge fantasy is still a right-wing vigilante revenge fantasy, trading on the belief that some people are just made bad and are therefore bar-coded cannon fodder with no right of reply. That’s why it’s a surprise to find the Mail reacting against a film that so thoroughly celebrates the have-a-go heroes who unquestioningly take the law into their own hands. You might think this is imposing too much real-world on what is plainly a fantasy, but what we are invited to fantasise about is important. The strong urge to lay waste to our enemies is one that might be siphoned off by this kind of dreaming, or it could be one that is teased and indulged; it depends on how you look at it. I’m not calling for anything to be banned or legislated against – I just wish we had something more interesting to say about superheroes. Kick-Ass starts brilliantly: there is real visual and physical wit in the origin story of an amateur masked avenger, who gets his big break when he overpowers a trio of muggers not with brute force, but with stubborn, reckless determination and the combined efforts of gawking bystanders, whose iPhone surveillance repels the would-be killers more effectively than any force-field. Thus is established a circuit of interest and influence between the aspiring vigilante and the YouTube crowd that create and sustain a superhero’s status out of flimsy, messy evidence. Sounds like a fascinating set-up for an impudent take-down of the pretentious demagogic overlording of the classic superhero mythologies, right? Well, let’s just say that by the end, Kick-Ass is flying off into the sunset with a girl in his arms, having blown away all of his foes.

That it ends on songs by Mika and Taylor Momsen’s (from Gossip Girl) faux-punk group The Pretty Reckless should tell you all you need to know about Kick-Ass‘s pretensions to a radical rethinking of genre and celebrity culture. Elsewhere, the soundtrack is jaunty enough, but embarrassingly Tarantinophilic when citing Ennio Morricone, and repetitive in its use of ascending, crescending rock tunes to generate the visceral thrill of rising adrenaline in almost every action scene in the second half – the steal of John Murphy’s “In the House In a Heartbeat” is especially egregious, given that it was written for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, used superbly to signify the climactic explosion of its protagonist’s pent-up fury, and has been worn out and cheapened by its inclusion on everything from trailers (for an array of films with much less interesting scores) to Hollyoaks, Peugeot ads and Dancing on Ice.

Hit Girl is undoubtedly the star of the show, but there’s something unsettling about her characterisation. Not the fact that it’s a young girl slicing and dicing a bunch of faceless baddies (take two steps inside a Japanese DVD store, and you’ll find a truck load of movies about schoolgirl assassins), but in the way she has been vacuumed clear of any traces of childishness.  And I don’t get the impression that we’re invited to be troubled, but instead we’re asked to be delighted that a film “goes there”. This is clearly a grown man’s fantasy of a child who thinks guns and knives are cool, borrowing all of her interests, imperatives and frames of reference from adult concerns. The perma-sneer on her lips is an affectation of outward cool as misplaced and artificial as the lip-gloss on a child beauty-pageant contestant. Any concerns about her missed childhood are brushed aside by the affirmation of the value of her slaughtering skills. And who does a child have to eviscerate around here to get an ’18’ certificate? Here’s what the British Board of Film Classification, charged with the job of assessing the tone and impact of all sorts of cinematic naughtiness, had to say:

There are numerous scenes of strong bloody violence throughout the film as the various would-be superheros battle the baddies. Many of these violent scenes show blood spray from gunshot wounds as well as the occasional severing of limbs, cutting of throats or stabbing of hands. While there is copious blood loss these scenes do not breach the BBFC Guidelines at ‘15’ by dwelling ‘on the infliction of pain or injury’. This is especially so given that most occur in the context of a cartoonish style of choreographed violence that is rapidly edited and focuses more on the inventive skill and panache of the heroes than the detail of the wounds that are inflicted. Other scenes present violence in a more realistic and less comedic style with vicious beatings meted out to a couple of restrained heroes and one scene in which one of the main bad characters assaults the young girl superhero. However, those doing the beatings have been clearly established as evil characters and the audience is encouraged to feel sympathy for the victims rather than revel in the violence being inflicted. At the same time, the audience knows that the highly skilled good guys are likely to regain the upper hand very swiftly. None of the violence inflicted presents the ‘strongest gory images’ which would be unacceptable under BBFC Guidelines at ‘15’ and the comedic, fantastical tone of the film as a whole means that even the strongest moments of violent action have a lighter counterbalance.

Well, maybe the BBFC’s granting of a 15 certificate, interpreting the violence as the safe product of unchallenging fantasy, is the most damning indictment of Kick-Ass. It doesn’t make its violence problematic – it just shrugs and presumes that the violence is your problem if you don’t “get” it. Or maybe Kick-Ass was meant to be that way: just some fantastical fun for people who can revel in the incongruities of garish art and meagre life. But those who are perturbed by this sort of thing are not necessarily those cannot distinguish between the two. I cut my cinematic teeth on John Woo and kung fu, where the mowing down of random bystanders was part of the excess, the thrill of transgressing the bounds of taste, decorum and permissibility. I remember moaning when the BBFC assiduously removed whole sequences from Bruce Lee movies precisely because of the “panache” of their star in meting out beatings. I had hoped that Kick-Ass was going to smash some stuff which could then be put back together in a new shape, when all it really wanted to do was mess some shit up. Nihilistic, carefree iconoclasm has a place, for sure (give me a minute to work out where to put it, though) but, having swaggered up apparently ready to show what the view is like from the sidelined perspective of  the excluded, and how the mythos of superheroism is an inadequate, wishful, wasteful one, it ends up slotting right in there as another case of redemptive massacring.

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19 thoughts on “Kick-Ass

  1. You misremember my piece about the murder I witnessed. I did not say that I felt nothing – only that I wasn’t as shocked or deeply affected as others in my road who witnessed the same event, and that this was pretty obviously a consequence of my having seen so much violence and bloodshed in the cinema.

    You also misunderstand my point about the necessity of taboos. Try reading my piece again, and perhaps you will “get it” next time.

    You are entitled to your view of me as an idiot, but you will find a rebuttal of my numerous critics under my review of Kick-Ass at http://www.christookey.com. I agree with your comments about Hit-Girl and the BBFC, incidentally, and would not dream of calling you an idiot. but I think you should read my reviews with more care, and respect for opinions you perceive as contrary, in the future.

    • Hi, Chris. You’re absolutely right to pull me up on the tone of my post. Sometimes the immediacy and haste of blogging brings out the arrogant, thoughtless monster in me. I would certainly wish to distance myself from the kind of self-righteous ad hominem of Own Nicholls at the NME, and from the message-board lolly-gaggers you needlessly name and shame. But, for the record, despite the rhetorical bluster of my blog, I didn’t call you an idiot, merely expressed profound, ready-to-burst disagreement with your inflation of Kick-Ass to the status of a prop in a global network of child exploitation. However, I have noticed the number of people you have directly referred to as “idiots” on your blog, so you obviously don’t have an outright prohibition on terms of abuse. Plus, and though I don’t like explaining my own jokes (such as they are) I’m happy to clarify for the record, I was exaggerating in order to set up the “surprise” conclusion that I actually agree with your assessment of the film. Kick-Ass doesn’t have anything interesting to teach us about movie violence – even if that was not its goal (and it wasn’t), it doesn’t even give us enough fodder to think it through for ourselves.

      As for the incident I misremembered, I hope your comment above will stand as a correction – I’m sometimes tempted to update blogs for factual inaccuracy, but that might seem dishonest, so I acknowledge my error right here. However, I’m perturbed by the use of a personal anecdote as the wedge for a broader solution to the “effects debate”. I’ve led a life abnormally shielded from actual horror and bathed in fictional blood n’guts, but I’ve seen someone mangled and expiring in a car crash – it shocked my to my very core, and still makes me flinch many years later. Movies did nothing to toughen me up for the sight of actual mutilation. Do our anecdotes cancel each other out?

  2. This has had rave reviews – and condemnation – in equal measure here in Sydney, so I will let you know my thoughts as soon as I have seen it – though your review is making me have second thoughts! No, of course I will go and see it.

    An excellent post yet again!

    • Thanks, Sean. If you do go and see Kick-Ass, adjust your expectations. It’s not going to subvert anything. It’s just raucous entertainment whose main comedic weapon is “LOOK HOW TRANSGRESSIVE THIS IS!!” The first half is great fun, and some of the action scenes are immaculately constructed. I just can’t argue with my physical reaction – I didn’t laugh where I was supposed to laugh, and didn’t find it delightful at all. Maybe it will mature – I didn’t like Seven and Pulp Fiction and Mean Streets when I first saw them. I’m just out of step with the hype sometimes.

  3. While I haven’t seen Kick-Ass yet (my girlfriend has and she didn’t like it) I can once again only congratulate you on the blog-format you have mastered: the meta-review, commenting on reviews and contextualising them in a wider context – like a film studies person should. As a film studies person and film journalist myself, I really enjoy reading them. Please continue in this way.
    (Man, I really wish I could go back to do film studies some more ;)

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  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I just read Millar and Romita’s comics series, and found that entertaining, but problematic enough on its own. I haven’t seen the film yet, but from what I read (and what you have written), it looks like the comic’s problems have been magnified in the film adaptation, and its somewhat limited potential largely squandered.
    (BTW there’s a small typo you’ll probably want to correct: an “it’s” where you meant “its”…)

  6. Dan,

    Thanks for the link on your post concerning 3G effects.

    I enjoyed this post too, especially your points about the extreme ethical reactions to Kick-Ass. I have yet to see the movie, but I did enjoy the comic in its book version over the weekend. Hit Girl does get something of a normal childhood after the main storyline is over. The comic has a decadent tendency to depict hyperviolence in a nihilistic way, but there’s something bracing about writer Mark Millar’s reinvention of the superhero type, the way Dave looks for approval on the internet, and the way he pretends to be his girlfriend’s “gay” best friend. It also might prove interesting to compare the Kick-Ass movie adaptation with Wanted, another comic of Millar’s.

    • Hi, Doc. I must’ve missed your post first time round (I do that sometimes), and suddenly there it is.

      I liked some of the ideas in Wanted, and there’s no doubt that Timur Bekmambetov has a real flair for warped, weird and exhilarating set-pieces. I recoiled from its vigilante theme, which seemed to be another bit of wish-fulfilment for geeks longing to lay violent waste to their antagonists. I didn’t mind the preposterousness of it at all. And I loved that central conceit of the assassins acting on the orders of a mysterious force (weaving!).

      But I am officially full to the brim with movies about how cool it is being an assassin. I really can’t stomach any more superslick, slow-mo kills or revolvers whipped out from under billowing trenchcoats, etc. It was fun while it lasted but I’m done, thanks.

  7. With regard to the Kick-Ass controversy, you may be interested in a further piece I have written about the all too numerous people who have abused myself and other critics over the internet. A necessarily abbreviated and watered-down version of my article, for family consumption, was published in the Daily Mail this morning, 29th April, 2010 and can be found on Daily Mail online. The full, unexpurgated version – HOW I FELL FOUL OF THE INTERNET LYNCH MOB – can be found at http://www.movie-film-review.com/devFilm.asp?ID=15578.

    I believe this is one of the most important pieces I have ever written about film. Please read it with care, and link to it if you have your own website. Best regards. Christopher Tookey

    • Oh, Chris. It’s not a lynch mob. It’s just a bunch of twats. Pay them no mind. They probably didn’t even read your review, they just thought they should throw some poo when they saw other people involved in a poo-slinging match and felt left out. As I said, I took issue with several points in your original review, but I wouldn’t ever take the easy route on the paedo-hysteria question that seems to have been stirred up here. Internet message boards can be very ugly places, and we’d all like to preserve them as places where opinions matter – these people cheapen the whole deal, but it’s not to be taken personally. They’re just piranhas, and they’ll bite whatever jumps into the water before they check whether or not it’s edible….

      Just seen a trailer for the remake of ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ – now there’s something I could feel like getting morally indignant about.

  8. A great dissection of the film’s shortcomings, Dan. My biggest problem with it was with the sheer predictability of its central love story, Dave’s eventual consummation with Katie. What started off as a promising setup – her seeing him as a GBF – swiftly descended into a typical schlubby-guy-gets-beautiful-vacuous-girl plotline seen all too often in bad US teen comedies, as well as staple of comic book adaptations. If Kick-Ass was so keen to expose the rules of the genre’s conventions, why rely on such a played-out device as a central plank of defining a protagonist’s motivations?

    • Thanks, Serene. In the first half of the film, it comes close to really making Dave a believable nerd – such a rare thing these days. He seemed genuinely unco-ordinated, and I only wish the film had become more distant from the superhero cliches as the film went on, but instead it gravitated in the opposite direction. I’m sure they had fun making it, but they obviously didn’t want to take the superhero movie down a peg, as they ended up playing the same old games.

  9. But I am officially full to the brim with movies about how cool it is being an assassin. I really can’t stomach any more superslick, slow-mo kills or revolvers whipped out from under billowing trenchcoats, etc. It was fun while it lasted but I’m done, thanks.

    Then you should be tired of James Bond, since that is what he also really is-an assassin for Her Majesty The Queen.

    • Hi, Fantomex. To be honest, I”m not much of a James Bond fan, anyway, and yes, those films do raise disturbing questions about a man who circumvents international law and kills with impunity around the world in the service of the UK government, as if the Empire is secretly still alive and enforcing its will. What kind of fantasy is that to be indulging? I’m glad the new films have made him a bit more visibly psychotic. What bothers me at the moment is the total mainstreaming of assassin characters. Some, like Killers and the forthcoming Red, are openly acknowledging without question or critique that the CIA carry out political assassinations as a matter of course and that this is OK, just perhaps not compatible with domestic relationships.

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