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Why Gratuitous Violence Ruins ‘Kick-Ass’

Nicholas Anderson | Monday, April 19, 2010

I’ve written for Scene for slightly over a year. Movies are not my strong point. When I write, it’s almost always about music. I enjoy movies; I go to one or two a month, but I have never loved them like many do. I can see the art in many movies but usually fail to appreciate it. The point is, I’m much more akin to the average movie go-er than a seasoned critic. However, there is a reason I’m writing this column: I have never reacted so negatively to a film than I did while watching “Kick Ass.”
I’m practically a stereotype of the film’s target audience. I’m a white male in my early 20s. I’m a non-obsessed fan of comic books and their following movies from the first two entries in the excellent “Spiderman” series to the tragically flawed “Watchmen” and even the muddled and campy “Ghost Rider.” From my first viewing of the trailer, I was looking forward to seeing “Kick Ass.”
The movie wasn’t without its high points. It had a number of genuinely funny parts, although in the true style of a weak movie, most can be found in the trailers. The style of the movie was near perfect. Drawing heavily from its graphic source material, director Matthew Vaughn skillfully works comics in everything from the minor touches to a full blown, beautifully illustrated flashback.
 Against a backdrop of these artistic components, the cast gives remarkable performances. Although Kick-Ass’ and Red Mist’s alter egos are towards the shallow end of the character pool, Chloe Moretz and Nicolas Cage give top notch performances as Hit Girl and Big Daddy. Cage, who excels at playing mentally unstable characters, gives his second best performance in recent memory, second only to his role in “Bad Lieutenant; Port of New Orleans.”  His Adam West imitation as Big Daddy and doting father alter ego both ring true. Cage not only manages to pull off a scene where he shoots his bulletproof -vested daughter in the chest, he does so in a loving way. Moretz, as the heavily publicized Hit Girl, shows remarkable skill on the screen, readily switching between an innocent schoolgirl and a cold-blooded killer.
It is the treatment of Big Daddy and Hit Girl where the film falls not only apart, but into an extremely dark and disturbing place. Some minor controversy has already taken place over Hit Girl’s use of the c-word in the movie’s red-band trailer. Defenders of the movie predictably countered with, “Why is her language such a concern when she spend the entire movie killing people?” Of course, this all takes place in an R-rated movie so the use of harsh language shouldn’t surprise anyone. The problem is exactly that raised by its defenders: The violence in this movie is completely amoral.   
That is not to say that I do not enjoy violent movies. Like many in my generation, I like Tarantino films, and unlike many, his “Kill Bill” double feature is among my favorites. More often than not, overtly violent movies have some redeeming value. Whether it’s “Saving Private Ryan’s” gory take on war, Tarantino’s revenge fantasies or the cruelty of Japanese horror films, there is a unique point of view and critical lens through which the action occurs.
The violence in “Kick Ass” plays like the worst type of video games; it’s stylized, brutal, celebratory in its gore and meaningless in its nature. This is not a natural product of the plot of the film. Instead, the gratuitous and meaningless violence is the result of several important narrative details and stylistics elements.
In the translation from comic book to big screen, a very important piece of Big Daddy’s character was lost. Big Daddy is a fallen cop who is attempting revenge on the man who framed him. In the film, his story ends there. In the comic, it is later revealed that this was a fantasy world; Big Daddy was never wronged by mobsters and is pursuing them in an attempt to create a new life for himself and his daughter. While some changes are bound to be made in translation, this one is drastic. In the film, he’s a tragically unbalanced father seeking revenge; in the comic, he’s clinically insane. The audience goes from being shocked of his actions in the comic book to almost understanding in the theater. Much of the effective point of the comic is lost in this simple change.
The film also goes to great length to continually remind you that its setting is in our world. These are supposed to be real life super heroes. Its flaw comes from the cartoonish violence. Hit Girl becomes some martial arts wizard, able to take down multiple armed men. These supposedly “life-like” action sequences intend for us to laugh and cheer as an 11-year-old girl, who again, as the movie goes out of its way to reminds us, acts in the real world, slays villain after villain, leaving a very real body count.
The final straw come in the penultimate fighting sequence as Hit Girl kills a small army of heavily armed men. The director chooses a fairly common technique of using a pop song over explicit violence, as successfully seen in “Reservoir Dogs” (“Stuck in The Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel) and “American Psycho” (“Hip to be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News). Instead of contrasting the violence and focusing on the deranged individuals perpetrating the violence, Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” serves to make us see how cool it is that Hit Girl is killing people. This is not satire my friends, this is sickening.