Monday, April 26, 2010

Kicking Ass and Taking Pains

"F**k this s**t. I'm getting the bazooka!"

Long before one of the bad guy's goons utters this phrase, Kick Ass has long dispatched any pretense of reality. Yet this is no ordinary kiddy flick.

It's virtually impossible to review Kick Ass, the new comic-book movie, without going meta. Despite its visceral charms, this is a movie about comics. And amid its myriad references to other costumed heroes, many of this flick's fans patiently explain to critics that the pleasure of Kick Ass lies in its deeper questions, head-scratchers like What's the difference between Spider-man and Peter Parker?

That said, there's no problem experiencing the movie as a rapid-cut Superhero-Samurai-Mob-Western collage, shouting and clapping to its stylish and audacious kills [Check out the Red Band trailer -- Warning: graphic language and violence]. And I imagine plenty of folks are doing just that. I should add that kids in particular will surely dig the bone-crunching violence of this Hard-R flick. Many parents won't mind standing in line for this one, either. Why not? The poster features three kids in spandex (and Nick Cage in a Batman suit).

How bad can it be?

Pretty bad, as it turns out.

By now you've probably gotten a sense of the film's basic plot, at least after watching the commercials: Lonely geek (Dave Lizewski) is ordinary and boring, possessing no special powers or attributes, and he gets tired of getting sand kicked in his face. So he does what anyone would do. He becomes a superhero, albeit one who possesses no special powers or attributes. And he gets his ass kicked. Pretty soon though, he meets up with some other costumed crime-fighters, some who actually are pretty talented. Eventually the lonely geek discovers his inner champ by, well, kicking ass.

With his store-bought gear, litany of grievances, and feats of strength, Kick Ass is a hero for the rest of us. And like Seinfeld's "Festivus," Kick Ass is just as unfunny, just as cynical. OK, that's not entirely true. In one scene, Dave faces three street toughs set on wasting some other guy; he's outnumbered and unprepared. Their verbal exchange is pointed, darkly humorous, and surprisingly philosophical.
Baddie: "- the f**k is wrong with you, man? You rather die for some piece of s**t that you don't even f**king know?

Dave: "And three a**holes, laying it in on one guy while everyone else watches? And you wanna know what's wrong with me?"
In that scene, Kick Ass spoke to me. Because Dave's got a point. While trying to rescue someone's lost cat (superheroes gotta pay their dues, too) he stumbles into a beat-down. Surrounding him from a safe distance, bystanding yahoos hoist their camera phones, spoiling for blood. They watch; he acts. Here, Kick Ass engages a timeless question: What is a hero but someone willing to step out of the crowd and potentially sacrifice everything for others, especially when there's no sure chance of reward, or even survival?

In moments like these, I liked Kick Ass. Problem is, those moments are far too few. More commonly, this flick is amoral and therefore somewhat sad. Yes, good guys kill bad guys -- imaginatively, cleverly, bloodily. What these kills lack is a sense of proportion wrought by gravity. There is simply no weight to the violence, such as when a hero crushes a hapless goon in a trash compactor, or when a villain fries another hapless goon in a giant microwave. The aesthetic equivalence of these acts reflects a deeper senselessness to Kick Ass.

In both cases, the hero and villain inflict such violence (via mediating technologies, it should be noted) to cause their victims to burst, all because neither goon could provide the right answer to a pointless question. These saps are allowed to be compacted or microwaved because they are irrelevant to the plot. Indeed, the plot demands that they be ignorant. Otherwise, there's no reason for them to die so terrifically. Their purpose is to disappear in a gory spray. Perhaps that's why this movie features a would-be baddie who becomes a could-be goodie (at least for a while) after assuming the moniker, "Red Mist."

Kick Ass never bothers to ask why.

OK, this is the point where I haul out my hard-core-credentials. Yes, I appreciate anti-hero flicks like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. When I was a kid, I also thought Harry Callahan and Snake Plissken kicked ass in their own ways. And the complex and sometimes counter-intuitive ethics of movies like Watchmen inspire useful conversation and reflection. Hell, I'm probably one of the few people I know willing to admit to liking The Devil's Rejects, a reprehensible bloodbath by just about any standard.

I like The Devils Rejects and I pretty much hate Kick Ass.

For many people, the debate about this movie's value pits oldsters who bemoan the flick's meaningless mayhem against hipsters saying, essentially, "Yeah, Gramps. And jazz is the rhythm of Satan. How'd you tolerate The Beatles, by the way?" (see Harry Knowles' response to Roger Ebert's review for an example).

Incidentally, Ebert also liked The Devil's Rejects. But he despaired for the nihilism of the original Night of the Living Dead. Here's a quote from his 1967 review:
"It's hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that's not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It's just over, that's all."

"I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt."
Ebert admits that he appreciated George A. Romero's undeniable talent as a cheap filmmaker, adding that he loved the director's splatisfying sequel, Dawn of the Dead (though, to be fair, he saw the same tacked-on "happy ending" that satisfied audiences for that 1978 classic). Still, his response to Night of the Living Dead is instructive, mainly because Ebert highlights the ethical abyss crossed when a movie portrays children as remorseless killers.

A moment of sloppy sociology, if you please.

There's an undeniable pleasure to watching children, especially little kids, seize the agency of adults (who never seem to enjoy the powers they've earned by their post-adolescent status). Taking charge without asking permission is an ancient rite of passage. You've seen it every time some class-clown pretends to be the teacher in a mocking manner once that dreaded authority figure leaves the room.

Kick Ass, one may imagine, amps up the fun by featuring a cutie-pie named Hit Girl who just happens to be a killer with a penchant for guns, knives, and the c-word. For her, adults become targets; her perpetual smirk, a promise of glorious comeuppance.

Her challenge ("So, you wanna play?") becomes a comment as much as a question, because every major character in Kick Ass wants to play. Dave wants to become Spider-man. Big Daddy (Hit Girl's pop) wants to become Batman (by way of Adam West, not Christian Bale). Even the goon with the bazooka can't resist becoming Tony Montana in Scarface.

Which invites a useful corollary. The pleasure of the alleged transformation of that bullet-riddled Brian De Palma burst of ultra-violence into an Elementary School Play (or any episode of South Park, for that matter) resides in some sense of substance, the gravity of shocking words and deeds uttered and acted by children.

Kids who talk like adults or kill like adults can be fun to some extent so long as they play with the rules without dispensing with them altogether. With guilty pleasure, we might smile a bit because we too remember playing those same elicit roles.

Even so, every game of pretend requires rules.

Pretending to fly is only fun when there's a real difference between the sky and the ground. You needn't face the constant threat of falling in a state of play, but it's no fun to fly if there's no sense of gravity. Moreover, the complete absence of rules offers no therapeutic release from worldly responsibilities. Instead it presents a spectacle without substance.

That's one reason that the digital effects wizardry of the Star Wars prequels mean so little to most audiences while the older, cheesier originals continue to resonate. Any pint-sized digital-Jedi Knight can flip and twirl about when fighting a computer-augmented Sith Lord. Only the real risk of falling draws our fear and admiration ("You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought!"). Otherwise we confront an ethical wasteland with no borders, no map to define our choices. Peter Gabriel said as much with his song, "Games Without Frontiers" ("If looks could kill, they probably will").

So we watch Hit Girl flip and twirl like Yoda. We know it's all fake, but the effects are undeniably cool. Then in one scene, we adopt Hit Girl's point of view as she takes aim at a goon, fires, pauses to reload, takes aim again, fires, and wastes another. The video-game aesthetic is unmistakable. Like a cinematic Kung Fu fight scene where the wires have been erased, we watch and may be dazzled, but we can hardly be moved.

At least we get the joke.

Wearing a Catholic school girl outfit, Hit Girl kicks ass as The Dickies shred a souped up version of The Banana Splits theme song. Gen-Xers nod at the reference while kids groove on the gore. But what exactly do we see?

Some folks say "empowerment."

I ask, power to do what?

Power, after all, is the point. At a critical juncture in Kick Ass, Dave intones, "with no power comes no responsibility," riffing on the Spider-man ethos. In that scene, Dave compares his courageous daring-do to the cowardly passivity of those camera-phone-snapping losers who stand by while the innocent die. Dave quickly rejects the empty notion that freedom from agency creates freedom from consequences, arguing instead that if you can act, you must act, no matter the price. It's a heady piece of existentialism for a summer flick, and it comes close to redeeming the movie for me. But not close enough.

For me, Kick Ass fails as entertainment not because of its mass murder-quantity body count or its impossible human gymnastics. No, Kick Ass fails because its characters have so little character. They kill and audiences cheer, but neither possess a sense of joy or pain or passion or fear. In the Kick Ass-world, people do not kill because they must; they kill because they can.

Sure, it hurts when Kick Ass gets his ass kicked. But kicking ass never seems to cause any pain.

At last, the movie ends and we depart like those children described in Roger Ebert's Living Dead review, no longer infantilized in the embrace of the cinematic crib while looking up at all those lights and colors. We enter the world of weights and measures, a community of consequences. We regain some sense of gravity. Yet we see superimposed upon the real world a parallel possibility of people turned into targets, children turned into video-game monsters. We know Kiss Ass is just a movie, a rather predictable one at that. Still we wonder, as we must:

Just how many real-life "Hit Girls" are out there, confusing character for mere power? And whose ass will be kicked next?

Quotations from IMDB. Kick Ass screencaps from trailer. Poster from Wiki Commons. Night of the Living Dead image from Media Circus.

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