Hallelujah! Nicolas Cage has finally returned. Once a brilliant and respected actor whose eccentricities and prodigious talents combined to create truly memorable characters like H.I. McDunnough in the Coen Brothers’ zany masterpiece, “Raising Arizona,” and Charlie Kaufman’s neurotic, alter-ego twins in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation,” Cage has since become known more for laughably bad turns in schlocky cash-grabs like “Ghost Rider” and the “National Treasure” films; presumably to pay for his nasty habit of buying things he can’t afford, like castles and islands.
In Matthew Vaughn’s ambitious comic-book adaptation, “Kick-Ass,” Cage plays an ex-cop-turned deranged masked vigilante called Big Daddy, bent on exacting revenge on crime boss Frank D’Amico for killing his wife and framing him for drug possession. Cage’s performance is a gem of inane wackiness, punctuated by a baffling voice change that sounds like a poorly executed Adam West impression as soon as he dons his Batman look-a-like hero suit.
I was encouraged by Cage’s fantastic performance in Werner Herzog’s hilariously weird “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” last year, but “Kick-Ass” solidifies his return from the purgatory of generic, uninteresting acting. Unfortunately, Nicolas Cage isn’t the star of this story leaving the vibrancy he lends the film fleeting. The rest of this nerd wish-fulfillment fantasy falls well short of its ambitions.
The story follows a comic book nerd named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). Girls don’t like him, he’s not especially talented or funny and he’s more-or-less a non-factor when it comes to the hierarchy of high school popularity. During a discussion with his foul-mouthed buddies he wonders why, with the prevalence of superheroes in popular culture, no one has ever undertaken the task of masked-vigilante-ism in real life. (Never mind the fact that New York alone is home to dozens of costumed crime-fighters and do-gooders prowling the streets in real life). As a product of his own fantasy and as a reaction to repeatedly being mugged, Dave decides to take justice into his own hands and becomes the masked crusader, Kick-Ass. And thanks to a terribly botched attempt at serving justice he winds up with damaged nerve endings and a body full of metal plates that allow him to fight (badly) for extended periods of time without the hindrance of pain.
The premise of a true-to-life superhero, bound by the laws of physics, is a familiar one. Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” being a prime example attempting to approach the comic world as practically as possible. But what promise “Kick-Ass” begins with, grounded in some version of reality, it quickly abandons and becomes an exercise in absurdity. Why go to such great lengths to establish your story in reality, even taking great pains to devise a feasible biological excuse for Kick-Ass’ ability to fight without getting hurt, and then introduce Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), an 11-year-old who can run on walls and annihilate an army of grizzled, heavily armed criminals in mere minutes? Hit-Girl’s existence renders the entire first half of the movie pointless, and the film on the whole utterly devoid of internal consistency.
Some will probably argue that the film isn’t meant to be taken seriously and is therefore not subject to the same scrutiny as a typical drama set in reality. But the flaw in this argument is exposed by the film itself, which elaborately establishes the rules of its own universe. Why hasn’t anybody in real life become a superhero? “Because they’d get killed,” according to one of Dave’s buddies. Furthermore, Dave’s first encounter with the muggers as Kick-Ass ends exactly how it probably should have — with our would-be hero lying in a bloody, unconscious heap on the pavement.
Is this nitpicking? Irrelevant to the broader goals of the film? Hardly. Internal consistency is absolutely crucial to sound storytelling. It doesn’t matter whether the film is set in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland where virtually anything is possible or in Martin Scorsese’s New York where only the grittiest realism resides, a film must conform to the laws of its own reality. “Kick-Ass” feels like the work of two entirely different directors with wildly different ideas and tonal styles.
Does this mean the film isn’t enjoyable? Not entirely. Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn do a fine job of retaining the spirit of the comic in places and “Kick-Ass” is genuinely funny in short bursts and will probably be at least mildly entertaining for the casual fan. But Aaron Johnson’s terribly didactic and unrelenting narration stifles the natural flow of the story. It’s baffling inconsistency, under-use of Nicolas Cage and troubling tendency to indulge in fanboy pandering destroy any hopes “Kick-Ass” had of becoming a satire of the superhero film and render it just another mediocre entry into the already saturated genre.
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