‘Kick-Ass’ a witty, smart, intense adaptation

Posted April 22, 2010, at 7:40 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:56 a.m.

In theaters

KICK-ASS, directed by Matthew Vaughn, written by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, 117 minutes, rated R.

The new Matthew Vaughn movie, “Heidi” — excuse me, “Kick-Ass” — is just that. The movie is intense, it’s smart, the action is stylized and brisk, satire and wit rip through the script, and it has a sense of humor, which plenty of people, it must be said, don’t have about the film itself. The reason? “Kick-Ass” brings violence to a whole new threshold, which, you know, is a good reason it’s rated R.

That little fact should count for something, but plenty nevertheless are bellyaching over the movie, with most of the criticism aimed at the young character Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, who was 11 when she performed in the movie), and how she’s used in the film.

Under the tutelage of her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, beautifully cast in the sort of off-beat role at which he excels), Hit Girl is a force to be feared. In her everyday life as Mindy Macready, she’s a sweet, cheerful girl in pigtails. But when she’s called upon to morph into Hit Girl, she dons a mask and a purple wig, and her heart hardens with a brand of vigilante justice few adult men can best in an effort to take her down. She’s that fierce. Few should mess with her.

This is a problem for Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), who is being targeted by Big Daddy and Hit Girl for reasons best left for the screen. Let’s just say they have a major reason to go after D’Amico, a powerful mob boss armed with his own kick-ass moves and a battalion of muscle-headed minions ready to do his dirty work. Sandbagging him is his awkward son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who mirrors Hit Girl in that he just wants to make his father proud of him — regardless of the costs.

At its bloody core, “Kick-Ass” is, in fact, a movie about pleasing fathers. Also onboard is the character Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), an unpopular teen who is pretty much invisible at school — especially to girls — and who is being raised by his father after his mother’s sudden death.

Nothing seems to connect in Dave’s life until he gets the idea that maybe he isn’t reaching his true potential. Maybe he, like Batman before him, should become a superhero and help fix the world’s wrongs. Since few others are up to the task, Dave decides to go for it, buys a green suit and soon is the film’s titular character, Kick-Ass. After taking down a band of rebels, the lot of which is caught on video, Dave becomes an Internet sensation, and soon he’s siding with Big Daddy and Hit Girl in an effort to bring D’Amico down.

There’s so much to commend in “Kick-Ass,” it’s tough to know where to begin. Moretz is the stand-out — she commands the screen with a raw ferociousness that’s unheard of given her age. Watching her in the movie, you can see a bright career reaching out in front of her if she can snag the right roles. Cage also came to have fun, so much so that at long last you focus on his terrific performance instead of on the fright wigs he’s been saddled with in recent films. Johnson also is good, seamlessly bringing to the movie a coming-of-age element that deepens the comic-book proceedings, while Mintz-Plasse proves again why audiences fell for him as McLovin in “Superbad.”

For all those parents and parent groups currently ablaze over whether Moretz was exploited as Hit Girl, consider other child actors who have pushed the envelope (Jodi Foster in “Taxi Driver” anyone?), and then pay attention to the movie’s mostly absurdist tone. Yes, the movie is violent, but given the silly, unapologetic, over-the-top way that violence is portrayed, there’s a reason the audience at my screening was howling.

And there’s a reason this film is intended for adults.

Grade: B+

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

AVATAR, written and directed by James Cameron, 166 minutes, rated PG-13.

Last year’s most ambitious and visually arresting film, James Cameron’s “Avatar,” was budgeted at nearly $270 million, every cent of which was spent to create a world so rich and lush, you give yourself over to it and then lose yourself in it. The film’s sheer beauty is a good thing because it’s enough to detract you from the fact that Cameron, a competent writer, is not a great writer. Many of his characters are caricatures. Too much of the dialogue is stock.

The good news? Not a lick of it matters.

At nearly three hours, the movie is long, but the trick is that the storytelling is quick, with Cameron focusing the bulk of his film on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former marine paralyzed from the waist down and now confined to a wheelchair.

How a team of scientists get him out of that chair and on his feet is unconventional, to say the least, but the year is 2154, after all, and apparently anything is possible. Besides, getting Jake mobile is critical to the movie. Doing so involves the use of a scientifically created, 10-foot-tall avatar modeled after the Na’vi, an alien race that lives on the planet Pandora, which has the misfortune of possessing a mineral called Unobtainium that could save Earth from its dwindling energy reserves if enough of it is mined.

And so it will be mined — by force, if necessary, though the idea behind these manufactured Na’vi is to allow for assimilation in an effort to move this race to another part of Pandora, where the Unobtainium isn’t present.

Through sleep and science, Jake becomes his avatar — long and blue and lithe of limb, it’s a thrill to watch him run again — and soon he’s off to Pandora with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and a handful of others. Once there, the beauty of Pandora shields a wealth of dangers. Anything can and does happen, with Jake eventually being separated from his crew and stumbling upon the catlike Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who mocks him, nearly kills him, and whose parents lead the Na’vi. Naturally, in spite of all her hissing, Jake falls for her.

Since the film’s pleasures go beyond the brilliance of its visuals — Cameron’s strength always has been his ability to mount one mother of a climax, which he does here — it would be a mistake to reveal more. Safe to say that the supporting cast (Stephen Lang, Giovani Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez) is solid; our own sorry history is evoked through the Na’vi, who recall the American Indian; and the love that grows between Jake and Neytiri is heartfelt and real.

That said, this home-viewing version of the film isn’t perfect. The problem? Twentieth Century Fox, eager to squeeze every dime it can from the movie, is releasing it first in 2-D and not in the 3-D in which it was originally shot. The movie still looks great, but fans will be disappointed that they’ll need to wait until 2011 before they can have the full experience at an additional cost.

Grade: A-

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle.

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