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Movie review: Profane but humane 'Kick-Ass' provides something to cheer

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; C01

In the comic book-inspired action comedy "Kick-Ass," a man shoots his young daughter in the chest -- while she's wearing a bulletproof vest-- just to teach her how to take a blow.

That same 11-year-old girl, named Mindy Macready and played by the now 13-year-old Chloƫ Grace Moretz, routinely regales her delighted dad (played by Nicolas Cage) with all manner of vulgarities, delivering "Kick-Ass's" signature line, involving an epithet for the female anatomy that can't be repeated in a family newspaper, before dispatching a room full of thugs with a butterfly knife, a samurai sword and the other tools of mayhem that she prefers to, say, My Little Pony.

Meet Hit Girl, Mindy's superhero alter ego in "Kick-Ass." When clips and trailers began to appear at festivals and online last year, her foul mouth immediately began courting controversy. Is an 11-year-old girl dropping F-bombs and packing heat the new normal? How low will Hollywood go to exploit its audience's basest appetites for exploitation and violence? Is this a sign of cultural collapse or yet another swearing-kid stunt on a par with Will Ferrell's Pearl-the-baby videos on funnyordie.com?

And, as ever, What about the children?

I can't vouch for Pearl, but Mindy and the plucky actress who plays her fare pretty well in "Kick-Ass," which turns out to be improbably winning. As a movie greeted with the understandable anxiety that attends young female stars handling subject matter way beyond their years -- think Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver" or Natalie Portman in "The Professional" -- "Kick-Ass" winds up proving yet again that context is everything.

In this case, the context is the extravagantly violent world of comic book author Mark Millar, whose "Wanted" came to such brutalizing life a few years ago by way of a grown-up hit girl played by Angelina Jolie. Thankfully, "Kick-Ass" manages to be profane and humane as part-homage, part-parody of the very comic book medium it's adapting. Newcomer Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a high school geek and comic book fan who one day decides -- why not? -- to become a superhero himself. He orders a green wet suit on the Internet, dons a pair of rubber gloves and work boots and, voila, he's Kick-Ass, whose titular bootie promptly gets booted itself as he tries to fight the lowlifes of his New York neighborhood.

But soon, thanks to the metallic wonders of modern medicine and some numbed nerve endings, Dave feels no pain, making him impervious to subsequent beat-downs. What's more, he meets Mindy and her dad, Damon, in their guises as Hit Girl and Big Daddy, who first seem out to step on Kick-Ass's game but soon join forces with him to stamp out a crime kingpin and his henchmen.

They're the tropes and archetypes of comics from Batman to Iron Man, both affectionately referenced in "Kick-Ass" (the former by way of Cage's amusing Adam West impersonation). And they're given outsized presence by director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman, who last collaborated on the fantasy adventure "Stardust." Like that movie, "Kick-Ass" has been realized with fantastical, playful brio, creating a world that bears little resemblance to reality, from the shiny-clean Toronto streets that stand in for New York to progressively more outlandish shoot'em-up set pieces, staged as stylized high-gloss pulp.

What makes "Kick-Ass" something to cheer rather than deplore lies in its celebration of do-it-yourself innocence; every time Johnson appears on screen in that ridiculous green wet suit and Timberlands, you can't help but smile. (For those whose tastes run less to comic books than tragic melodramas, Johnson acquits himself quite well in "The Greatest," also opening Friday.) And when Dave sets out to fight evil, he's not just battling criminals but the desensitized apathy and voyeurism of the YouTube generation. He's not coming from a place of vigilante rage as much as civic compassion, however perversely misguided.

The same good-vibes-gone-bad can be ascribed to Damon Macready, who schools young Mindy in the way of the gun not out of cynicism but in a gesture of genuine protection and empowerment. If Vaughn stages "Kick-Ass's" violence with "Bam! Pow! Zap!" theatricality, he plays the emotional ballast of Damon and Mindy's relationship straight, with moments of disarming warmth. (As if to preempt the moral outrage over Mindy's character, "Kick-Ass" features a family friend who, as a surrogate for the aghast audience, confronts Damon about his questionable parenting, telling him, "You owe that kid a childhood.")

The contradiction that "Kick-Ass" so aggressively finesses is that Damon's impulses to teach Mindy how to defend herself aren't entirely out of line: There's an undeniable frisson of you-go-girl triumph in seeing a purple-wigged tween reduce a group of strapped thugs to a passel of quivering scaredy-cats in the film's over-the-top final showdown.

That scene, as it happens, is accompanied by Joan Jett singing "Bad Reputation," making "Kick-Ass" a campy, confectionary bookend to "The Runaways," in which Kristen Stewart can be seen channeling Jett as another defiant young proto-feminist. F-bombs and butterfly knives notwithstanding, Hit Girl winds up being less a bellwether of social corrosion than a strangely reassuring image of young female self-reliance.

* * *

Danny Glover hurls his own vulgar verbal ordnance in "Death at a Funeral," Neil LaBute's adaptation of the 2007 British comedy. Glover plays Uncle Russell, a cantankerous old coot in a wheelchair who swears a blue streak and has nary a kind word for anybody at the funeral of his brother, Edward. A close cousin of the swearing-kid shtick, the swearing-old-man shtick here is played strictly for cheap, lazy laughs. But it's entirely in keeping with the original movie, whose antic -- if creaky -- idea of humor included an errant corpse, wincingly graphic bathroom humor, sophomoric references to homosexuality and a man tripping on LSD while traipsing naked on a rooftop.

In the current version of "Death at a Funeral," that dosed character is played by James Marsden, who, as he did in "Enchanted" and "Hairspray," threatens to steal the whole show in a cheekily funny physical performance. He rounds out an appealing cast that includes Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence as the competitive sons of the deceased, Zoe Saldana as Marsden's character's fiancee and Tracy Morgan as the family friend who comes in for the film's most punishing sight gag (or, more accurately, sight-and-smell gag, involving the aforementioned hideous bathroom humor).

Fans of the broad slapstick and ludicrous farce that propelled the original "Death at a Funeral" will be well served by the remake, although it's a mystery why LaBute -- a brilliant playwright with a bold, acidly satiric voice-- would be compelled to direct someone else's script (both were written by Dean Craig). He's clearly a man who thinks in words, not images, as the film's undistinguished, sepulchral visual sense attests.

Still, if for the most part "Death at a Funeral" is as tame as the tasteful parlor where most of its action takes place, it manages to explode one taboo, in casting mostly black actors in roles originally played by whites. (Rock, who produced "Death at a Funeral," did the same thing with "I Think I Love My Wife," a remake of the 1972 French movie "Chloe in the Afternoon.") It's a simple but important evolution for a medium in which for too long race-neutral stories have been cast only in one color. Black may not be the new white, but "Death at a Funeral" offers modest hope for a new normal that happens to look a lot more like life.

Kick-Ass

(118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong, brutal violence throughout, pervasive profanity, sexual content, nudity and some drug use, some of which involves children.

***

Death at a Funeral

(93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and drug content.

**

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