Thursday, 1 April 2010

Kick-ass; why can't everything I look forward to be just what I wanted?

I've often commented on the limitations of movie trailers. Sometimes they make me wonder what the hell kind of movie I've gone to if the marketeers think I'm going to want to see the films in the trailers, and sometimes they make me wish I was already at the movie the trailer is for, instead of what I'm going to see. What trailers don't, as a rule, do, is give me anything approaching an accurate idea of how much fun the movie is actually going to be. Take the trailer for Knight and Day. If the movie is as much fun as the trailer, everyone in the cinema will be sent back in time or something. We're almost going to have to be disappointed when we show up at the premiere in July.

The last time I saw something which was exactly as stupid - in a good way - as I thought it would be was when I saw Wanted. The trailer looked like the film was going to be huge fun, and for as long as Wanted was blowing stuff up and shooting it to bits, it was every bit as much fun as the trailer promised. The rest of the movie; well, it was there, largely getting in the way of the stunts.

It wasn't till quite recently that I got around to reading the comic book that Wanted was based on, and I was a little surprised. Pretty much the only thing which the movie and the source comic had in common was the background of the viewpoint character; Wesley Gibson is, in both, a cube rat with a miserable job, a horrible boss, a shrew of a girlfriend, a douche of a best friend and an absent father who turns out to be the best killer in the whole world. What happens after we meet Wesley could not be more different in the two media. In fairness to the movie, you could not possibly have sold tickets to a film which faithfully reproduced the comic. Actually, you could not possibly have escaped being sent to prison for crimes against humanity; breaking even would have been a very secondary issue.

This is all relevant, of course, since the same mind lies behind Kick-ass as lay behind Wanted. Mark Millar - who bewilderingly is described on Wikipedia as a practising Catholic - wrote both. And just as with Wanted, a lot of the strength of the piece comes from the way that the film depicts ordinary life. Kick-ass has an entirely believable lack of success in real life, by which I mean that he fails the same way the people in the audience fail, by inches rather than in one fell swoop of disaster. I'm intrigued by Millar's knack of catching that aspect of life. It's not just that it's an important part of the narrative structure of his work to have something realistic to contrast with the fireworks we all came to see. It's that he gets it right; it doesn't feel slapdash or forced.

Now, I started out by talking about trailers, and Kick-ass had some really good ones. There was a nice sardonic tone to the voice-over and the snippets from the action scenes looked like huge fun, especially the bits with Hit Girl. The tiny actress playing her seemed to be made out of sass and her action moments were like distilled Woo. I really wanted to see this movie and I really wanted to like it.

Done, and done. Kick-ass works a lot better than Wanted. It's not perfect, by any means. I'm not sure that Nick Cage is doing a particularly good job, and I'm not sure than mafia hoodlums torturing people is as funny as the movie seems to think we'll find it. But overall, the film worked. When it wanted me to be exhilarated by action, I was on the edge of my seat. And when it wanted me to scared for the characters, I was.

There's a telling little scene at the beginning when Kick-ass is practicing to be a hero and sets out to jump across a gap between buildings. We've seen him getting ready to try, and then he goes for it. At the last minute, he chickens out and skids to a halt just at the very edge of the roof. For a second he teeters on the edge of falling and I nearly had to shut my eyes for fear of seeing him go over. Now, I'm not great at heights, but to make something like that work, you need to do a lot of work beforehand to get the viewer to buy into the character. Because we all know we're at a movie, and we know that twenty minutes in, the title character isn't going to kill himself in a stupid accident. It takes real skill to make the viewer forget that for long enough to go "Oh no".

So we've got the thing set up pretty well. Dave Lizewski/Kick-ass is vulnerable and brave and smart without being necessarily the kind of guy who thinks things through. Probably be a perfectly good movie with just him and his quest to be a superhero in a world that doesn't have even ordinary heroes. What lights a rocket under it is Chloe Moretz, as Hit Girl. Firstly, the action scenes with her are just brilliant. Partly the choreography is very good, and partly it's that we've never seen this kind of Woo-fu being done by a 13 year old girl with a purple wig. The combo is irresistible. I wanted to see it all over again just for her scenes. But Hit Girl also steals all the non-action scenes she's in. To Christina Ricci in Mermaids and the Addams Family, Natalie Portman in Leon, and Kirsten Dunst's turn in Interview with the Vampire, we can now add Chloe Moretz's debut. There's a big fuss underway about how much swearing she does, but it's beside the point; she's playing a child who's smart-ass and serious beyond her years, and she sells it wonderfully. It's the movie's unique selling point. She's the star of the show. Can't wait to see what she does next.

Kick-ass is not a studio picture; Mark Millar had enough cred, together with the director Martin Vaughan, that they were able to go out and scare up enough independent finance to make the film on their own terms. If they'd had to keep a studio happy, it would probably have been less violent and less sweary, and probably not as good. More likely than not it would have had more grandiose action scenes, though they would have been more grandiose, not necessarily good. I think producing the movie this way does two useful things. Firstly, you make the movie you want to make, right or wrong, rather the movie which the backers think will sell. Secondly, you don't waste much effort; big action scenes costs money, so you need to keep them tight and brief, and give them impact by making sure that people care what happens. When you care what happens to the people, it's surprising how little action you need to get the audience breathless. Near the end of the movie, Hit Girl shows up to save the day for the other heroes. The fight scene which follows is extremely clever and economical, but it's also thrilling because the stakes are high. It's all down to getting you involved before the guns start up. What Green Zone did badly last week on a huge budget Kick-ass did well this week for a third of the money. I don't want other movies to be just like Kick-ass; I would like to see other people doing things the same way.

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