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'Kick-Ass,' moviedom's phenomenon-in-waiting?

April 14, 2010 |  3:33 pm

Kick
We rarely get in the business of predicting sensations, but it's hard not to feel that something is in the air with "Kick-Ass." Something bigger, that is, than even than some of the pre-release hype suggests. And not just in the fanboy world, where it's of course already huge.

The Matthew Vaughn-directed movie's initial unveiling at Comic-con -- in which Vaughn and his fellow producers, who financed the film independently, took the unusual step of screening footage before a studio had even bought the film -- gave you a sense that this isn't another of the myriad pictures that pass through the San Diego Convention Center three astride every July.

Of course, Comic-con is Comic-con, and reaction there can be as illustrative of the real world as a Storm Trooper costume ("Avatar" didn't blow away the crowds there, for instance).  But it never hurts to have fan momentum, and "Kick-Ass" has had and continued to build that since last summer, based on innate interest in Mark Millar's original comic book and a a shrewdly abstract campaign by studio Lionsgate. More important, though, the interest now seems to be spreading to a lay audience. At a media and industry showing last week, filmgoers walked out of the theater buzzing, a rare reaction for the normally sedate press-screening crowd.

The film is ostensibly about a nebbishy kid named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who decides to don a superhero costume and play caped hero despite no obvious powers (imagine Clark Kent putting on a Superman costume, only it does nothing). But that's a bit of a Trojan Horse for the real story, the 11-year-old Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), a kind of gun and martial-arts specialist who, along with her vigilante father Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), provides the real security in town, not to mention the glorious fight scenes, bailing out Kick-Ass on more than a few occasions.

The movie  (check out, incidentally, Hero Complex's Geoff Boucher's look at Vaughn's film, which is the rare superhero picture that employs the sideways model of getting independent financing and sold to a studio only after it was completed) is a fun and stylish romp and absolutely nonsensical all at the same time; even by the standards of action-movie exaggeration, a climactic scene that involves a couple of adolescents taking out dozens of hit-men specialists is absurd (if enjoyably so).

But the creative merits are almost beside the point. The action scenes and comic roots should bring in a male audience of all ages.  Thanks to Lizewski and his geek friends, the movie is also going to nab the kind of indie crowd, of both genders, that came out for "Ghost World."

And because critics, like many other viewers, will turn this thing over in their heads many times, unsure exactly what to make of it -- see, for instance, New York's David Edelstein, who asks, "Should a girl this age — the actress herself, say — be allowed even to see this thing? Is what’s onscreen a form of child abuse? Do we splutter in outrage or relax and dig the Grand Guignol spectacle?" — they'll turn the movie into a conversation piece. There's just something about the film that gets you talking, and that will bring in a fair number of the uninitiated.

It may not be going too far to say the film will also have a cultural impact, not just because it ups the ante by lowering an age barrier, but because it both acknowledges and subverts superhero cliches (not to mention  incorporates geek culture into the fabric of its story). Don't get us wrong: This is a movie of supreme pop disposability. But it's the kind of pop disposability that could influence many other pop disposabilities.

And none of this is even getting in to the effects of potential controversy. If Lionsgate plays its cards right, protests will come flying in over Hit Girl's language and action. Sure, graphic violence tends to yield a different standard than sex, but if the Parents Television Council didn't like an implied threesome on "Gossip Girl," we're not quite sure how they'll feel about Moretz uttering many of the seven words you can't say on television (and a few others George Carlin didn't think of) in a movie about and aimed at teenagers.

There is a demographic issue: "Kick-Ass" is an R-rated movie, and a good chunk of the teen boys who might want to see it won't (officially) be allowed to buy tickets. That could hurt. But in an era when it's nearly impossible for a film to keep momentum after its initial weekend, "Kick Ass" will keep bringing in money for some time after its tidy $30-something-million opening, and keep the cultural heat on long after.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Aaron Johnson in "Kick-Ass." Credit: Lionsgate

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