Friday, July 30, 2010

Three Recent Movies: The Karate Kid, Toy Story 3, Kick-Ass

The Karate Kid is a needless remake that still hits all the right notes. It does all the expected things, follows the predictable plot-line, but it does it well, and it works. Jaden Smith is solid and likable enough as the titular kid, Dre, and Jackie Chan is excellent as his mentor and coach, Mr. Han. The movie is a good 20 minutes too long, and it takes itself a bit too seriously--the training montage feels at least 10 minutes long, and involves an incredibly difficult array of exercises for a 12-year-old--but these are surprisingly minor gripes about what is a very solid, even commendable, family film.

Toy Story 3 is another Pixar triumph, without question one of the best films of the year. There's really not much else that needs to be said. It meets or surpasses the bar set by the previous two movies, once again filling the screen with the beloved characters who have become worldwide stars over the past fifteen years. There's a great deal more action--including a coordinated break-out sequence that puts The Great Escape and Ocean's Eleven to shame--as well as more sentiment, including the saddest ending the Pixar team has yet created. I'd like to say something more perceptive and insightful here, but I can't think of anything right now. I'll probably write more on it in the future.

Kick-Ass is not a film that caters to every taste. It is alternately crass, vulgar, and graphically violent, and it is easy to see why people would be turned off. I, however, was highly entertained by it. The movie is perhaps best described by a commenter on IMDb who described it as a cross between Superbad and Kill Bill. Indeed, the movie seems directly influenced by both of these, with it's sex-obsessed, slacker high schoolers and its brightly colored, tongue-in-cheek, action sequences featuring swords and spraying blood. Apparently most offensive to many viewers (including Roger Ebert), was the character of Hit-Girl (played by Chloe Moretz), an 11-year-old girl responsible for most of the blood spraying violence. I'm not going to attempt to defend the movie's morality, which is pretty indefensible, except to point out that all but one of the deaths in the film are lacking in emotional and narrative weight, and suggest that basically all the dead bad guys deserved to die according to common action movie conventions. I'm more interested in the way the film attempts to subvert and deconstruct the superhero genre.
The movie is based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. Millar is one of the most popular writers in comics right now, as well as one of the most immature and overrated. While he has excellent ability to write action and has written at least one truly excellent all-around book (Superman: Red Son), most of his stuff is filled with pointless blood and gore, awful dialogue, and (especially in the case of Wanted) a complete lack of morality. With this book, he sets out to create a savage parody of the average comic-fan's dreams of becoming a superhero and suggest what wackos people would have to be to actually try it. The movie follows his plot pretty closely--with one notable adjustment--but ultimately ends up more satisfying and entertaining, as well as just slightly more thoughtful and even human.
The movie's influences are numerous (thought not exactly broad), including Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow (as mentioned before), John Woo's Hong Kong action epics, Edgar Wright, and just about every other superhero movie ever made. Each superhero in the movie seems to be styled after a different "real" hero and his movie(s). Kick-Ass himself is patterned after the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies: He lives in a suburban home that looks almost exactly like Peter Parker's, has a clumsy training montage on top of rooftops, and rather pitifully attempts to be cool and get the girl like Tobey Maguire does. Big Daddy (played by Nicolas Cage, in a delightfully wacky performance), is obviously modeled on Batman, with the body armor and bone-crunching martial arts of Christian Bale, but the speaking voice of Adam West, complete with portentously silly pauses in between words. Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) could arguably be inspired by the Joel Schumacher Batman movies of the '90s, with his garish red-black-and-purple suit and vehicle that seem somehow disturbingly plastic and ugly. His last line appears to be a reference to Jack Nicholson's Joker in the original Tim Burton Batman. Hit-Girl is the most daring creation, though, subverting the image of the teen side-kick almost beyond recognition. Gone is the always-fantastical Boy Wonder who could cheerfully learn to fight crime alongside Batman or other heroes, growing up perfectly well-adjusted with no adverse effects. Slightly younger than the usual sidekick and a girl to boot, she is systematically brainwashed by her father and trained to be the ultimate killing machine. With no friends or regular schooling, she loves guns and knives above all other toys, spouts extreme profanity, and displays joy in slaughtering gangsters, cutting off limbs and heads with abandon. While her feats are obviously impossible, her character is still the most interesting take on a comic tradition that has come along in years, suggesting the ugly necessities under the childish fantasy.
These styles are more than just clever references, though, because the characters are often aware of the "real" superheroes they're imitating. Kick-Ass explicitly begins his mission by wondering why no one ever wants to be Spider-Man instead of Paris Hilton. Big Daddy draws comic stories to explain his crusade to Mindy/Hit-Girl, and gangsters describe him as "a guy dressed like Batman." Their entire world is already saturated by knowledge of superheroes, and the ones they imitate therefore take on special significance.
Ultimately, though, the movie leaves behind its explosion of superhero movie conventions to end with an exciting, action-packed climax where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. While the graphic novel has a similar ending, the film decides to make the good guys more heroic [SPOILERS]: Kick-Ass actually contributes to the final battle, and gets the girl instead of being rejected as a creepy stalker. Big Daddy's mission is also somewhat noble, in the sense that it really is a revenge mission in the face of a corrupt system; in the book, he's just a right-wing militia type who wants to give his daughter an exciting life. The film drops this subversive nugget, but in turn it deepens the relationship between father and daughter, giving real emotion to his death and a real sense of danger to the final battle. While the film stops short of subverting the superhero genre as much as the book, it ends up far more satisfying and positive, deciding to offer real entertainment instead of mockery, and that left me with a good feeling.


  1. Your analysis of Kick-Ass is right on the mark. Before I read this, I had vague notions of the film's convention-shattering tone, deliberate offensiveness, and comic-world relevance, but you put my thoughts into intelligent, eloquent words better than I could. I like your writing style, but I'm curious to know more of what you think about the movie, in specific scenes and as a whole. I think a star-rating system would prove a valuable addition to your reviews.

  2. I'm messing around with a star system. I'm gonna do out-of-ten stars for the time being, and see how that works.