“Reputation is what people think of you. Character is what you are.”
Duke of Oxford
The third entry in the Kingsman series is an origin story for the secret organisation, told through an alternate history First World War. Vaughn perhaps wished to make a war (or indeed anti-war) movie, and he does produce some sobering footage of the chaos of trench warfare. Ralph Fiennes is a fine precursor to Colin Firth’s gentleman spy, but the Duke’s pacifist desire to shield his son, Conrad, from war feels at odds with the world of Kingsman, and the resulting focus transforms a franchise known for its excess into a tedious matter of fictional politics. Indeed, aside from a brief excursion to Russia to assassinate a scenery-chewing Rhys Ifans as Rasputin, it is only the film’s final half hour that truly feels like a Kingsman film at all. Much of my criticism lies in the script, plagued by awful dialogue and pacing — notably, this is Vaughn’s first film without Jane Goldman, his longstanding screenwriting collaborator. Transferring the authorship of Wilfred Owen’s most famous poem to Conrad is cheap writing and unnecessary revisionism, worst still as the boy has not even been to the front when he supposedly pens it. I criticised the lack of women in The Golden Circle and the situation has not improved, with Gemma Arterton being the sole noteworthy character. The best thing about The King’s Man is that it will surely free Vaughn to move on to other projects outside the franchise. Whether he can return to the rising star I heralded with his exceptional first three films remains to be seen.
“We’ve kind of got a bit of a “save the world” situation here.”
A bloated sequel that tries to recapture its anarchic satire of the Bond franchise’s excesses with muted success and decidedly less charisma from its leads, I actually enjoyed this far more than I feared from its critical reception. Arguably the story’s chief sin is swiftly to sideline its female cast, leaving once again a field of exclusively male agents. It makes the film’s direct references to equality and loyalty feel somewhat crass. Seeing the British Kingsmen working alongside their US counterparts, The Statesmen, is perhaps tailored to me (pun intended) but the creative design throughout both the Statesman HQ and the villain’s lair is wonderful. Whilst nothing matches the first film’s church brawl, there is still substantial creativity to the action set pieces.
“Like every serial killer already knew, eventually fantasising doesn’t do it anymore.”
In a world where The Dark Knight has set a very firm benchmark against which all comicbook superhero films will be judged, Kick-Ass is something very, very different. From Wanted writer Mark Millar, it features similarly frenetic adrenaline junkie action, but its characters subvert all the genre stereotypes. It’s clear from the opening scene that we’re in for an unusual, wild ride.
Dave Lizewksi [Aaron Johnson] is an ordinary, unremarkable teenager who decides to become the world’s first real-life superhero. In a garish green costume he becomes an overnight internet sensation as Kick-Ass after saving a stranger in a fight. When an attempt to impress a girl lands him in trouble, he is saved by the father-daughter team of Big Daddy [Nicolas Cage] and Hit-Girl [Chloë Moretz]. He realises they are the “real deal”: well-trained, well-equipped vigilante killers on a mission of revenge to take down a drug-dealing crime boss.
Vaughn’s skill as a director, revealed to great effect in the sadly underrated Stardust, is grounding fantasy in realism. Here the distinction is starker, with exuberant violent excess brought suddenly crashing to the ground with injections of harsh reality. Kick-Ass straddles the fine line between glorification and parody of its comicbook roots, poking fun at their pomposity while also paying homage. It wears its influences on its sleeve from use of text boxes to a short comicbook flashback, beautifully animated in 3D.
The film rests on Aaron Johnson who is pitch-perfect as the would-be hero, a bumbling teenager yet utterly believable in his decision to reinvent himself, and his fear is clear as he discovers just how out of his depth he is. The supporting cast are all strong, with much of the best humour occurring in simpler scenes as Dave hangs out with his school friends, but it’s Chloe Moretz’s Hit-Girl that naturally stands out. It’s worth mentioning that Cage impresses here, exaggerated but not inane. The film’s exuberant energy is fuelled by bold, colourful cinematography and an evocative, pulsating soundtrack of pure escapist fantasy.
The dark humour and inventively visceral violence accent an intelligent script that explores modern culture and its relationship with the internet. When a TV news channel stops a live broadcast of extreme footage, everyone rushes to their computers to watch online instead. Unsurprisingly a foul-mouthed killer child has courted some controversy (major studios all passed so Vaughan reportedly raised finances independently to ensure creative freedom) and – when presented with a real girl rather than her comicbook counterpart – one has to question to what extent you can suspend morality purely because it’s stylised comicbook violence. These questions of exploitation are raised but never fully explored. Perhaps the audience is left to decide, but it feels more as though the film doesn’t care about the answer. This is most evident in Dave’s sudden transformation into a killer in the final confrontation, with scant inner conflict behind this major shift.
The few steps it overlooks are forgiveable in that it maintains its pace throughout, never wavering for a moment. Ultimately Vaughn does for comicbook films what he has done for the gangster and fantasy genres in the past, revitalising them with Layer Cake and Stardust. Kick-Ass is simply the most fun I’ve had in a cinema since Inglourious Basterds last year, and I’d be surprised if another comicbook film is able to outdo it this year.