So this is what you get when you try to make a big American action blockbuster out of a collaboration between a Scotsman and a Kazakh.
The Scot is writer Mark Millar. Much like Frank Miller, he has made himself a big name in comics, but as much as he’s famed for his creativity and achievements, he is also notorious for his, um, issues. I’ve never read anything of his myself, but the comments I always hear from those who do tend to be liberally peppered with words like “juvenile”, “disgusting”, “misogynist”, and “racist”. Like Frank Miller, he likes plenty of over-the-top violence and (cough) “mature” subject matter. But though their careers in the funny books have similarities, things have gone differently in film. Frank has been lucky enough to have his personal vision brought to the screen exactly the way he wanted it in three separate films — Sin City, 300, and The Spirit. But whenever Mark Millar’s tales have made it into the movies, they’ve been heavily sanitized. They’ve been considerably worked over, and largely turned into acceptable inoffensive mainstream Hollywood crap. At least some comic book fans are actually pretty happy with this; I heard one say that the film version of Kick-Ass functions well as a critique of what was wrong with the comic.
Wanted has also been considerably altered, and (I gather) made a good deal less offensive. That’s where the Kazakh comes in. His name is Timur Bekmambetov, and he’s the film’s director. Before this, his movies were largely in Russian. He got recognized in the west for a two-film series called Night Watch (Ночной дозор) and Day Watch (Дневной дозор). I’ve watched these... they’re fantasy thrillers about an unseen class of people with supernatural abilities who operate beneath the surface of our everyday society. These abilities are shown off in big action set-pieces with spectacular (by Russian standards) special effects. In short, these films are Matrix ripoffs.
Now, Matrix ripoffs are a proven entertainment product; Hollywood and the world’s other studios have been cranking them out for a decade now, and they still yield a decent tonnage of buttocks in theater seats. So the Hollywoodians must have figured that to take Mark Millar’s rather dubious comic book and Bekmambetovize it was probably as good a bet as any.
Sure enough, the end result is a story of a secret class of people with uncanny abilities (such as being able to make bullets follow curved trajectories), who go out and get themselves into spectacular action set pieces full of flashy special effects. He has successfully turned the story into one more Matrix ripoff. And as such things go, it’s not too bad a piece of visual entertainment.
Unfortunately, the job of cleaning out the offensive Millar-isms wasn’t done in a very thorough way: the bathroom counter may have some sparkle, but there’s still a smell coming from behind the toilet. There are things the protagonist does that the movie apparently thinks you ought to consider cool, which just aren’t. For example, this movie thinks that it’s a noble and manly thing if you can summon the testicular fortitute to finally tell off your nagging boss. Come on, how does an act like that contribute anything positive to your life? It’s just immature. But judging by how the film asks us to identify with it’s protagonist, we’re supposed to find it deeply satisfying when people he’s had resentments toward, such as a cheating girlfriend, get comeuppanced. This script is full of characters whose only purpose is to shit on the hero so he can get them back for it later and prove what a man he’s become.
There are other things wrong with this that are Bekmambetov’s fault, not Millar’s. For instance, take the secret group that the protagonist gets recruited into. They’re murderers! This is sold to him (and us) as being cool because they’re instruments of “fate” (Bekmambetov is big on fate), which supernaturally instructs them in who to kill so as to restore “balance”. Now this might appeal to the kind of juvenile power-fantasy mindset in which telling off your boss is cool, but the pretence that these are somehow the good guys is so thin that if you’re like me, your very first reaction will be to start hoping that this is one of those movies where, in the final act, somebody whispers “everything you’ve been told is a lie” and he has to switch sides.
Considering that Kick-Ass also involves someone buying into a power fantasy so unrealistic that you wonder how anyone could be dumb enough to take it seriously, I had assumed that this is Millar’s fault. But it turns out it’s not. As Millar originally wrote it, the league of bullet-bending assassins that our protagonist joins is explicitly a gang of supervillains! Only in Bekmambetov’s version is it supposed to be awesome and righteous to be trained in superhuman abilities by a bunch of hit-men.
Another Bekmambetov-ism, apparently, is a habit of making his characters look slightly off in appearance... in Night Watch, people wore cool shades and leather jackets as is proper for a Matrixoid, but they never looked polished and slick, they always looked slightly seedy. In this, for some reason everyone’s got a face that looks rough or speckled. The protagonist has a coat of fine freckles (which James McAvoy apparently lacks in real life), and this seems to have spread contagiously to many of his fellow cast-members. Except for Angelina Jolie of course... though if I’m honest, I could mention that she’s getting a wee bit too old and bony to still be getting cast in bombshell roles. I guess her name is still money regardless.
Bekmambetov does make one piece of thoughtful commentary in here on the art of Matrix-ripping-offing. The hero, at the moment when he’s committed to leaving his old life and being a super-assassin, puts on shades... and then promptly takes them off again, remarking “bad idea”.
The worst bit in the movie is the closing statement by the protagonist. “This is me taking back control of my life. What the fuck have you done lately?”. Like those benighted people who tried to make a religion out of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land, this movie explicitly invites us to measure our life choices against those of someone with superpowers.
But it could be worse: in Millar’s original version, the contempt for the reader is much more bluntly overt, and the final sentence is “This is my face while I’m fucking you in the ass.”
I might as well mention that there are enormous plot holes. And the attitude toward women in this movie remains less than admirable. So my conclusion is: you might get some vapid entertainment out of this, but you’d better be sure you don’t mind being insulted.