Monday, June 28, 2010


In my eternal pursuit to keep you off-balance, I'm breaking out a Theme Week this week. The theme? Movies Roger and I love despite their nontraditional nature. The goal will be to figure out, to our best estimation, why these movies which strayed from conventional storytelling practices still worked. It's also a very busy week, so expect updates at weird unpredictable times. I wouldn't be surprised if all 4 of my reviews popped up at 3 a.m. Thursday morning. Roger starts us off with a movie he loved, "Kick-Ass." Feel free to go back and enjoy my review of the script afterwards. :)

Genre: Action Comedy
Premise: Dave Lizewski is an unnoticed high school student and comic book fan who decides to become a vigilante.
About: Kick-Ass is Matthew Vaughn's third directing effort (behind Layer Cake and Stardust). What some people don't know about Vaughn is that before he became a director, he was Guy Ritchie's producer, producing such films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Kick-Ass stars Nicolas Cage and McLovin, as well as Chloe Moretz and Aaron Johnson.
Writers: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Director: Matthew Vaughn

Art is partly to entertain, but partly also to upset. You need those two. That's vital to keep our society alive. –Yann Martel

This movie so offended Professor Stark, that he leaned over to me at one point and gesticulated, "This is fucking depraved." I would have laughed at him, but I was too dazed to reply.

Kick-Ass shocked you into Stendhal syndrome, Rog?

I remember the moment in the theater when I started to shake.

My hands were trembling, and if I wasn't captivated by what was happening on the screen, I would know that my lungs had tightened and that my heart was beating faster. My nervous system was having a definite reaction to the images and noises my brain was trying to process.

Sure, I was on the edge of my seat when Kick Ass and Big Daddy were being tortured on live television by goons who were working for the villain, the local mob boss. As they were being dramatically bludgeoned with every type of weapon imaginable, I asked myself, "Is that the same backdrop they used in one of the torture scenes in Scarface?"

Our heroes were up shit creek, and the tension was milked for all it was worth. These guys were going to die on live television. But at every showing I was, all the audience members knew that Hit Girl was going to arrive anytime now. Sure, Red Mist shot her in the chest and the last time we saw her she had fallen into an alleyway, but we knew that she was trained by her father to take bullets in the chest. My friend leaned over to me and said, "Man, that girl is going to show up and rape all of these guys."

The power cuts out, the characters watching the online feed can't see anything. And suddenly night vision goggles flick on. The sound reminded me of that terrifying sequence in Silence of the Lambs when Buffalo Bill is stalking Clarice Starling through the pitch darkness of his house. But then I noticed a HUD.

It reminded me of several videogames, specifically first-person shooters. Doom to Quake to Counter Strike to the USP with tactical knife attachment in Modern Warfare 2.

Yep, Hit Girl was here to save the day, and we watch through the eyes of a child who has been honed into a brutal vigilante by her father as she starts killing everyone in the room.

But then, the goons set her father on fire and a familiar song starts to play. I'm thinking, is this from the Sunshine soundtrack? This sounds a lot like Kanada's Death Part 2. Holy shit it, is! I've listened to this song tons of times while I wrote.

And that's about the point my geek brain starts to melt and I haven't seen a firefight so emotional since John Woo's The Killer. This shit is epic on a Ripley fighting the Queen level.

Well, it didn't read like that on the page, Rog...

Of course it didn't.

Those were just blue prints for the sound and the fury as told by filmmakers who knew exactly what they were doing. We didn't have the performances of the actors, the soundtrack that triggered references to other movies and struck chords in the heart and mind and we didn't have all the millions of flourishes performed by camera operators and film editors and costume designers and art designers and every single person that added their sweat and blood to the movie.

Kick-Ass is a screenplay that every studio hated. I can only imagine their reactions when they read it. It was probably a litany of, "No no no no no!" "Why is there a twelve year-old girl massacring people in this? You can't have that! You have to change it!" "This thing changes perspective two-thirds of the way through! You have to change it!" "You can't have a twelve year old girl say the word CUNT!"

Carson even rated it a [x] Wasn't For Me.

I was blown away by the movie the first time I saw it. In fact, I saw it two more times the same week. I treated several friends to it, paying for their tickets, because they didn't think it was going to be a good movie.

It looks so strange. How can it possibly work?

Nicholas Cage gives such an oddball performance, like he became the host body for the ghost of Christopher Walken, who in turn invited along the iconic television spirits of Adam West and William Shatner. And what a bizarre ride it is, with his weird fucking mannerisms that elevate theatrical camp to inscrutable avant-garde. In probably any other movie fantasy circumstance, you would hate this character for what he subjects his daughter Mindy to, running her through a reverse-Clockwork Orange gauntlet, absolutely ruining her life by sharpening her into a tool of vengeance, brainwashed by comic books, videogames and John Woo movies. You would call the guy a douchebag and applaud loudly when he dies.

Except, the guy has a reason for doing it. He's an honorable cop that was fucked over by Frank D'Amico. His backstory inseminates empathy into the heart of the audience. Prior to his backstory, Big Daddy feels like a mystery, a puzzle piece. But then, his origin story is appropriately told through the device he used to brainwash Mindy, a comic book. And his origin story breaks the sympathy hymen. We start to feel for Damon Macready when we see how D'Amico's scheme sends him to prison with a disgraced reputation, we start to feel sorry and care for Macready when we see his wife commit suicide as an escape from her despair and loneliness.

By association, we think of these tragic circumstances and Mindy's birth, and although she's already a loveable character, we want to see her take up the mantle and turn her family's bad fortune around. When Big Daddy perishes, his mission not complete, he passes the baton to this little girl he poured all of his dreams into, including his vengeance. And isn't that what parents are supposed to do? To dream a better life for their children, or to dream so big their goals can only be completed by a generational passing on of the flame?

By the time Mindy is knocking down the castle doors of D'Amico's uptown stronghold set to the theme of A Few Dollars More, we have to stop and think what we're really about to see. Are we really about to see a twelve-year old girl, armed to the teeth, walk solo into a secure condo full of mob enforcers? And we already know Mindy is like one of those spy-thriller assassins who has been wiped clean and programmed via secret government experiments, except she's the freakish, geeky and bizarro Marvel Max Universe version of that. And we can't forget, she's a fucking twelve year old girl! Isn't at least some part of your brain curious about what that sequence looks like? And if you've made it this far into the movie, isn't your heart invested in the fact whether she's going to be able to complete her father's mission? I'm not even talking about the possibility of her dying. She's willing to make that sacrifice. But is your heart involved in her journey of vengeance? If the answer is no, then maybe you don't like revenge stories.

And what about Dave Lizewski?

Look, I have friends that are staunch superhero fans and refuse to see the movie. One has a compelling reason. She's a huge Avengers fangirl. I remember talking to her and she said, "I just can't do it. It's not what I read superhero comics for." And you know, I can understand that. Some people like their superhero stories and themes preserved in the purity that comes with the nostalgic and kid-friendly Marvel Universe.

They think Kick-Ass satirizes the world of superhero comics and its fans sans the courage, sans the heroics, sans the message that an ordinary person can rise up out of everyday circumstances and do something extraordinary. They think it's just being ugly, potty-mouthed, catering to immature fanboys, and making fun. Well, if they sat down to watch it, they would see that the movie would not work if it didn't have this courage, this heroism, this, "I'm an ordinary person but I am truly capable of super-heroic things."

It's a satirical, perhaps lunatic brew that possesses the same heart of the superhero tales that makes them mythic, iconic. The same blood pumps through Kick-Ass that makes our modern superhero mythology sacred.

Dave has a genuine sense of justice that seems hardwired into him, just like it may be hardwired into all of us. A moral, instinctual sense of right and wrong. How do we know? He doesn't like being mugged. He doesn't like seeing his friends being mugged. We see how upset he gets, that Travis Bickle inner-outrage bubbling underneath his skin when he witnesses lowlifes steal, cheat and murder.

It's moving when he defends a man against a trio of thugs and says his name for the first time. Isn't that weird? In any other circumstance, it would probably be cheesy. But here, it works. Out of breath, brutalized, but still fighting, he says with conviction through a bloody mouth, "I'm Kick-Ass."

Why does it work?

Because it's a nerdy kid with a sense of justice, who is tired of watching people be mistreated, who puts his life and the line and takes a stand for something he believes in. It's an act of courage, of heroism, and that speaks to our hearts. And no matter how campy it can be, there's something that still resonates with us.

The structure of the screenplay feels weird. It's handicapped by the superhero origin structure, but the third act feels like it's more about Hit Girl than Kick-Ass. If I wrote a spec that changed perspective and focus two-thirds of the way through, I'd be crucified on the spec market.

Maybe. But it doesn't really matter. Vaughn and Goldman are making a movie, they're not trying to sell a screenplay to a production company or studio.

And plus, it works.

The focus is flipping over to a character we haven't quite seen before. Perhaps Hit Girl's closest filmic prototype is Mathilda of Luc Besson's Leon, but only after she's been strained through a filter of Wuxia tales and first-person shooters. She has a strong heritage of badass female characters, everyone from Ripley of the Alien films to the femme fatales in Kill Bill, but the difference is we've never seen someone so young, someone that only a pedophile would view as an object of desire.

She's unique.

As such, we are itching to watch this diminutive killer unleash hell on all of her enemies. Even if takes her half an hour of screen time, we are willing to watch her do this. If we were switching to a lesser character, this perspective and focus shift would be a miscalculation, indeed. The movie would collapse on itself and would become victim to our ever diminishing attention spans.

Carson writes about the difficulties in crafting an origin story in the traditional three act structure. He posits that in most screenplays, the first act is about setting up the main problem the protagonist has to contend with. But with the superhero origin story, this main problem gets postponed until later in the story because the first act is all about introducing the character and how he becomes a hero.

Well, what's wrong with that?

Most of origin stories do both at the same time. While we're introduced to Dave and his metamorphosis into Kick-Ass, we're also introduced to Frank D'Amico, the mob boss, and the problem he's having with some very good vigilantes. Isn't that the introduction of the main problem? Everything is set up, and I can look at the structure of the movie and break down the three acts into three ideas: The first act shows us the dangers of being a vigilante in the real world; the second act is about smart, deadly vigilantes who are capable of heroics, and the third act becomes a paean to full-blown, mind-blowing superheroics we read about in comic books.

And although the third act focuses largely on Hit Girl, Dave must make a decision to accept responsibility and become a true hero. His actions have plowed through the city, exposing vigilantes who were effective in crippling a local mafia, and as a result his call-to-arms has gotten people killed, including Big Daddy. His courageous actions have tragic consequences, and instead of throwing in the cape, he chooses to accept these consequences by continuing to stand up for what he believes in, and in the process redeems himself by aiding Hit Girl in the completion of her mission (Dave is the audience's avatar for this crazy world).

There's a universal lesson there.

Sometimes, when we do the right thing, there's collateral damage. When that happens, we can let fear take over, we can stop. We stop believing in ourselves. We begin to doubt. We let our dreams and goals die on the vine because we're afraid of the consequences. The thing is, that's usually the moment we have to keep pushing forward.

And that's what Dave does.

Even in the face of doubting his own abilities, he continues to do the right thing.

The resolution is bloody, exciting, offensive, entertaining and satisfying. Hit Girl blazes and slices and dices her way through rooms and corridors full of bad guys. Dave gets to save her from a bazooka attack with jet-pack Gatling guns. Hit Girl goes head-to-head against the man who is responsible for the deaths of her mother and father, and Kick-Ass goes up against Red Mist. For a hymn to comic books, superheroes, John Woo movies, Sergio Leone and revenge sagas, the movie delivers on all fronts, emotionally and kinetically.

It's a successful mash-up for fans of superhero origin comics and the cinema of violence.

[x] impressive

What I learned: When Carson told me we would be doing another Theme Week, he presented me with a list of movies he chose that tell their stories in a slightly untraditional manner. Part of me thought, well, what's traditional? The other part of me knew what he meant. As a guy who studies modern spec screenplays, you could say I pay attention to mechanics, to formula, to pattern. If I read a screenplay and I feel that something isn't working, I'll dig in and try and find out why: nine times out of ten it's because someone doesn't have their storytelling basics down. Or they miscalculated and made a decision that hurts the story.

But it goes both ways.

In the screenplay world, there are oftentimes when the story isn't allowed to just be the story. People will come in with different opinions, and they want to change it, make it adhere to Joseph Campbell or some narrative pattern that can feel by-the-numbers and cookie cutter.

And you know what?

You should listen to these people. Sometimes they're right.

But sometimes, they're wrong.

I wonder if a great screenplay guarantees a good movie. I remember reading Law Abiding Citizen and thinking, man, this is fucking awesome! Then I remember watching the movie and thinking, man, what happened!

I don't think there's a form of storytelling that is subject to more scrutiny than a screenplay. But it makes sense. They're blueprints. You don't drop millions of dollars into a building without studying the blueprints to make sure it's sound and free of error.

But that's something we ought to remember.

Screenplays are just blueprints for light and sound.

And sometimes, the sound and the fury jumps off the page like a miracle, defying people and narrative weaknesses they calculated as odds, and the celluloid burns like a star that induces Stendhal syndrome if you stare at it directly.