Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Kick-Ass 2" and "Fury": a two-fer review

I want to make this quick because neither of these movies really deserves lengthy examination. Let's do "Kick-Ass 2" first.

"Kick-Ass 2"

"Kick-Ass 2" (2013) is director Matthew Vaughn's sequel to 2010's "Kick-Ass." It stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass, Chlöe Grace Moretz as Mindy Macready/Hit Girl, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris D'Amico, now rebranded as The Motherfucker, the self-proclaimed World's First Supervillain, who goes around in his mother's S&M gear. The movie also stars Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes, a former D'Amico mob enforcer turned born-again Christian who wears military gear and dispenses vigilante justice with a baseball bat, all while enjoining his partners in crime fighting not to use salty language. Stars and Stripes, inspired by Kick-Ass's original heroics, has founded a group called Justice Forever. The Motherfucker, meanwhile, still intent on avenging his father's death-by-bazooka in the previous film, creates a group of villains called The Toxic Megacunts. As should be obvious, Matthew Vaughn films aren't about subtlety.

Dave Lizewski is a high-school senior and Mindy Macready is a freshman. Dave is intent on becoming a true superhero, so he asks Mindy to train him. She does so, but her guardian, Marcus—a policeman friend of Mindy's late father—is wise to the fact that she's still living a double life as a crime fighter, and he demands that she stop and just become a normal teen. Mindy tries, and a major subplot of the movie deals with Mindy's difficulties in surviving the "Mean Girls" reality of American high school. So a major theme of the film, dealt with by both Dave and Mindy, is the eternal teen question of identity: who am I, exactly? Further complicating matters is that Dave is worried about what happens when a hero's identity is discovered—an issue that comes to a head when the police begin tracking down all the vigilantes, good and bad, and Dave's father goes to prison because he claims to be Kick-Ass to protect his son.

In terms of plot strands, the movie is a muddle, and it doesn't really tie up its loose ends all that well. The first "Kick-Ass" (reviewed here) was just as preposterous but more tightly written. The sequel also feels like a rehash of the first movie in many ways, but there are some major differences, including the surprising tenderness with which Dave and Mindy's relationship is handled. In the end, the movie doesn't add up to much; it feels forced and stitched together, and the essential revenge plot doesn't add up to anything. Did the movie have a message or a moral? I honestly couldn't tell you.

Perhaps more interesting than the movie itself is some of the controversy surrounding it. Carrey reportedly disavowed the film after the Sandy Hook massacre, claiming that he had had a change of heart and could not condone the level of violence depicted in the story. Another controversy surrounds a certain almost-rape scene in the film, which is played for laughs. It wasn't one of Vaughn's better moments, and I ended up not laughing, although I can understand why others might find elements of the scene funny. As one online defender of the scene noted, the joke is on the rapist, not on the victim. That said, it was still a hard scene to take, perhaps because it felt as if it didn't belong in the movie. (Some have observed, though, that the scene is based on a similar, and even more violent, scene from the original comic-book version of the story—and in that scene, the girl does get raped.)

In all, I can't give this movie my recommendation. There were some good moments within it, and some genuine laughs, and the actors did yeoman's work... but Vaughn has proven, at least twice, that he's capable of making a much better film.

"Fury"

"Fury" (2014) stars Brad Pitt at the head of an ensemble cast. Pitt plays Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier, head of a Sherman tank crew in 1945, near the end of World War II. (Fury is, by the way, the name of the tank at the heart of the film.) Also starring are Logan Lerman (you may remember him as Percy Jackson) as Norman "Machine" Ellison, the requisite ingénu, who doesn't earn his war name until near the end of the film; Shia LaBoeuf as Boyd "Bible" Swan, a scripture-quoting soldier; Michael Peña as "Gordo" Garcia; and Jon Bernthal (a.k.a. Shane Walsh on "The Walking Dead") as uncouth Southerner Grady Travis. Cold-eyed Jason Isaacs, sporting some sort of northeast-US accent, makes an appearance as Captain Waggoner, who gives Wardaddy his deadly missions.

It's tempting to call "Fury" an American answer to "Das Boot": the story follows a bunch of men in a tank, after all, much as "Das Boot" followed a bunch of men inside a U-boat. But "Das Boot" was, in large part, about the deadly effects of both war and claustrophobia on the human psyche; "Fury" lacks that shut-in feel, mainly because our heroes keep popping out of their tank to take in, and to fight in, the lovely German countryside.

Part of the story has to do with Machine's slow acceptance into the group: he's new to the squad, trained as a secretary, and knows nothing about tanks. In typical war-story fashion, he's the point-of-view character who functions as the audience's surrogate. Unfortunately, this is a painfully clichéd role, which already put me on my guard while watching this rather manipulative movie. Another part of the story has to do with Wardaddy's slow-burn rage against the SS ("Inglourious Basterds" crossover?)—a rage that causes him to make a fatal decision in the final third of the movie when his tank's track gets blown off by a German mine. The tank sits right at a crossroads in the countryside. Machine, who has been tasked with lookout duty, reports that a large German column is on its way to the crossroads. His description of the column leads Wardaddy to realize it's all SS, so instead of immediately sending his thoroughly outnumbered men to hide among the nearby trees to allow the German column to pass, he decides to dig in his heels and prepare to kill as many Nazis as he can before dying. (All of this, by the way, is shown in the movie's preview trailer.)

The rest of the story is a tribute, of sorts, to the Battle of the Alamo. Wardaddy's men have come too far to abandon him after he declares he'll fight the Germans alone, so all the men collectively choose to make this their last stand and to die together. The crossroads itself, along with Bible's constant evocation of the holy writ, adds on another layer of symbolism.

Other critics have noted that "Fury" is gritty and bloody. Strangely, I watched the movie and thought to myself that I've seen bloodier—2008's "Rambo," for instance (kind-of reviewed here; more earnestly reviewed here). That said, there was a lot about the film that just didn't work for me. If this was supposed to be some sort of morality tale about war, I don't think it came across with all that clear of a message. (Or maybe that was the point...?) I also thought the music was both overbearing and anachronistic: it didn't help with my suspension of disbelief. The script was too heavy-handed at moments, and the characters, while well portrayed, came off as stereotypes and not people. One draggy mealtime scene in the middle of the film was supposed to set us up for a lesson in the ultimate meaninglessness of anything and everything in a time of war, but it was too easy to anticipate that that scene was going to end disastrously.

I can't say that I came away liking "Fury." I suppose I liked parts of it, but as with "Kick-Ass 2," above, I didn't think the movie gelled into anything coherent.


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1 comment:

Charles said...

I saw "Fury" on the plane to Europe. It was formulaic and predictable, and it felt more like a montage than a coherent film. Better yet, it felt more like a checklist--as if the director was checking off scenes that needed to be in the film. Of course, this is always the case, but you're not supposed to see the seams.

I remember thinking that they tried to squeeze too much into a single film, so it felt rushed and the character development didn't feel quite genuine enough. I also remember thinking that it would have been much better as a "Band of Brothers" style miniseries, where they would have had more time to explore the characters and issues in depth. It would have had to have been about more than a single tank crew, of course.

Never saw Kick-Ass 2, or Kick-Ass 1 for that matter. Not a big fan of Vaughn, as you might have guessed. As far as I'm concerned, he's the Howard Stern of directors. (Which I suppose might be a compliment if you like Howard Stern, but I never did.)