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“Kick-Ass” does — and boldly

Imagine what will happen when Hit Girl's (Chloe Moretz) pesky teen hormones kick in.

“With no power comes no responsibility.” You jonesing for a pretty little gift-wrapped theme? Well, that’s as close as “Kick-Ass,” adapted from Mark Millar’s comic book series, comes to providing one. Because Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” is not a film with a stately message about heroism. It is anarchy — ironic, lurid, violent, profane anarchy. One of the toughest characters, for example, is a preteen (Chloe Grace Moretz) who gets soundly thrashed by grown men triple her age. But don’t go crying for Hit Girl or she’ll punch you in the jugular and then call you the “P-word,” or, if she’s really irked, the “C-word.”

That’s just a taste of what “Kick-Ass” serves up, and more accurate one than the promos illustrate. So intently does the trailer play down the level of violence that when it happens on screen, it’s twice as stupefying, since “Kick-Ass” is billed as a hipper, younger, more-action-less-quips “Mystery Men.” (Probably the production company realized few people would flood Fandango with debit card numbers for tickets to see kids — including a pig-tailed 11-year-old girl — get beaten senseless by adults.) This movie earns every inch of that “R” rating with shootouts and brutal beatings and knife fights and enough swearing to make dockworkers blush. The fact that it’s mostly the “impressionable ones” doing the cursing will have some whipping out their soap boxes and dusting off those megaphones. But, as the morality police often do, they’ll miss the point. The point is there is no point. “Kick-Ass” is all about flash, and you can’t have flash with heroes running around, capes billowing in the wind, running into a wall and saying “oh, fudge.”

However, “Kick-Ass” contains a fair amount of such blunders, most of them made by Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, perfectly cast), who’s nobody special and is self-aware enough to know that. He pals around with fellow comic book fans Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters), pines for the hot It girl (Lyndsy Fonseca) he knows he’ll never have because he’s invisible to her, and then because she thinks he’s gay. Almost on a whim Dave decides to change his fate by inventing a heroic alter ego named Kick-Ass, a guy with a sporty aquamarine costume and absolutely zero superpowers. The first time out is rough (he gets stabbed and hit by a car) and the second attempt isn’t much better, but camera phones capture the fight and soon Kick-Ass is viral vid sensation. His perseverance is dumb but a little noble, even admirable, and he coaxes other burgeoning heroes out of hiding, including Hit Girl (I love Chloe Moretz more in every film) and her father Damon (Nicholas Cage), who calls himself “Big Daddy” and dons his best Batman-knockoff, and Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the son of a local mafioso-type (Mark Strong) who proves to be Kick-Ass and his crew’s most formidable enemy. Together, they’re quite the amusing yet halfway capable gaggle of misfits.

Speaking of “amusing”: The trailer also promotes “Kick-Ass” as a barrel of laughs. It isn’t, though that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have its moments. The jokes, when they crop up (usually in the form of offhand comments), are quite funny, with Cage and Moretz playing against expectations of how a father/daughter hero team might act. (His response to her sarcastic request for a puppy instead of a knife: “Oh, child … You always knock me for a loop!”) The “we don’t need no stinkin’ superpowers” angle also tickles the funny bone because it’s used just often enough. Two of the best throwaway moments involve Red Mist leaping off a dumpster (“oh shit, that kind of hurt”) and Kick-Ass’s question of how to find Hit Girl. Her sarcasm is blistering: “You just contact the mayor’s office. He has a special signal he shines in the sky; it’s in the shape of a giant cock!” Kids today, they way they talk.

Just released, this adaptation has courted controversy already for the reasons above. With its unrepentant brutality and language and fearless approach, “Kick-Ass” isn’t for the righteously indignant crowd. For everyone else? It’s damn fun chaos. Somebody pass me the weird-sounding Bazooka.

Grade: B+

Iron Man as Sherlock Holmes? Elementary (and brilliant)

Law and Downey Jr. make like a couple of old marrieds (er, detectives) in Guy Ritchie's explosive "Sherlock Holmes."

Whatever you think about Robert Downey Jr., you can’t accuse the actor of being a phone-it-in performer. He brings an edgy vulnerability to every character he plays. That goes triple for Sherlock Holmes, transformed in Guy Ritchie’s brutish but talkily charming “Sherlock Holmes” as a British Tyler Durden with wilder eyes, artfully disheveled hair and mind-boggling deductive powers. The bone-dry wit and the probing gazes, though, are vintage Downey, and yet they feel like something ripped from the pages of any Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories. 

Just as Downey — who at first seemed an odd pick (and a Yank, no less) to play the world’s most famous detective — puts his own stamp on the character, so too does Ritchie muscle in with his reinvisioning of Holmes and Watson. He’s out to recreate not just the detective and his obliging assistant but the entire world they inhabit. Though he’s not entirely successful (the dialogue isn’t period-specific; the special effects are anything but subtle), there’s one thing Ritchie has that keeps “Sherlock Holmes” bobbing and weaving like a boxer dodging the knockout blow: energy.

What “Sherlock Holmes” the film lacks in brains it makes up for in zeal; this much is clear in the first 10 minutes, where Holmes and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) interrupt Lord Blackwood (the inherently menacing Mark Strong, who makes a first-rate villain), an occultist, in the midst of a human sacrifice. The scene involves Holmes unleashing a “Fight Club”-meets-blitzkrieg attack on the unsuspecting guard, but it’s an attack that’s planned with clinical precision and executed with supernatural calm. Downey Jr.’s Holmes is like that — an odd mix of brute strength (note his bulked-up physique) and spectacular observational powers. He’s an idiot savant with fists of fury. Not surprisingly, Holmes has zero social skills and cannot cope with change, which comes in form of Watson’s decision to leave 221B Baker Street and settle into marriage with Mary (Kelly Reilly). He’s tired, the good doctor insists, of Holmes’ poor hygiene, the grubby conditions of his study (Roger Ebert calls this an out-of-character misstep; I’d have to agree), his medical experiments on Watson’s dog. Quibbles aside, could Watson leave behind such a life of volatility? Is a lifetime of quietly retiring with a brandy before the study fireplace, pooch at his feet, really better than explosions and gunfights?

Of course not, and the remainder of “Sherlock Holmes” proceeds to pummel us with the here’s why. There’s a plot thread involving thief Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, criminally underused), that rare bird who has managed to outfox Holmes and steal his heart. She becomes entangled with Holmes and Watson’s mission to uncover what happened to Lord Blackwood. Properly hung, his body’s disappeared from its tomb (Holmes, naturally, won’t shrug that off as “black magic”) and the people connected to him suffer otherworldly deaths. Action sequences begat action sequences. And so on. While the fight sequences are expertly choreographed, even graceful, the special effects are disappointing — particularly the standoff on London’s Tower Bridge, which is … substandard. In these scenes, it’s as if Ritchie couldn’t find effects to match the vision in his head. The disparity is jarring.

Other aspects of “Sherlock Holmes” feel the same way. McAdams, an extraordinarly versatile actress, is reduced to a few scenes that leave us wanting more (and not in a good way). Holmes and Watson, as Ritchie sees them, aren’t trusted colleagues so much as roommates who sort of have the hots for each other. The tweak makes the relationship seem phony, a bit cutesy and a little too bromance-circa-1891-London. Where’s the professionalism, the mannered decorum? Law and Downey Jr. work hard to make this update agreeable, and mostly they succeed. Their banter is amusing, but Law, ably playing the bemused straight man here, seems to understand he’s the opening act. As the headliner, Downey Jr. brings enough sarcasm and shrewd intellect to Sherlock Holmes to offset the washboard abs. He doesn’t merely play the character, he owns him, and that whole-hearted commitment nearly covers the film’s numerous shortcomings.

Grade: B+

Quick Picks: “Body of Lies,” “Sex Drive”

“Body of Lies” (Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong, Alon Abutbul)

The world is “much simpler … to put to an end than you might think,” explains desk-bound CIA operative Ed Hoffman (Crowe) in “Body of Lies,” and coming from a man who begins and ends wars with a single keystroke, it’s as much a chilling threat as an observation about post-9/11 America. And it’s the glue that holds all the pieces — and there are many, many pieces, too many to count — of this Labrynthine espionage thriller together.

Donning Regular Joe khakis, a too-snug windbreaker jacket and oversized glasses, Crowe is creepy, hyper-informed Big Brother personified: He directs CIA operations in Iraq, Jordan and Syria from his air-conditioned Langley office, missions that quick-thinking field agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) carries out. Attempting to smoke out terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (Abutbul), the harried Ferris partners with the Jordan Intelligence Agency’s shrewd chief, Hani (a cold, calculating Strong). The rest unfolds at a breathless, whiplash-inducing pace, and there’s too much to digest in one sitting. (Here’s a film that both demands and rewards multiple viewings.)

Still, this is much more than a blow ’em up cat-and-mouse game — the focus on character development forces us to care about what happens to these agents as much as WHY it happens. (Just try not to squirm and wince during a brutal torture scene.) Solid but never showy performances make this possible. DiCaprio grows more subtle and effective with each role; long gone are the “Teen Beat” days when his flawless bone structure overshadowed his considerable acting chops. Here, his Ferris is no too-cool James Bond wannabe (sorry, Mr. Ebert) flashing a gun and a grin to charm the enemy. He’s a real agent in real danger, caught between two power players out to one-up each other — regardless of the collateral damage.

Which is where Crowe and Strong come in … not with a bang, but with a quiet determination that’s twice as unnerving. Ordinarily a bit-part actor, Strong, cast in the similarly complex “Syriana,” is freeze-your-blood good as Hani, who’s learned enough about America’s CIA operatives to manipulate them, turn them against one another. Crowe, too, turns in a fine, nuanced performance as Hoffman, who fires off world-changing orders — assassinations, bombings, you name it — in-between slow bites of breakfast cereal. Absolute power, it seems, hasn’t corrupted him; it’s just made him eerily complacent. In fact, it’s Hoffman’s total lack of remorse and conscience, his cold detachment and never-ruffled mannerisms that make him as sinister as Hani or the powerful anti-American terrorist ringleader Al-Saleem.

Yet it’s a testament to William Monahan’s smart script that neither Hoffman nor Strong are pigeonholed as villains. In Hoffman’s words, “no one’s innocent” in this war — words that burrow under your skin and stay there long after the credits have rolled.

Grade: B-

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“Sex Drive” (Josh Zuckerman, Clark Duke, Amanda Crew, Katrina Bowden)

If “Sex Drive” feels oddly familiar, there’s a good reason: This uninspired teen sex/road trip comedy contains traces of everything from “American Pie” (note: Zuckerman bears a striking resemblance to “Pie” alumnus Thomas Ian Nicholas) to John Cusack’s whip-smart “The Sure Thing” to last summer’s gleefully foul-mouthed romp “Superbad.” What it lacks? Oh, say, one-tenth of the originality and heart of any of these better movies. The been-there, seen-that plot centers on shy virgin Ian (Zuckerman doing a half-hearted Michael Cera impression), who steals the tricked-out 1969 GTO owned by his musclehead brother (James Marsden as you’ve never seen him – with a pulse) and drives to Tennessee to meet Ms. Tasty (Bowden), his “Playboy” centerfold-hot online girlfriend. Along for the ride are womanizing BFF Lance (Duke), who nails anything in a skirt, and Goth gal pal Felicia (Crew), the object of Ian’s affection who, of course, has the hots for Lance. Various sex- and alcohol-related pratfalls take place (most of them in what can only be described as a Reform Amish community) and lead up to a soppy, unsatisfying close. There are flashes of originality — Seth Green is snarky brilliance as a sarcastic Amish mechanic; the phrase “visiting grandma” gets a cringe-inducing makeover — but ultimately “Sex Drive” is too derivative and sloppy to leave much of an impression (excluding, of course, the double-entendre title).

Grade: C-