Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Herzog, 2009)

– Originally posted elsewhere in late 2009

Junkie Logic

Various snakes slither through Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, poisoning the already tainted post-Katrina locale with staggering potency and conviction. Both criminals and cops seamlessly conduct acts of robbery, murder, and corruption as means to always outlandishly desperate ends. Their venomous acts seep into the aesthetics as well, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, causing a tonal uproar in even the most stagnant scenes. Herzog’s comedic treatment of the dark material only further complicates the narrative, making the film a strange and unruly ride.

Herzog’s dynamic and absurd loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s cult classic focuses on one viper in particular, Lt. Terence McDonagh, (Nicolas Cage) and his slow descent into personal and professional chaos. Perpetually popping pills and snorting coke, McDonagh shakes down pushers, steals from crime scenes and evidence lockers, and tortures witnesses, all in a delusional attempt to secure an imaginary justice while satisfying his deep personal cravings. McDonagh’s ambiguous quest is framed by a consistent inner struggle between selfish addiction and sacrificial action, a problematic dichotomy consistently battling with his tumultuous surroundings.

Herzog sees McDonagh as the ultimate junkie, and the film exists within a warped timeline of surreal logic paralleling his disjointed and fleeting point of view. Every act of violence, blatant moral compromise, or power trip feeds into this manipulative perspective, basically cunning attempts at surviving long enough to enjoy one more hit. McDonagh might be a cop on the surface, but inside he’s a devious mixture of vulnerability and guilt, more dangerous and vindictive than any of the hoods he’s investigating. In a world this fucked up, what really constitutes as evil? Continue reading

Kick-Ass (Vaughn, 2010)

“God help you if you use voice-over in a script, my friend! It’s flaccid, sloppy writing.”

– Robert McKee (Brian Cox) in Adaptation

This amazing admonishment blatantly interrupts Nicolas Cage/Charlie Kaufman’s interior monologue, leaving a splatter pattern of irony all over the wall during a critical moment in Spike Jonze’s masterpiece about artistic creation. But most films don’t handle this screenwriting device with much care or intellect, using words to crutch up a medium dependent on the “show don’t tell” mentality. So how does McKee’s prophetic warning apply to Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn’s new bloody comic book deconstruction about everyday super-heroes? Well, Kick-Ass takes this approach in the opposite direction, destroying life and art for the sake of cynical irony, sledgehammering the narrative with endless voice-over narration until there’s nothing left but brain matter and guts. Oh, and the writing happens to flaccid and sloppy too.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), the epitome of high school mediocrity, wonders early on in Kick-Ass (through voice-over of course) why regular people don’t stand up against evil and become superheroes. Dave’s question stems from a growing anger with the dangerous world around him, a New York City where bad men rule and good people do nothing. So Dave creates an alter ego called Kick-Ass, dons a green scuba suit, falls into some dangerous situations, gets his ass kicked, and becomes an Internet sensation for good measure. The only irony here is that our crime fighting hero doesn’t fight crime all that well. Dave represents a misguided kid who lucks into change, and the lack of tension or conflict in his character arc makes Kick-Ass especially frustrating. For this hero, verbal and physical momentum produces very little evocation.

It doesn’t help that almost every other supporting character, from Nicolas Cage’s vengeful Big Daddy to Chloe Moretz’s scene-stealing pre-pubescent viper Hit Girl, outshines Dave/Kick-Ass in all departments. Vaughn wants Dave to be a sly critique of the everyman in the Superhero genre, his trajectory a noble and sacrificial one. But because of this staggering difference in character/presence/acting skill, the narrative focus becomes jumbled and Vaughn never finds an answer for his painfully meek lead constantly competing with these audacious personalities. So the balance between comedy, drama, and action never solidifies, and Kick-Ass gets man-handled by genre iconography it can’t creatively reference. And the bruises stick.

Ultimately, Kick-Ass believes foolhardily in its pessimistic examination of the Comic genre as a kinetic mosaic of cinematic subversion winking to the beat of a different drummer. While Vaughn creates some clever moments, especially during the early scenes between Big Daddy and Hit Girl, he never cohesively connects them with Kick-Ass as a whole. The extreme violence makes an impact and almost comes as a reprieve from the wordy internal verbiage explaining each interaction. But aside from Hit Girl’s incredible assault on a snuff film production, these action scenes hollow out as they progress, numbing the viewer with increasingly ridiculous cinematic spectacles. Kick-Ass paints the town red hoping the weightless subtext will coagulate in the countless blood pools and knife wounds. It never does.

Unlike Zach Snyder’s equally violent but far more substantial comic book adaptation of The Watchmen, Vaughn’s Kick-Ass lacks ambition, both cinematically and ideologically. The cynicism, the posturing, and all those damn monologues merely scratch the surface of a morally defunct world where the heroes are more displaced from reality than the villains, and the carnage comes and goes like traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. Kick-Ass may have found a moment in time where violence and irony pair together well, but Vaughn only sees the first row of familiar trees in a vast forest of genre mythology. Missed opportunities are a dime a dozen in Kick-Ass, and it’s not surprising the lengthy voice-over narration completely glosses over the copious amounts of warning signs kicking the viewer in the…well, you know.