It never rains, it pours. We complain that there are no good female action heroes, and all of a sudden this weekend we’re being assaulted by two of them—ruthless female superheroes whose only superpower is fearless cruelty and an almost psychotic lust for vengeance. Two seriously screwed-up young ladies avenging violent crimes against their mothers after being robbed of their childhood. And in one case, the killer is still a child. Meet the new breed of female empowerment—Sweden’s Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth Salander, the chilly heroine of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, based on the blockbuster trilogy of novels by Stieg Larsson; and America’s Chloe Moretz is Hit Girl, the secret weapon in Kick-Ass, the anti-comic book adventure based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.
They’re very different movies. Dragon Tattoo is a gritty procedural epic filmed with a realist style in the stark land of Ingmar Bergman. Kick-Ass is a pop orgy of pulp exploitation that’s set in New York and unfolds as a parent’s worst nightmare. Dragon Tattoo poses as mature drama, Kick-Ass as delinquent comedy. Both dish up visceral brutality and are restricted to viewers aged 18 and over. Of the two, Kick-Ass is more fun. It’s a blast—a smart, refreshing, subversive spin on the super-hero genre. Dragon Tattoo is thoroughly engrossing, and a must-see for fans of the Larsson trilogy. Hollywood is planning its own souped-up American version of the franchise, but it’s hard to imagine anyone capturing its heroine with more fidelity, and ferocity, than Noomi Rapace.
I’ve written about both these films in the pages of the magazine. For my piece on the heroine of Dragon Tattoo, go to: The most seductive predator since Bond. And for this week’s story on the taboo-smashing provocations of Kick-Ass, go click on: Where no movie has gone before. Meanwhile a few more thoughts on these films:
The premise: when pop culture is so thickly populated by comic book superheroes, how come ordinary people haven’t tried to emulate them in real life, even if they have no super powers? It’s an ingenious notion, but every Hollywood studio turned down the script from Scottish writer-director Matthew Vaughn, appalled by the prospect of an R-rated movie featuring a homicidal 11-year-old. This anti-superhero movie now seems poised to kick serious ass at the box office. And that must make Canadian filmmaker Peter Stebbings feel a bit glum. He employed a similar premise for his witty, well-crafted Defendor, starring Woody Harrelson as a bumbling vigilante in a makeshift superhero costume who heads out into the night with only a truncheon—just like the title character played by Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass. Sadly, despite a winning performance from Harrelson, and a promising sale to an American distributor, Defendor died at the box office. It was, in the end, more tender character drama than action movie, and that’s always a tough sell.
Kick-Ass, however, is one of those rare meta movies that works like a self-fulfilling prophecy of pop culture. It a tale of an absurdly amateurish superhero achieving unlikely celebrity. And in that sense, despite the adult-rated violence, it’s reminiscent of Ghostbusters. The story contains the pop phenomenon that will become the movie’s own blockbuster success. And although it feeds on all the tropes of comic book adventure, Kick-Ass also comments on them with a dark, subversive wit.
It’s hero, Dave Lizewski (Johnson) is the classic high school nerd, pining for a cute girl who thinks he’s gay, an assumption he’s willing to encourage just to keep her around. Meanwhile, he achieves instant notoriety as his half-baked alter-ego, Kick-Ass, when his shambling heroics in a parking lot brawl are immortalized on YouTube. The story has the token framework of a teen romantic comedy. But this sweet fable is wonderfully upstaged by the more hard-core superheroes that Kick-Ass encounters. Namely Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), the 11-year-old daughter of an insane ex-cop whose alter-ego is a Batman clone called Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). Cage is at his oddball best as this avuncular psycho who street-proofs his kid by strapping a bullet-proof vest on her and blasting her with rounds of live ammunition. There’s also a student super-villain, the crime lord’s spoiled son who suits up as Red Mist—he’s played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who will always be remembered as Superbad‘s ‘McLovin’.
Moretz may not be the protagonist, but she’s the movie’s revelation. It may seem perverse to watch an 11-year-old take gleeful delight in stabbing, slashing, and shooting her way through a gang of drug dealers—as if her idea of a play date was an all-out bloodbath. But the martial artistry of her stunts is dazzling. And her character is endowed with such an infectious innocence that there’s something weirdly uplifting about it all. It seems like a small miracle, that a movie so violent and dark can, in the end, feel lighter than air.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Since seeing this movie several weeks ago, I’ve devoured all three books of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and my memory of the film has become somewhat confused with the source. What I can say, briefly, is that the film does a superb job of capturing both the main characters and the Byzantine complexity of Larsson’s narrative, even while compressing and conflating plot points. There are some episodes of brutal and searing violence, but the movie is largely a mystery. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist who has just been disgraced in a high-profile libel case, is hired by a member of the Vanger family, a wealthy clan of industrialists, to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of Harriet Vanger, who vanished from the family’s island home without a trace. To help him, Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a tattooed punked-out computer hacker with almost supernatural intelligence and the instincts of a ruthless predator. Like Kick-Ass, this is another movie that traffics in a thrilling role reversal, by letting the putative hero, who is mild-mannered and warm-blooded, surrender the spotlight to a scarred and twisted female avenger with ice in her veins.
Meanwhile, however, there’s a massive plot to get through. It’s no small feat to make the minutiae of archival detective work compelling, as our detectives pour through photographs, Internet files and dusty records, even with the office romance that inevitably ensues. But Danish director Niels Arden Oplev holds our attention by borrowing a device from Michelangelo Antonioni’s New Wave classic, Blow-Up (which happens to be one of my favorite films)—the intrigue keeps circling back to an old photograph of Harriet Vanger that is repeatedly enlarged and re-examined, a photo in which she is being watch by a man in a crowd. The photo’s accidental composition becomes the key to the puzzle, and the director creates graphic suspense from the sheer cadence of pixels.
Without giving anything away here, we can say that investigation soon uncovers a grotesque litany of serial murder, and that’s as far as we’ll go. As the bodies pile up, Dragon Tattoo acquires the conventional rhythms of a serial killer movie, and oddly enough, as the action accelerates, the tension lags. But what makes this serial killer movie unique is the mesmerizing performance by Rapace. Usually a character this twisted would be the villain, not the heroine. There’s also something cooly Scandanavian and deadpan about the inappropriate sexual chemistry between the middle-aged journalist and his femme fatale colleague—which is by no means as creepy as it sounds, in case you think I’m overly identifying. And the movie’s stark locations are as exotic as the characters. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the most successful Swedish movie in history. It’s a long way from the cinema of Ingmar Bergman—it doesn’t even come close. But it does take place on an island, after all, and in its lonely landscape you can still see glimmers of Ingmar’s ghost.