Movie Maniac

Two movies with heart celebrate different kinds of heroes

Two movies coming out Tuesday on DVD deal with heroes in wildly contrasting ways.

"Kick-Ass" is an action/comedy based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. that follows the plight of high school daydreamer Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson).

He's fed up with violence and being ignored by girls — mostly that last part — and decides to become a superhero, even though he has no fancy gadgets or super powers.

He dons a goofy green suit that makes him look as threatening as a ball of yarn, names himself Kick-Ass and takes to the streets, where he is swiftly beaten and run over by a car. Peter Parker he isn't.

But the damage leaves him unable to feel pain (super power!) and he is soon out fighting crime again. This time, he stops a band of thugs from beating up a man while witnesses record the showdown on camera phones. The footage hits the Internet and Kick-Ass is suddenly an overnight sensation.

But he's not alone in the superhero business. He soon meets Big Daddy (a game Nicolas Cage) and his daughter, Hit Girl (fantastically maniacal Chloe Grace Moretz), an 11-year-old who swears like a sailor and fights like Bruce Lee.

Things get messy when a mob boss wants to rid the city of these do-gooders, and uses Kick-Ass as bait.

Eventually, Dave questions his own motives, and finds courage in the face of despair.

The film should have been a hit when it was released in April, when it did only modestly well at the box office.

Perhaps it was the film's marketing. As its "R" rating will attest (for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use — some involving children), "Kick-Ass" is no lighthearted teen comedy. Its ads made it look like the "Superbad" of superhero movies.

It's actually more like the "Scarface" of superhero movies (it even uses that film's famous line). It's ultra violent, with so much bloodshed that Jason Voorhees would get faint.

But it's all an irreverent, over-the-top homage — or protest? —to superhero films. It's very funny and engaging, thanks to a charismatic performance by Johnson.

It's also — and this was a complete surprise — touching, thanks to the tender, offbeat rapport between Cage and Moretz. Their backstory is the real meat here, and their tragic arc gives the film heart.

Director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn delivers an ultimately riotous, fun ride — one that may very well be elevated to cult status on DVD.

The hero in " A Prophet (Un Prophete)" isn't so literal, but is every bit as compelling.

Also brutally violent, this prison drama was among this year's nominees for best foreign language film (from France), and would have been my vote to win.

It follows the story of Malik (a revelatory Tahar Rahim), who has just been sentenced to serve six years in prison at age 19.

He tries to mind his own business, but gets cornered by the leader of a Corsican gang that rules the prison, and is given a mission to carry out: Kill another inmate or be killed himself.

Divulging too much plot would lessen the impact of the story, which isn't for the faint of heart. But it follows Malik as he is asked to carry out more missions. He also learns to read and write, and how to navigate the corrupt prison system to benefit himself. He literally grows up before our eyes.

Under Jacques Audiard's deft direction, the film is at times hard to watch (and sometimes unbearably tense), to show the conditions these inmates must deal with (much like Alan Parker's "Midnight Express," only not to that extreme). But it's also beautifully creative (Malik continues to be haunted by the man he killed, for instance, and talks to his ghost in his cell). There are mystical touches, too.

Rahim gives a powerhouse performance, and the weight of the film rests on his able shoulders. He makes us feel — and ultimately root — for Malik.

"A Prophet" is a monumental work, and a testament to human will. Even amid unyielding animosity, Malik somehow discovers honesty, compassion and integrity.

That's the stuff true heroes are made of.

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