“Kite’s oppressive façade of dreariness somehow doesn’t make me feel like there are any real stakes involved, and India Eisley’s performance doesn’t make me want to particularly cheer her on in any real way.”
Release date: October 10, 2014
Director: Ralph Ziman
Stars: India Eisley, Samuel L. Jackson
Running time: 90 minutes
MPAA rating: R
It took me three times to watch Kite all the way through.
The first time I attempted to make it through the live-action adaptation of Yasuomi Umetsu’s 1998 cult anime, I made it about 20 minutes in before having to walk away, as my attention span had, not coincidentally, turned into that of a coked-up squirrel. The second time, something else seemed to be more pressing than viewing the film, like balancing my checkbook. Finally, I had no choice but to view the film in its entirety because, well, obligations.
But before I get into the meat of the movie, here’s something you should know: I don’t like giving scathing reviews. Not these days, anyway. When I was younger and full of piss and vinegar, I reveled in dispensing harsh criticism at books, movies, and TV shows that I thought I had more than missed the mark. And, honestly, it’s easy to do. Anybody can be snarky. I have a PhD in snark, with a minor in sass. Being snarky affords a writer the opportunity to flex his comedic muscles and, honestly, snark has its place. However, more often than not, that humor at another’s experience is about drawing the attention away from the piece being reviewed and onto the reviewer. It took me a bit, but I finally learned the lesson of the old adage “It’s easier to tear something down than it is to build it up.”
And, as I get older and learn more about the creative process—one I engage in with more and more frequency—I start to have more understanding of the time and energy and mental fortitude that is required to make anything, a film, short story, whatever. While I’m sure there’s an exception to the rule, I don’t think anyone sets out to produce something that is, unkind as it might be to say, a piece of shit. While the creative folk who set out to make a movie like Kite might have to contend with heavy-handed influence by producers and financial backers, they still put their time and emotional and physical reserves into completing a project. They want to be successful. That doesn’t mean they always succeed, but it’s not for lack of trying. I like to acknowledge what a TV show or so on gets right even as I point to holes in the craftsmanship. And it just seems cruel to say, “Way to miss the mark, assface,” no matter how sensitively you express that sentiment.
But that’s my job, right? As a reviewer of films, movies, and so on, part of my job description is to tell you what I think of a piece of pop culture I’ve consumed and let you know if it manages to accomplish what it set out to do or what I think it set out to do. And you, the reader, go out, if you so choose, to watch or read what I’ve reviewed based, in part, on my opinions of the material, if you trust my opinions enough to sway your actions. Or you could just be reading what I’ve written as a means to confirm your suspicions of the quality of a film, etc. you’re considering checking out. Or you accidentally clicked on the link to something I wrote when you actually meant to click on a piece Jason wrote.
And all of that is my rambling way of saying that art is subjective (insofar as we can call piece of pop culture art—another discussion for another day) and folks put a lot of work into that art, which makes me uncomfortable to completely eviscerate that art.
Which brings us back to Kite.
I still don’t know what Kite set out to do. Is it supposed to be an action romp? A thriller? A stylized bloodbath? An homage to the exploitation films of the 1970s? A dystopian warning? I have watched the film almost two times, and I have no clue.
What I can suss out from the muddied plot is that Kite is the tale of Sawa (played by The Secret Life of the American Teenagers’ India Eisley), an orphaned young woman who goes after the human traffickers she thinks are responsible for the deaths of her mother and policeman father. Her father’s former partner, Samuel L. Jackson basically playing another Badass Motherfucker, mentors Sawa in her quest for vengeance and to put an end to the human flesh trade that runs rampant in the grim future in which the film is set. Jackson supplies Sawa with her drug of choice, Amp, which erases the memories of her parents’ brutal murders and is a drug to which she is now hopelessly addicted. Armed with guns and whatever else she can get her hands on, Sawa mows down anyone who gets in the way of her goal, until a startling discovery that even I could see without my glasses, blindfolded, in the dark, with a bag over head coming from five miles away.
This would be the part of the review where I would usually point out what worked in the film and what could have been improved upon. I might say something like, “Hey, I could see what X director was trying to do, but maybe he should have considered Y.” Highlight the good, give suggestions for improvement. However, if I took that same approach to an examination of this film, there wouldn’t be much substance to it. So, do I just not write it up? Nah, I have a job to do. Sigh. Let’s start with what works.
- Samuel L. Jackson, while it seems like he phones in his role at times, does a not-so-distracting job at playing the badass we know him so well for in films like Shaft, Pulp Fiction, The Other Guys, and all of the Avengers-related films. If you squinted, you totally couldn’t notice that he was just doing this for the paycheck or to kill time before shooting began on his next Marvel movie appearance.
- The stylized action is sometimes pretty to look at. While that same shtick has been done to better results in films like the Kill Bill movies and Kick-Ass, the effect here works.
- Kite was only 90 minutes long so, when I finally had to watch the film, it wasn’t the Herculean feat it could have been.
- Unlike in the anime, Sawa’s mentor doesn’t have sex with her, which is a good thing. Because eww.
And that’s it. I could end the review right here. As I have not exactly thrown accolades at the feet of Kite, you could probably move along, scratch off the film as a potential time diversion for the weekend, and move on. Still.
- Kite falls into the same trap as a lot of movies of this type; namely, the filmmaker weirdly and uncomfortably sexualize a young girl who has no business being sexualized. No, having her bounce around slicing throats and shooting people doesn’t make it better. It makes it so much worse. In Kick-Ass, Hit Girl is young and brutal, but the producers of the movie don’t make any efforts to sexualize her. You can juxtapose “young” and “killer” without adding skirting taboos that don’t need to be skirted.
- While the action is stylized, it was difficult to differentiate other parts of the movie, specifically the backgrounds and settings. Every locale has the feel of a David Fincher knockoff or else it is painted with grey overtones that make me disengage with the action and dialogue. I understand that the setting is a dystopian future, but either the set designer had limited budget, had no imagination in her conception of the future, or was lazy. And I’ve seen it a dozen times. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel when constructing these set pieces, but fuck.
- I love Keanu Reeves for his big heart and charity work, but someone should have minded the set and kept him away from the actors. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how so many of the character performances landed so clumsily. Keanu must have been teaching some of the stars how to emote, especially poor India Eisley, as most of her lines come out stilted or in hysterics. I realize that her character Sawa is emotionally disturbed and might be prone to wild mood swings and repression, but most of that portrayal came out as more caricature than character. I’ve been told that Sawa in the film emotes more than she does in the anime. If that’s the case, then animated Sawa must express the emotional range of a stump with a katana leaned up against it.
See? It’s shit like that last point makes me feel like an asshole. But it’s true! I can’t get around the fact that the whole affair feels like a film that was rushed too much in the production or that the people who made it were half-asleep in every decision made along the way. It’s oppressive façade of dreariness somehow doesn’t make me feel like there are any real stakes involved, and Eisley’s performance doesn’t make me want to particularly cheer her on in any real way.