. . . try to be superheroes in this fun, if not very smart, comic-book adaptation
First, appreciate, for a moment, that this week a movie opens that's simply called Kick-Ass. Not surprisingly, it's based on a comic book. The beginning of that inevitable cultural decline witnessed in Mike Judge's Idiocracy notwithstanding, director Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass is something of a mixed bag as a superhero satire/action comedy. Based on the monthly comic created by writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr., the movie attempts to show just what would happen if an average person were to put on spandex and fight crime. Dave Lizewski (played by newcomer and Andy Samberg-lookalike Aaron Johnson) is a geeky teenager who decides to become a superhero despite, by his own admission, having no real reason to fight crime. After buying a costume and a couple of nightsticks off the internet, he hits the streets as Kick-Ass. Despite being beaten, stabbed, and struck by a car, Dave stumbles into the public eye and soon attracts attention from the media, local mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), and the gun-toting father/daughter vigilante team of Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage). D'Amico finds his criminal empire under attack from "some guy who looks like Batman" and assumes it's Kick-Ass, resulting in the movie's bullet-ridden, explosion-heavy conclusion.
Like Vaughn's previous efforts Layer Cake and Stardust, Kick-Ass boasts a fairly impressive ensemble cast. Strong is steadily becoming a go-to bad guy in Hollywood, and while it's not quite as fun to watch him without his raspy British accent, his performance as a perpetually irritated family man and mafioso is nevertheless entertaining. Cage's cracked-out Adam West impression is the kind of intense weirdness audiences have come to expect of him, and for the most part it's pretty funny. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as D'Amico's son and, later, the Bowie-esque Red Mist, is more or less still doing Superbad's McLovin, but he does it well.
While Johnson is certainly a capable lead, the undisputed star of the movie is Moretz, following her breakout presence in last year's (500) Days of Summer. Moretz's turn as the katana-wielding, foul-mouthed, 11-year-old superheroine Hit-Girl is easily Kick-Ass' highlight. The movie lives and dies on her pitch-perfect delivery of ridiculous lines such as, "OK you cunts, let's see what you can do now" in between brutally dismembering thugs. The movie's high point is Hit-Girl's Sergio Leone-inspired siege on D'Amico's goon-filled skyscraper, and it's a tribute to Moretz's talent that she makes the sequence work the way it does. In fact, Kick-Ass' true strength is its Looney Toons' absurdity, whether it's the genius of a sweater-vested Cage attaching fake handlebars onto his moustache when he becomes Big Daddy or the movie-ending revelation of the gloriously stupid secret weapon Kick-Ass uses to save the day.
Unfortunately, this silliness is also truly frustrating. Kick-Ass' satire is a pretty deliberate send-up of the premise found in Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man: the comics' geeky loner--who becomes a beloved defender, yet can't tell his friends and loved ones--thrown into a real-world setting. At times, it works: There's something genuinely unsettling about the realistic beat down Kick-Ass receives on his first patrol, and there's a certain novelty to watching a guy and gal have hormone-driven sex in an alley instead of, say, Peter Parker and Mary Jane staring chastely into each other's eyes.
At the same time, you have to wade through a dull masturbation gag and a pile of lazy gay jokes before you get to any of that. The movie's joyous ultra-violence, specifically the fight choreography, is some of the best in recent memory. But Kick-Ass' conceit of pseudo-realistic super-heroics completely falls apart when, say, a young girl slices straight through bone with a samurai sword. The subplot concerning Big Daddy's revenge-fueled vendetta against D'Amico and the effect this has on his daughter is poorly conceived and glaringly cliché in a movie so set on mocking comic-book movie melodrama, and the romance between Kick-Ass and his true love Katie feels like an afterthought.
If anything, these flaws suggest that Kick-Ass would be far more enjoyable if it weren't so held back by "realism." Really, the movie's central idea isn't what would happen if someone decided to become a superhero, but what would happen if someone in a very silly movie decided to become a superhero? What's left is a deconstructionist superhero movie that doesn't feel sure, exactly, what it's deconstructing. While it's not going to dethrone The Dark Knight anytime soon, Kick-Ass holds up thanks to some solid performances and an infectious enthusiasm for stupid fun.