Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a high school misfit who is obsessed with comic books. He innocently but seriously asks his buddies why no one has ever thought to don a costume to fight crime for real. They laugh at him, but he decides to really do it, only to get badly injured in the process. Undeterred, he puts on his modified scuba suit again once he's recuperated. This time, someone captures his antics with a camera phone and pops it onto YouTube, where Dave, under the superhero moniker Kick-Ass, becomes a viral sensation. Soon, his website is getting flooded with requests for help.
It turns out that Dave is not the only one in NYC playing costumed crimefighter. A disgraced cop named Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) puts on a Batman-esque costume and calls himself Big Daddy. He's trained his 11 year-old daughter Mindy (Chloe Moretz) - a.k.a. Hit Girl - to fight, use weapons, and even take a bullet. Together, they are going after a Mafioso named Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), who was directly responsible for Damon's downfall and indirectly responsible for the death of Damon's wife. Dave falls in with Big Daddy and Hit Girl after he accidentally crosses paths with D'Amico. Meanwhile, the mobster's comic book-obsessed son Chris (Superbad's Christopher Mintz-Plasse) wants to prove his mettle to his father, and volunteers to create his own secret identity, Red Mist, to help protect the family business.
Kick-Ass has been directed with great style and energy by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust). Adapting the comic book by Mark Millar and John S. Romita, he nicely creates what is clearly a fantasy world, albeit one rooted in some sense of reality. The action scenes work because they are filmed imaginatively (one takes place in slow motion amid strobe lights) and with a clear sense of what's going on. Sometimes I think filmmakers get all crazy editing action sequences, to the point where the cuts come so fast that you lose your ability to follow things (i.e. Michael Bay syndrome). That doesn't happen here. Vaughn also makes sure that the characters are never swallowed up by the mayhem. At its heart, this is a story about people who are trying to find themselves by creating alter egos. There's humor in the way dorky Dave finds his confidence when masquerading as Kick-Ass, and pathos in the way Damon and Mindy try to deal with the loss of a loved one by attempting to bring down the guilty party.
All the actors are terrific. Aaron Johnson perfectly captures the kind of adolescent fantasizing that outcasts often have. We feel his desire to be cooler, tougher, more suave with the girls. Christopher Mintz-Plasse moves beyond his famed McLovin character to show us a kid who wants to earn his father's love, even if his father is a piece of filth. Nicolas Cage brings a little of his thespian madness to the role of Damon, yet never overdoes it. You have to believe this guy is a bit crazy to turn his daughter into a crimefighter, yet not so crazy as to make him unlikable. Cage pulls it off. Then there's Chloe Moretz ((500) Days of Summer) who is a revelation as Hit Girl. Tough, sassy, and credible in her superhero costume, she indicates the ability to join Abigail Breslin and Dakota Fanning in the league of preternaturally talented young actors.
Of course, it's Hit Girl who will draw the majority of ire directed toward the movie. Here's an 11 year-old girl who, in her first appearance as a superhero on-screen, takes out a room full of villainous henchmen by using guns and other assorted weapons. It's a bit disconcerting to see such a young girl take a scythe and chop off a man's leg at the knee, smiling all the while. Throughout Kick-Ass, Hit Girl swears and carries out acts of ruthless retribution against D'Amico's goons.
Kick-Ass and Red Mist are slightly older, but also technically underage. Much of the violence here (and make no mistake - there's a lot) is perpetuated by children and adolescents. I can't speak for the comic book, which I've not yet read, but I believe the film is using that provocative idea to say something. Kids and teens read comic books. They fantasize about being superheroes. I sure did. At the same time, they don't always understand the reality of violence: its causes, its frightening brutality, its aftereffects. And yet violence is all around us. Turn on the news any day of the week and you can hear a story that will make your hair stand on end. Kick-Ass, at some level, is about young people gaining mastery over violence, learning to understand and cope with it, not as a fantasy in a comic book but as an inescapable truth in our world. In the end, these heroes aren't so much contributing to violence as using violence to stop even worse violence. Hit Girl does not like killing people per se; she just likes stopping bad people from hurting innocent ones.
Vaughn plays up the innocents-in-peril angle in many situations. For example, he generates a queasy sense of menace as Dave, dressed as Kick-Ass, walks for the first time into what we know is a very dangerous situation. I felt nervous for the kid. Kick-Ass is filled with excitement not just because there's a lot of well-staged action, but also because it injects just enough realism into its fantasy world. Dave and the others won't necessarily walk away unscathed simply because they are dressed as superheroes.
Kick-Ass isn't going to be for everyone, but viewers who like superheroes and edgy stories will love it. The movie has a high cool quotient for sure, but it also has some substance underneath it all. I'm sure I won't be the only one to make this obvious reference, but Kick-Ass is a very appropriately titled movie.
( 1/2 out of four)
Kick-Ass is rated R for strong, brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and drug use — occasionally involving children. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.
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