Director Matthew Vaughn has demonstrated with his previous two films (Stardust and Layer Cake) that he enjoys both epic adventure and dark subject matter. It’s probably why he was attracted to a film like Kick-Ass – a demented re-imagining of the classic super hero origin story (think Spider-Man meets The Untouchables) based on the equally demented comic book series by Mark Millar (Wanted) and John Romita Jr.
In Kick-Ass, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is an average high school kid stranded somewhere in the invisible middle of the jock/geek hierarchy. There’s truly nothing remarkable about Dave except the scope of his young imagination, which he usually dedicates to his ‘self-satisfaction’ fantasies or the many comic books he reads.
There is one thing Dave has always wondered, though: Why don’t more people attempt to become real-life superheroes? Lord knows New York City could use more of them, if only to loosen the vice-like grip of crime bosses like the ruthless Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), whose reign of terror makes even the most righteous citizen turn a blind eye to injustice. How can good prevail over evil when the average person is too scared to fight for what’s right?
Well, after being mugged one too many times by the same two crooks who prowl the alley behind his local comic shop, Dave Lizewski decides he is going to do what others are unwilling to: Don an elaborate costume and fight crime under the moniker of (you guessed it) “Kick-Ass.” Dave’s first outing as his flamboyantly dressed alter-ego doesn’t go so well; real-life heroism, he learns, is rarely a successful enterprise. But a few stitches later, Dave actually manages a small act of heroism (caught on cell phone video, of course) and Kick-Ass is suddenly catapulted to the status of Internet phenomenon.
Once he officially breaks into the super hero business, Dave thinks he has finally earned the respect he’s desired – although he would trade it all for a chance with his high school crush, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca). In order to impress the girl, “Kick-Ass” ventures into a seedy neighborhood to ‘thwart some villains’ who have been bothering Katie and there he meets two “real” vigilantes, Big Daddy (Nic Cage) and his deadly little sidekick, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz). Daddy and Hit Girl have a personal vendetta against Frank D’Amico – one that can only be settled with lots blood and lots of dismembered bodies. But Frank D’Amico is not a guy who lays down easily – certainly not for some clowns in Halloween costumes.
Dave Lizewski quickly learns that real life is no comic book fantasy, and that he has stumbled into the middle of a war he is not prepared to fight.
Kick-Ass is pretty much the holy grail of comic book movies for adults. If you’re not familiar with Mark Millar’s work on Kick-Ass and Wanted, it’s pretty obvious that he was one of those young comic book geeks who would always nudge his friends and ask, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…?” Kick-Ass the comic book was filled with sick riffs on Spider-Man and Batman mythology, and director Matthew Vaughn – along with his Stardust co-writer Jane Goldman – certainly got the joke.
What if nerdy Peter Parker had tried to make a difference without that radioactive spider bite? What if a borderline sociopath like Batman really did have a child sidekick? These are all fair questions to ask of comic book lore, and they’re questions that Kick-Ass attempts to answer – often to shockingly hilarious results.
To his credit, Matthew Vaughn manages to draw an almost perfect line between where “the real world” ends and comic book fantasy begins – and that is truly a tough feat to pull off in a film like Kick-Ass, which wants to purport itself as “reality.” In a similar fashion, the tone of the film is well-balanced between demented hilarity and poignant sincerity, with the former never coming off as foolish, and the latter never really coming off as cheesy or misplaced. Vaughn clearly “got” the source material and knew how to translate it to the screen intact. It was a big risk (no studio would finance this film, so Vaughn pulled together the funds himself) but one that was well worth it, in my opinion.
For adult comic book movie fans, I don’t think I have to sell you on this film – if you’re looking for confirmation that it lives up to the hype, it does. Kick-Ass is funny, twisted, thrilling, highly enjoyable and even manages a few moments when it feels moving and insightful. It also looks great, and the action sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in a “realistic” comic book movie. Streets fights look savagely accurate, while martial arts sequences and shootouts are slickly polished and well choreographed. One criticism: Some of the later action sequences really do get quite over-the-top (hence the missing half-star), but by that point in the film, most people will be having too much fun to care.
If you consider yourself more of an average moviegoer with moderate tastes, then you need to really decide up front if you can handle a film that has very explicit violence (some of it inflicted upon teens and children); moments of comic book absurdity; unabashed teenage raunch; and a homicidal little girl who curses streaks bluer than most sailors’ uniforms. I will tell you that if you sat through Watchmen, but found that film to be very slow and boring, Kick-Ass basically tackles the same subject matter (the “reality” of being a super hero) only in a much more fun, fast-paced, tongue-and-cheek fashion.
It helps that the actors on screen seem to being having fun as well. Aaron Johnson gives a strong breakout performance as Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass. The story calls for him to tap into both the comedic and dramatic wells of acting, and not only does Johnson pull it off, he makes it interesting to watch. As a leading man he gets very high marks (I say he’s a great candidate for that upcoming Spider-Man reboot over at Sony).
Nic Cage gives one of his better performances as Big Daddy, doing a hilarious riff on Adam West’s campy 1960s version of Batman. Christopher Mintz-Plasse adds yet another great geek character to his resume playing Red Mist, a cocky young crime fighter who has questionable motives. Mintz-Plasse has definitely proven that he is more than just “McLovin” and continues to hold his own onscreen, despite his impressive co-stars.
And while it might seem strange that a classically-trained stage actor like Mark Strong would do well playing a one-note depraved psychopath, he still manages to make Frank D’Amico a villain who is almost as enjoyable (if not more so) than the heroes he’s battling.
However, there is no debate that young Chloe Moretz is the belle of this ball. A lot of people will be up in arms about her performance as the foul-mouthed vigilante Hit Girl (one scene of foul language in particular seems to be riling people up), but Moretz never once comes off as some exploited child actor. Quite the opposite.
Like Johnson, Moretz is in strict command of her performance the whole way through; she’s movingly dramatic at times, scathingly witty at other times, cutesy, badass – you name it. I didn’t come away from this movie worrying about the young actress’ mental welfare – I just had three words burned into my brain: Breakout movie star.
Kick-Ass is easily the most enjoyable tentpole movie I’ve seen this year, and ranks well within my top 5 comic book movies of all time. Fans of the genre should be jumping up and down in anticipation; for the average moviegoer, there’s is a lot to enjoy if you don’t mind some slightly twisted R-rated subject matter. Just remember: These aren’t your child’s comic book super heroes… Leave the kids at home for this one.
You have been officially warned.