Kick-Ass unspools like a mad fusion between Mystery Men, The Dark Knight and Kill Bill. About the only thing the script gets wrong is when our eponymous teenage protagonist Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) plaintively asks ""How come nobody's ever tried to be a superhero?" Actually there are already quite a few of them, but I'm perfectly willing to overlook this little gaffe and let the script deliver its boundless epiphanies.
Sick of witnessing the apathy of everyone around him, Dave seeks to emulate his beloved comic book heroes. He orders a wetsuit online, arms himself with a couple of batons and then ventures out to fight crime. Unfortunately within minutes he gets beat-up, stabbed and then run over by a car. This is exactly what the film is keen to explore: exactly what would the average, everyday jobber have to deal with if they were nutty enough to don a costume and became a vigilante? In Dave's case he ends up with a metal-laced skeleton and considerable nerve-damage, both of which become ersatz super-powers.
After Kick-Ass explodes into an internet phenomenon it inspires some like-minded folks to "come out of the phone booth" as it were. We're soon introduced to the father/daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz). Unlike Dave, who's just moonlighting in the superhero biz, Big Daddy and Hit Girl are professionals, actively campaigning to take down the film's primary villain by any means necessary.
Speak of the devil, the film-makers pull no punches when it comes to the stone-cold, morally-bankrupt criminals that our wannabe, spandex-clad heroes are forced to contend with. Enter mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) who makes the Zodiac Killer look like The Riddler. Frank is one part Tony Zucco, one part Tony Soprano and one part Joe Pesci on a cocaine bender.
Frank targets the high-profile Kick-Ass for gumming up his operation even though it's actually Big Daddy and Hit Girl who are secretly making all of the big moves against him. Frank even gets his own milquetoast son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to pose as a manufactured super-villain named Red Mist in order to corral and purge the emerging "superhero threat". When our heroes finally unite in an effort to take down the big boss things really kick into high gear.
Upon its release, Kick-Ass garnered some pretty polarizing reviews (Roger Ebert described it as "morally reprehensible") but I found the film to be exhilarating, daring and fresh. The concept of super heroes grounded in reality is nothing new; veteran comic book scribes Frank Miller and Alan Moore have been elevating the super-hero genre to high art for years. Kick-Ass gets a lot of little things right, including what it takes to transition an anonymous masked schmoe into an unkillable fantasy martyr. By the time Kick-Ass and Hit Girl assault D'Amico's inner sanctum you can almost pinpoint the precise moment in which these characters go from kids in costumes to bona-fide pop-culture icons.
Having worn the Producer's hat for Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Writer/Director Matthew Vaughn is no stranger to hard-boiled crime drama and stylish action. Along with screenwriting partner Jane Goldman, Vaughn expertly strip-mines plenty of interesting twists and angles out of this story. We're even treated to some lighthearted and diverting moments, such as Dave's attempt to make time with his life-long dream babe Katie by posing as a non-threatening gay friend.
Amongst a plethora of fine performances, Nicolas Cage is a clear standout. This is definitely one of his best recent projects and his on-screen relationship with Hit Girl is both unconventional and remarkably sweet. I just love how he's all Ward Cleaver when not in costume and then sounds like Adam West after dressing up as Big Daddy. Aaron Johnson is also fantastic, giving us shades of Tobey McGuire's Peter Parker and plenty of sharp line readings. The scene featuring a ludicrously-attired Kick-Ass and Red Mist bopping along to "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley while driving in the "Mist Mobile" is pure gold.
And, of course, Chloe Moretz effortlessly absconds with every scene she's in as Hit Girl. Although Roger Ebert seems to be convinced that the character's casual use of violence (not to mention the Sharp-"C") should be interpreted as a symptom of moral decay, I see Hit Girl as a tremendously empowering figure. She's so well-trained, so street-smart and so psychologically grounded that no bully or pervert could ever be capable of harming her.
Yes, the violence is intense and graphic but anything else would have hobbled the film's mission statement. Clearly Matthew Vaughn and company wanted to explore what would happen if those fanciful, four-color fights from the comics were grafted onto our own harsh reality. The film is a hard "R" for a reason and I strongly suggest that pre-teen kids wait a few more years before watching Hit Girl in action.
When they reach a more appropriate age (say, twenty-four for example), their inner child will still be intact and they'll be better equipped to process the film's often-hideous but thematically-appropriate levels of violence. Until then, responsible parents should take this opportunity to introduce their kids to traditional comic books.
To paraphrase one of the characters from the movie: "You owe that kid a childhood."