With all the big-budget comic book adaptations being produced for hundreds of millions of dollars within the PG-13 threshold, it's refreshing when one comes along that takes the old superhero formula, kicks it in the nuts and laughs maniacally while doing it. Such is Kick-Ass.
While clearly lower budget than Spider-Man 3 or The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass contains many of the same elements that make those films popular, namely teenage protagonists, fascist tough guy vigilantes, and ruthless mob bosses. But it's what the film does with these elements that make the difference.
Like real life, things aren't so black and white, and being a hero isn't as easy as it looks on the printed page. Matthew Vaughn makes no bones about the likelihood that a masked vigilante would be successful, especially a teenage one. Early on in Kick-Ass, our protagonist goes up against two petty thugs for his first assignment as the titular masked vigilante, and promptly gets his ass kicked. Not only that, but he ends up in the hospital for damn near six months.
Sure, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) doesn't have super strength or web shooters, but he's definitely got Peter Parker's attitude. However, as the movie is quick to point out, the attitude isn't everything, and it's certainly not enough to keep you from getting killed, thus answering a question young Dave asks at the beginning of the movie: Why don't people dress up like superheroes and fight crime?
Well, in the real world, we don't. But in the world of Kick-Ass, which clearly exists somewhere between here and Metropolis, a few people do. Cue Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. While Kick-Ass is making his big debut via youtube for saving some street punk from a gang beating, Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) is teaching his daughter Mindy (Chloe Moretz) how to take a bullet and make sushi out of henchmen. It's all hilariously perverse, and Cage is at his best when paying homage to Adam West.
Big Daddy and Hit-Girl have been ripping off NYC mob boss Frank D'Amico, who has been weeding through his organization to find out who's been screwing him over, only to eventually discover too late that a vigilante "dressed like Batman" has been behind it. I won't go into why Damon Macready has been stealing drugs and money from the D'Amico mob, but let's just say he's got a good reason. It must be noted that Frank has a son named Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who convinces his father to let him spend a ridiculous amount of money to become Red Mist in order to grab the attention of Kick-Ass.
Sound complicated? It kind of is, but it all makes sense when unfolded the way the movie chose to show it, and it's actually a lot of fun to watch. Between the ultra-violent blade swinging of Hit-Girl, to the well-natured bumblings of Kick-Ass, all set to the irreverent beat of punk rock, Matthew Vaughn has created a iconoclastic superhero movie for our modern, jaded culture.
Playing like a dark parody of Spider-Man, Kick-Ass uses similar settings and bright color schemes reminiscent of the Sam Raimi films. New York's streets are appropriately drawn with splashes of color and shots are composed with a flair of linearity; you can see these frames on the pages of the comic book. Even Kick-Ass' green and yellow jumpsuit is placed somewhere in hyper-reality, sandwiched between the world we know and the land of ink and color. Big Daddy's hilariously Batman-like outfit must have been a savory prospect for Cage, who has long been vocal about wanting to play a superhero on film. For Damon Macready, Cage is the perfect fit.
The same goes for the rest of the cast. Clark Duke makes an amusing appearance as one of Dave Lizewski's sex-starved teen friends, while Mark Strong exhibits the calm lethality of mob boss Frank D'Amico without ever becoming ham-fisted or venturing into direct parody. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is fine as Red Mist, but is admittedly less amusing than his previous turn as Fogel in Superbad, then again, this isn't Superbad. And special honors go to Chloe Moretz, for her adept, and frankly precocious, handling of foul language, martial arts, firearms and disembowelment, all while turning in a surprisingly believable performance as the world's most, ahem, kick-ass 11 year-old.
This kind of movie isn't without its drawbacks, however, and it's easy to see a large portion of viewers in line for vapid characterization and simple characters with simple motivations rejecting the complexities and moral ambiguities Kick-Ass presents. Coming from that point of view, the film's satiric presentation of hero psychology and societal hang-ups could be rather grating. But, at least Kick-Ass isn't lying to us about the realities of vigilante justice; there's a trade-off. You're either a lonely psychotic killer, or you're a flash in the pan, overpowered by those willing to kill if you're not.
As Dave Lizewski is so adept at pointing out, "With no power comes no responsibility... except that's not true."