Not to get all Peter Travers up in here, but, if you’re in any way a member of the fanboy/fangirl nation, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass is, pure and simple, kick-ass. Much as Jon Favreau’s Iron Man launched the summer of 2008 with a sleek, rousing, highly-enjoyable crowd-pleaser of a comic book film, I’m happy to report that Vaughn delivers exactly what its very quality trailer (not to mention Layer Cake and, occasionally, Stardust) promised — two quality hours of thrills, spills, and vaguely disreputable four-color mayhem.
This is not only a much more entertaining adaptation of Mark Millar’s work than Timur Bekmanbetov’s badly flawed Wanted. It’s also, in some ways and like Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, more Watchmen-y than Watchmen — a sardonic, pleasingly daft evisceration of common comic book tropes. And with a light touch, an impressive funnybook aesthetic, and great comic presence throughout, Kick-Ass is an audience movie if there ever was one, and just an all-around fun night out at the multiplex.
If you’re unfamiliar with the comic (as I was — I just knew the conceit), Kick-Ass basically centers on one question: Given that there are millions of comic book fans out there, and more than a few of them are, put charitably, maybe a little socially maladjusted, how come nobody in our world ever dresses up in a costume to fight crime? That’s the banner idea that occurs one day to thoroughly average high-school kid Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, looking like a lankier Frodo.) And one scuba outfit purchase from Amazon and a few weeks of training (re: fantasizing) later, Dave — now known as Kick-Ass — embarks on his Hero Quest…which, well, doesn’t turn out so hot. (Minor spoiler: He quickly gets shivved, hit by a car, and left for dead.)
The silver lining of this godawful ass-kicking: Dave suffers so much nerve damage from his beatdown that he’s backed his way into a super-power — a higher-than-average pain tolerance. And so he sets out once more to fulfill his destiny, maybe impress a girl here or there also. But, while Kick-Ass is basically freelancing his way into a super-hero career, other folks take the mask-and-cowl more seriously — namely the better-trained, better-armed, and better-motivated father-daughter duo of Damon and Mindy MacCready, otherwise known as Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz). Out for revenge against a drug operation run by kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), Big Daddy and Hit-Girl tend to leave a swath of blood and entrails in their wake. This makes D’Amico livid, of course, and so he starts gunning for any and all costumed vigilantes he can find, starting with that goofy kid on Youtube in the green scuba suit…
Admittedly, Kick-Ass is ultra-violent, although always in a hyperstylized comic book sense. (At worst, we’re in Kill Bill territory here.) Like Sin City, the moral economy of Kick-Ass may be somewhat suspect, although it’s nowhere near as craven or reprehensible as some pearl-clutching critics, like, weirdly, Roger Ebert, suggest. (Basically, Ebert is mortified by Hit-Girl. I presume he’s never heard of Robin, Bucky, Kitty Pryde, Jason Todd, or any other number of endangered child sidekicks in comics. That train left the station fifty years ago.) And, yes, it’s occasionally sophomoric — if I remember correctly, we have two masturbation jokes before the credits are even finished rolling. All that being said, Kick-Ass is also breezy, propulsive, and very entertaining, and its pros definitely outweigh its cons.
There are a lot of little things about the movie that work, from Clark Duke’s sidekick banter (he’s much more engaging here than in Hot Tub Time Machine) to Mark Strong (late of Sherlock Holmes, soon of Robin Hood) continuing to grow into an A-list presence. Or seeing a post-Bad Lieutenant Nick Cage offer up a wicked Adam West impression. Or Kick-Ass and Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, nee McLovin) getting their freak on to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” (One minor quibble: From “Crazy” to “Bad Reputation” to even the 28 Weeks Later score, the soundtrack is weirdly rote in its choices, and feels almost temp-track-y.)
But, let’s get real — In the end, this is Hit Girl’s movie, and Chloe Moretz just about runs away with the durned show. As in (500) Days of Summer, Moretz is basically playing another preternaturally adult kid sister, except this time she’s also a certifiable badass with a potty mouth and a way with butterfly knives. (As it turns out, she’ll be doing the Old-Soul routine again this Christmas in Matt Reeves’ American remake of Let the Right One In.) Still, the movie wouldn’t work at all if she wasn’t great, and this is a star-making performance. Get used to the purple wig, y’all, ’cause Hit-Girl, I suspect, is going to be a staple of both Halloween and cosplay types for many years to come. And it’s Moretz’s impish grin and impeccable comic timing that, more than anything else, makes the idea of a Kick-Ass 2 worth entertaining.