Directed by Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake”), this action-comedy has plenty of style, but the substance of this comic book-derived film is a little more questionable. Taking its cue from other hyper-violent movies such as “Kill Bill” and “Wanted,” “Kick-Ass” may rely too much on pastiche and juvenile humor, but it’s also an undeniably energetic piece of genre filmmaking.
Nerdy teen misfit Dave (Aaron Johnson) loves comic books, which help him forget his daily miseries. His mother died over a year ago, his beautiful classmate Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) won’t give him the time of day, and he’s terrorized by bullies–everything around him makes him unhappy. Inspired by his secret desire to be a superhero, he decides to change his life by ordering a scuba suit online to use as a costume for his crime-fighting alter ego, Kick-Ass.
Unfortunately, Dave soon discovers that going around New York in a goofy green outfit trying to stop bad guys is a great way to get beaten up by thugs.
Dave starts to get discouraged, but when a bystander videotapes him as Kick-Ass and puts the clip on YouTube, he becomes a web sensation. His raised profile brings him to the attention of two legitimate costumed heroes: the father-daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Equipped with weapons and athleticism, Big Daddy and Hit Girl expose Dave’s serious shortcomings as a superhero, but when a crime kingpin named Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) incorrectly believes that Kick-Ass is responsible for the death of several of his henchmen, these masked crusaders must work together to defeat him.
Based on a comic by Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr., “Kick-Ass” looks to capitalize on the popularity of graphic-novel adaptations, even referencing “Sin City” and “Watchmen” during the film. Unlike other superhero films, though, “Kick-Ass” is told from the perspective of a geeky everyman who lacks the cool gadgets of a Batman or the freakish powers of a Spider-Man. Likewise, the film’s sarcastic sense of humor repeatedly acknowledges how pathetic Dave’s comic-book fantasies are, subverting the traditional action-hero story beats with painful doses of reality. (For instance, rather than winning the pretty girl through his derring-do, Dave befriends her after she mistakenly thinks he’s gay.)
As would be expected, much of the fun in “Kick-Ass” comes from the juxtaposition of Dave’s heroic aspirations and his physical limitations. Johnson is very likable as the hapless, well-meaning Dave/Kick-Ass, but the film can sometimes devolve from a wry, sympathetic portrait of geek culture into a mean-spirited, almost misogynistic comedy.
The screenplay by Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman relishes its foulmouthed banter and insult humor, but its less-than-charitable depiction of its female characters can start to feel as unenlightened as the attitudes of Dave’s immature single friends. For example, Katie is a sweet but not particularly bright or interesting love interest, while the preteen Hit Girl is mostly a one-joke creation: She’s a cute little girl who mostly swears and kills adults three times her size with cruel precision. Rather than casting a critical light on the juvenile, male-centric world of its protagonist, “Kick-Ass” seems to be catering to its basest tendencies.
The action sequences in “Kick-Ass” are superbly rendered, and like other recent films such as “Shoot ‘Em Up” and “Kill Bill,” the knowingly gratuitous violence is meant to inspire laughter more than disgust. Vaughn is clearly having a ball amplifying the bloodshed and increasing the body count, but because the characters aren’t well drawn, there’s a limit to the enjoyment one can have in his heavily orchestrated sequences. Consequently, these occasionally bravura set pieces are mostly masterful exercises in purely visceral action filmmaking, particularly in a giddily overblown finale.
The performances tend toward the self-consciously hard-boiled or sardonic, but Cage is quite good in what is, essentially, two different roles. As Damon Macready, Cage is a mild-mannered former cop sporting a Ned Flanders-style moustache and comparably wimpy demeanor. But underneath that meek exterior is a man who’s sworn to take revenge on Frank D’Amico because of a terrible secret from the past. That more fearsome personality presents itself in Damon’s Big Daddy alter ego, who looks a lot like Batman, right down to Damon’s heavily affected “hero voice” that he uses when he’s dressed as Big Daddy. These two different personas allow Cage to play a very funny but also oddly touching character who, like Dave, has remade himself as a costumed superhero to compensate for the pain of his regular life.
From a technical standpoint, the film is quite impressive. Aided immensely by Russell De Rozario’s comics-inspired production design and Ben Davis’s slick cinematography, Vaughn creates a series of bright, shiny sequences that suggest a higher budget than this independently-produced film actually had. One can object to some of the sophomoric humor and dull characterizations on display in “Kick-Ass,” but its visual panache remains a highlight throughout.
Aaron Johnson (Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass)
Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Chris D’Amico/Red Mist)
Mark Strong (Frank D’Amico)
Chloe Grace Moretz (Mindy Macready/Hit Girl)
Omari Hardwick (Sergeant Marcus Williams)
Xander Berkeley (Detective Gigante)
Michael Rispoli (Big Joe)
Clark Duke (Marty)
Lyndsy Fonseca (Katie Deauxma)
Evan Peters (Todd)
Corey Johnson (Sporty Goon)
Dexter Fletcher (Cody)
Jason Flemyng (Lobby Goon)
Randall Batinkoff (Tre Fernandez)
Nicolas Cage (Damon Macready/Big Daddy)
Lionsgate and MARV present a MARV Films/Plan B production.
Producers: Adam Bohling, Tarquin Pack, David Reid
Executive Producers: Pierre Lagrange, Stephen Marks, Mark Millar, John S. Romita Jr., Jeremy Kleiner
Co-producer: Jane Goldman
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn (based on the comic book written by Mark Millar & John S. Romita Jr.)
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editors: Jon Harris, Pietro Scalia, Eddie Hamilton
Music: John Murphy, Henry Jackman, Marius de Vries, Ilan Eshkeri
Production designer: Russell De Rozario
Running time: 113 minutes