Kick-Ass has upset folks with its ultra-graphic violence (often committed by an 11-year-old); swearing (again, the kid); dark, bloody Tarantino-lite humor; fascist adolescent power fantasies, and most of all because it renders all this so much fun. Of course I loved every four-color minute of it.
First a warning. This is a brightly colored, fast-paced film about teen and tween crime fighters. But it is NOT for teens or tweens. It is a very hard R for extreme violence and language—do not take your children to Kick-Ass no matter how much they beg to see it because of the flashy, shiny commercials. Or because they’ve seen other superhero movies. Or because you want to see it but can’t find a babysitter. Okay, end of public-service announcement.
Kick-Ass is the tale of New York teen Dave Lizewski (young Brit actor Aaron Johnson), the typical Stan Lee loser who one day, between inappropriate thoughts about his English teacher, being ignored by the pretty girl at school, and getting mugged by the local toughs, asks himself the question every teenage comic-book geek ponders at one time or another: Why hasn’t anyone ever tried to be a for-real superhero? Why not me?
But rather than tying a bath towel around his neck and jumping off the roof like so many of us once did, Dave orders a garish scuba suit and ninja batons and takes to the streets to fight crime. And promptly gets stomped, stabbed, and run over. But as any parent knows, teenagers don’t learn quickly—he’s soon back in costume with slightly better results, and all over the Interwebs as “Kick-Ass.”
Dave isn’t the only one using a costume to work out some issues. However, the father-daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) have more training and fire-power under their capes—and bigger crime fish to fry than street thugs. They’re after mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong with yet another well-played arch villain) who’s teenage son has his own superhero fantasies. (Christopher Mintz-Plasse nicely twists his own McLovin nerd aggression into something a little more messed up.)
Unlike the naïve Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit Girl are more than willing to kill the bad guys who get in their way. And kill them. And kill them again. If their outrageous first scene—Dad shoots daughter in the chest to teach her to take a bullet in the vest—deeply upsets you instead of making you laugh-cringe at its shocking ridiculousness, then bail out early. Kick-Ass isn’t going to get any better for you.
Kick-Ass is directed with relentless-but-sure-footed energy by British film maker Matthew Vaughn, who produced Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch and went on to direct Layer Cake (Daniel Craig’s breakout gangster role) and the charming Neil Gaiman fantasy Stardust. Vaughn and his co-writer, Goth personality Jane Goldman, began working on the film version of Kick-Ass while Scottish comic-book writer Mark Millar and American artist John Romita, Jr. were still creating and shaping the original graphic novel. Millar is a top-shelf maestro of cynical comic-book mayhem with a bargain-bin brain—he knows just enough about subversion and satire to give his work a sharp double edge, but despite provocative premises, it dazzles without demanding much thought. However Millar’s work is a potent mix with Vaughn’s hyper-kinetic, over-the-top verve and humor.
Meanwhile, Nic Cage is doing his thing, goofing it up with a Village-People ‘stache and a hilarious Adam West impersonation. (Cage’s portrayal of loving father comes off more than a little like Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones.) But the film wouldn’t work if young Dave didn’t hold the center for us—Johnson gives the wannabe a solid-dork charisma that’s surprisingly engaging.
Tied with Johnson for Kick-Ass’s top casting find is Chloë Grace Moretz. She aggressively navigates Hit Girl through the excess, creating a pint-sized, ass-kicking heroine and pop-culture icon for the ages while—and this is key to the performance and the film—reminding us there’s still an 11-year-old girl underneath the mask and the mayhem.
Hit Girl was created to provoke, to push buttons and boundaries, to subvert both the image of the cute little school girl and of the very idea of superheroes taking kid sidekicks into battle. The problem isn’t so much that an 11-year-old girl is slicing and dicing foes like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill—the problem is it’s so dang much fun watching her do it. Hit Girl is Kick-Ass’s secret weapon and easily the most entertaining, exhilirating part of the film. And that is, understandably, raising questions about how far is too far.
In order to sit back and enjoy this sort of violent spectacle involving small children, we want to justify it with some sort of cinematic and intellectual rationalization. But Kick-Ass doesn’t bear up under a thematic magnifying glass. It professes to show the “real-world” results of playing superhero dress up, but it’s all highly stylized carny thrills. It pretends to satirize comic book escapism, but serves up a giant platter of candy-colored, blood-soaked fantasy that plays best with viewers who once lost themselves in such daydreams. It’s like taking your kid to a strip club to teach him not to objectify women. Or to Wonkaland to learn about the dangers of diabetes. So I’m left having to admit that it is goldarned funny/cool to watch an 11-year-old kid with attitude to spare swear and hack up people with a sword.
I like action films, but over the years I’ve had less use for action scenes—for example, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Sherlock Holmes all work for me because of the actors and their characters, not their stunts. I may marvel at the special effects or nod approvingly at wild set-ups, but I rarely feel plugged into the action anymore. I felt plugged into Kick-Ass’s action. Plugged in, swept up, carried along, and spit out the other end howling with glee, not giving a damn ‘bout my bad reputation, and singing glory, glory hallelujah.
Is that a bad thing? Has Kick-Ass has gone too far? Is Hit Girl is a symbol of empowerment or exploitation? Those are valid questions I’ll be happy to discuss. Just as soon as I stop grinning.