Kick-Ass flaunts ultra-graphic violence (often committed by an 11-year-old); swearing (again, the kid); dark, bloody Tarantino-lite humor; and fascist adolescent power fantasies. Most upsettingly, it renders all that bad stuff so much fun. Of course I loved every four-color, exploitive 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 (or for many adults). As it clearly demonstrates in the first five minutes, it’s a very hard R for extreme violence, filthy language, and dirty thoughts. And it just gets worse from there. Do not let your children watch Kick-Ass no matter how much they beg to see it, or because they’ve seen other superhero movies. 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 comic-book geek eventually ponders: 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 (Layer Cake, Stardust). He 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 maestro of cynical comic-book mayhem—his sharp, subversive (if intellectually shallow) work is a potent mix with Vaughn’s hyper-kinetic, over-the-top verve and (much darker) John-Hughes teen-angst humor. (As Dave’s pals, Clark Duke and Evan Peters bring the Smart-Ass.)
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.
Exploitation, Empowerment, or Just Entertainment?
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, exhilarating part of the film. And that is, understandably, raising questions about how far is too far. (That she’s been conditioned by her own father to enjoy killing bad guys may be disturbing, but ask yourself if you’d feel as uneasy if it were an 11-year-old boy going all ginsu.)
Kick-Ass 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.
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. As soon as I stop grinning.