Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong
Running Time: 114 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
The superhero, comic book satire Kick-Ass fully succeeds at what it's trying to accomplish just as long as you don't think too hard at what that is. But I didn't care. It's a glorious mess of a movie that's tonally all over the map, playing as both a laugh out loud comedy and a hard R-rated testosterone-fueled action vehicle, making it easy to see why it didn't connect with a mass audience. But it's also easy to see how those very same qualities help make it it work so well as I'm not sure this was intended for large-scale commercial consumption to begin with. During the first hour I was a little confused at the angle from which writer/director Matthew Vaughn was approaching the material and he does jam too much story in, but that's eventually cleared up as it comes together in thrilling ways.
Top to bottom to the casting and performances are rock solid right down to even the smallest, throwaway roles but there's only one that's downright astonishing, and it's all anyone will be talking about. Lost amidst all the controversy surrounding Hit Girl is the hard work it must have taken on the part of this young actress to give us 2010's most polarizing and memorable screen character. The only thing that would have held this adaptation of Mark Millar's 2008 comic book back would be pulling punches. Thankfully, Vaughn refuses to compromise and the result is a movie that will piss off some but entertain many more who can appreciate its dark humor.
The idea that superheroes can just be ordinary people wanting to help but also struggling with their own personal issues has been explored in films like Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Batman movies. Geeky teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) has probably seen all of those multiple times and read the comics and now he's asking himself why no one has ever decided to become a real-life superhero. Barely existing at school and having absolutely no chance with his longtime crush, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), he orders a silly superhero costume from the internet and hits the streets, taking the law into his own hands. Unfortunately, he gets his ass kicked. A lot. When he becomes a worldwide You-Tube sensation after trying to save a victim from a gang attack, he adopts the masked identity of "Kick-Ass" and attracts the unwanted attention of mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) who sees him as major threat to his organization. But in the process he gains the appreciation and services of Damon and Mindy MacCready (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz), father and daughter gun experts who when in costume transform into the crime fighting duo known as "Big Daddy" and "Hit Girl." Big Daddy harbors a personal grudge against D'Amico and isn't above using his vigilante daughter or Kick-Ass as a means of settling it. A fourth superhero, the goofy Red Mist (Superbad's Christopher Mintz-Plasse) enters the picture as a potential sidekick with sneaky ulterior motives.
At first, it appears the primary focus of the film is supposed to be the evolution of this geek into the crime-fighting Kick-Ass, but Vaughn tries to cram a million different things in the first hour with the other two sub-plots before joining them so it seems to take a little bit to get there. Because of this the pacing initially seems sluggis as Vaughn lingers on the detailed origin story while cutting back and forth between the mob stuff and the father/daughter relationship (easily the most compelling story thread of the three). But it's impossible to complain since it all works and so much more is done right. The journey Dave takes isn't much different than Peter Parker's in the Spider-Man movies, only replacing the power and responsibility with bad luck. He's just a kid getting beat up every night in a silly costume who lands on the internet. This opens up an interesting commentary on how people are more than willing to watch and be entertained by real violence than make any any attempt to stop it themselves. That fact that's he's essentially just playing dress-up not only makes the film funnier, but adds suspense because he's always in legitimate danger.
But enough about him. The real reason to see the movie is Hit Girl played by Chloe Grace Moretz, who up until now was best known for playing the bluntly honest, wise-cracking little sister in (500) Days of Summer. This is that part with the volume amped up times two hundred. Nothing can fully prepare you for what she does here as a masked assassin every bit as dangerous and no less believable than Christian Bale in The Dark Knight or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. It's hilarious, but also invites the question of whether the sight of an 11-year-old foul-mouthed murderer is disturbing even within the confines of satire. Yes it is, but it's supposed to make you uncomfortable and the fact that her father is not only raising a vigilante killer but destroying her childhood to settle a grudge and likely causing her irreversible psychological harm isn't ignored. Despite delivering her shocking dialogue (and beatings) with the poise and confidence of actors double her age as Hit Girl, it's that detail Moretz never ignores in her performance as Mindy.
You can just picture Quentin Tarantino sitting on his couch furiously sketching ideas for Kill Bill Vol. 3 with The Bride vs. Hit Girl, whose fight scenes are probably the most impressively choreographed we've seen on screen since those two films of Tarantino's. John Murphy's adrenaline-pumping score, as well as the other perfectly placed tracks from Joan Jett, Gnarls Barkley and The Prodigy only help to further fuel the energy level. While no one even comes close to matching Moretz, Cage gets second place, giving a performance inspired by Adam West from the 1960's Batman television series. Has there ever been a better inspiration for a part? Crazy Cage dressed as Batman. Playing it like Adam West. And it's just as insane as you'd imagine, earning the actor immunity from me ever writing a negative word about him again, and maybe even forgiveness for Ghost Rider and Next. While a small role, it finally answers that nagging question of how Cage would fare as a superhero, with the result being overwhelmingly favorable. This is him at his absolute best and a reminder just how great he can be when given a well-written character that fully capitalizes on his zaniness.
Relative newcomer Aaron Johnson would have made a likable Peter Parker if Tobey Maguire wasn't available and that's pretty much the role he's playing here. Surprisingly, the screenplay even finds a way to throw a clever, original twist into the usually tired superhero sub-plot of a geek pining after the hot, popular girl. And after this and Hot Tub Time Machine it seems as if Lyndsey Fonseca is now that go-to girlfriend these days in comedy, which is fine by me since she's really good at it. Even David's comic book obsessed friends (played by Clark Duke and Evan Peters) are actually funny, adding levity to the plot when needed without coming off as unnecessary filler. As Red Mist, Mintz-Plasse is basically McLuvin' in a costume and that's exactly what's called for in his part. The movie isn't perfect and at 114 minutes could have probably used an extra trim in the editing room since it feels slightly longer than that, but the performance of Moretz and the character of Hit Girl is the movie and everything else falls into place because of it.
I can't understand anyone getting bent out of shape that this is "morally reprehensible" or "goes too far," especially with an "R" rating clearly slapped on it and in a year where the majority of entertainment has been aimed at the PG crowd, with many options to choose from. No one's forcing anyone to see it. After a cruel bludgeoning of Twilight movies, cash-grabbing remakes, and 3D junk, we've earned at least one hardcore, balls-to-the wall movie that doesn't play it safe and Vaughn deserves his vision being released as it was intended without the morality police throwing a fit. It's a testament to how frighteningly believable Moretz is in the role that it's caused so much controversy. Hit Girl deserves her own movie and Kick-Ass earns its sequel, surpassing in quality many of the superhero films it's satirizing.