BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Unexceptional high-school student and comic book geek Dave Livewski decides, without powers or training but with surprising conviction, to become the superhero Kick-Ass.
PROS: Affecting performances by Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Chloë Grace Moretz; strong first half-hour with the consequences of attempting to become a superhero with only conviction; Nicolas Cage channeling Adam West; good stunt and fight scene choreography; and, in one sequence, good use of Ennio Morricone’s A Fistful of Dollars theme.
CONS: Retreats from its core idea and reverts to formula far too quickly; unpleasantness of the concept of Hit-Girl the more one thinks about it.
Well, why not? As Dave Livewski (Aaron Johnson) muses with his friends in the too hip Atomic Comics shop with his friends at the beginning of Kick-Ass, with all of the superhero comics available, with comic book heroes finding themselves in hundred-million-dollar features every major movie season and developing a cachet of cool that, frankly, did not exist when I filled Dave Livewski’s shoes more than twenty-five years ago (hell, I pretty much was Dave Livewski in high school), why hasn’t somebody just put on a costume and become a superhero? His friends Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters) lay it out easily: superpowers don’t exist, and heroes without powers, like Batman, need enormous amounts of capital. (There’s also the fact that comic book readers tend to understand that what they are reading is in fact fantasy.) But it doesn’t stop Dave from ordering a green and yellow wetsuit online and deciding to become the hero Kick-Ass.
It’s not like he can do much else. In voiceover Dave explains that he is no math whiz, is not rich, has no exceptional physical abilities, and even among his friends lacks the luxury of being “the funny one.” Indeed, he observes that his only superpower seems to be his invisibility to girls, and the object of his desire is not classmate Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) but his English teacher Mrs. Zane (Deborah Twiss, and hey, if my English teacher had been Mrs. Zane, she would’ve been the object of my fantasies too). So donning a costume and setting up Kick-Ass’s Myspace account appears to be a winning proposition. Winning, that is, until his first day in costume, when he is stabbed and beaten into a pulpy mess by a pair of carjackers.
But it doesn’t stop him; no sooner is he out of the hospital (with mild nerve damage that numbs him to pain, all the better to take an ass-kicking) that he inadvertently interrupts a gang fight in front of a group of coffee shop customers. When one customer records the fight on his cell phone and uploads it onto YouTube, Kick-Ass suddenly becomes a sensation.
In these moments Kick-Ass shines with humor and affection. Aaron Johnson sells Dave’s earnestness (and the movie itself) with a dweebish grace reminiscent of John Francis Daley’s Sam Weir in the television show Freaks and Geeks. The observations of high school life, male adolescence and geekdom in general appear spot on, and director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust) captures it with banal charm, and it’s a pity that neither he nor co-screenwriter Jane Goldman sustains it.
Kick-Ass isn’t the only superhero in town; somebody “dressed like Batman” has been killing drug lord Frank D’Amico’s (Matt Strong) cadre of pushers and soldiers, and eventually he’s led to believe it is Kick-Ass. In fact, the hero in question is the vigilante duo Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, in reality Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz). Damon Macready is a former police officer wrongly imprisoned because he was set up by D’Amico, causing his pregnant wife’s suicide. The child lived, and when Damon leaves prison he takes custody of Mindy (who had been in the custody of his former partner) and they train to become a superhero team. At this point the movie not only resorts to formula but becomes uncomfortable when one thinks about it. The viewer meets Damon and Mindy during a training session in an empty reservoir, where Damon lectures Mindy on the kinetic science of firearms and suddenly shoots her. She, of course, wears a Kevlar vest underneath her pink jacket, and Damon promises her ice cream after finishing their training…if she doesn’t wince. Taken within the context of the movie, the scene catches the viewer off guard and elicits laughter, largely because it’s such an abrupt turn. On a different level, however, what one actually sees is a man shooting his daughter with a pistol, which isn’t funny at all but creepy, and might turn off a number of viewers.
It becomes worse when they raid a drug den where Kick-Ass, attempting to help Katie, ineffectually intimidates its small time drug lord. Using very sharp swords, Hit-Girl kills each of the den’s occupants, thus rescuing Kick-Ass. The action is well-executed, as it is throughout the picture, but it’s hard not to see that the mayhem is being caused by a ten-year-old girl. And it appears to have no effect on her. Perhaps these moments play much better in the comic, which I have not read, but onscreen they are jarring and unpleasant, especially when one considers the movie’s first half hour.
And yet Kick-Ass never quite stops being watchable. Even when it resorts to formula, even when Hit-Girl’s increasing bloody acts of violence become far too uncomfortable, one nonetheless finds nuggets of enjoyment. When in his Big Daddy costume, Nicolas Cage speaks in cadences identical to those of Adam West in the old Batman television series. Katie begins a relationship with Dave in part because she thinks he is gay, which charges Dave’s ultimate unmasking in front of her quite funny. (“I’m Kick-Ass. I’m also not gay.”) D’Amico’s son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), gracelessly joining the fray as Red Mist, hurts himself as he tries to heroically jump from a dumpster. (And really, can you ever be truly heroic anywhere near a dumpster?) And Vaughn films the final shootout in D’Amico’s apartment building with a great deal of suspense, opening with Ennio Morricone’s theme music from Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and continuing with Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.”
I can’t quite recommend Kick-Ass. It slips into formula too soon, as if it didn’t trust its idea. Which may have been true of the comic itself. Not that this adaptation will stop me from finding out.