Movie Review: Kick-Ass (2010)

Originally published on April 19, 2010

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.

Kick-Ass is not particularly well-made. It is not particularly well-written. With some exceptions, it is not even particularly well-acted. It is absolute trash, and yet that is part of its appeal. The Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic book upon which it is based was slick and stylish, and felt very much in the tradition of ultra-violent superhero satire. Matthew Vaughn’s film, on the other hand, is scrappy and unpolished, getting by solely on its foul-mouthed, blood-spattered charm, much of it due to a pint-sized, purple-clad powerhouse.

But more about her later. The movie focuses primarily on miserable high schooler Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a socially ill-equipped dork who hangs around Atomic Comics with his equally dorky friends and pines after Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), the girl of his dreams. His mom died of a brain aneurysm over breakfast recently, and he has an awkward-at-best relationship with his father. After he gets mugged one day and no bystanders step in to help, Dave has an epiphany: why hasn’t anybody ever put on a superhero costume and fought crime before?

He puts on a wetsuit, arms himself with a baton, christens himself Kick-Ass, and, well, gets his ass kicked. He winds up in the hospital, where his damaged nerve endings lessen his pain. This clearly helps in his unflagging crusade against crime, as he suits up again and becomes a media sensation. This inspires other vigilantes to don costumes, notably ex-cop Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his brainwashed daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), cold-blooded killers in the name of justice. Suddenly, Dave comes face-to-face with the harsh realities of this new world he’s constructed; after witnessing Hit Girl decapitate and eviscerate a roomful of drug-dealing thugs, he goes home and weeps. Things only get worse when he gets drawn into Big Daddy and Hit Girl’s quest for revenge against mobster Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), whose son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) happens to be another Atomic Comics frequenter.

At its best, Kick-Ass does superhero fight scenes better than any movie before it. It revels in colorful displays of head-chopping, limb-slashing action, with a tiny arbiter of justice in the form of Hit Girl, AKA 11-year-old Mindy Macready. Through Marcus (Omari Hardwick), one of Big Daddy’s old cop buddies, the movie acknowledges that Mindy has been brainwashed and forced into an obviously inappropriate lifestyle. And since one of Dave’s uber-geek buddies declares, “I’m saving myself for her,” she’s even uncomfortably sexualized. But there comes a time when what one is seeing is so mind-blowingly incredible and unbelievable that one’s critical faculties don’t so much cease to function as they are merely ignored. Yeah, Hit Girl was conditioned from day one to be a merciless killing machine.

Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass

But you know what? Hit Girl is fucking awesome. Whenever Kick-Ass starts becoming too problematic, there’s an amazing sequence of Hit Girl leaping through the air, slicing and dicing bad guys to some great pop song (“Banana Splits” the best of them all), and boom, I’m right back where Vaughn and company want me: laughing hysterically and covering my mouth in horror at the same time. Chloe Moretz was great in her small part as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s little sister in last year’s terrific (500) Days of Summer, playing the role of precocious, wise-beyond-her-years child with more grace than anyone else ever has. But here she brings it to a completely different level, giving a fearless performance that, in all honesty, deserves some sort of awards recognition. She’s got a better head start than any child actor I can think of, and I only hope she continues to do wonderful things in the future.

Kick-Ass does have problems, though. Matthew Vaughn has never been much of a director (Layer Cake shoved every gangster cliché into an obnoxious 105 minutes), and so most of the movie has that phony, overly bright Hollywood look. Vaughn’s script, co-written by Jane Goldman, generally fails to make any of the non-superhero characters in Dave’s life interesting. Especially frustrating is Katie Deauxma, the girl of his dreams; because of some rumor, she thinks he’s gay, and he goes along with the ruse to become her BFF. Unlike in the comics, though, when she finds out he’s straight and has been manipulating her the whole time, she isn’t disgusted. For as much ground as Kick-Ass would like to break, this is still Hollywood, Land of Dreams, and an action movie in which the hero doesn’t get the girl remains unthinkable.

Besides Moretz, and the nerdily appealing Johnson, the acting is questionable. Nicolas Cage’s brand of lunacy works when the material can keep up with him, and goes haywire when it can’t. Here, he’s sort of torn between the two poles. When he’s out of costume, he’s the likable loon, but when he puts on the mask, he speaks with a stilted Adam West cadence that’s just as campy and embarrassing as it was in the 60’s. Mark Strong plays the typical gangster role with little flavor or originality; as his son, though, Christopher Mintz-Plasse takes an encouraging step forward from McLovin territory. If there is a sequel, it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the way this one turns out.

Despite its hip soundtrack and eye-opening violence, Kick-Ass mostly proceeds in cookie cutter fashion from point A to point B, which can grow tiresome. But when we see Hit Girl and Big Daddy unloading on some motherfuckers, or when we get to the giddily intense climax (the one area where the film improves on the otherwise perfect comics), you just lean back, wincing and smiling with the realization that an imperfect Kick-Ass is still probably better than no Kick-Ass at all.

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