“How come nobody has ever tried to be a superhero?” This eccentric notion spurs geeky but idealistic teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to don bright green and yellow lycra so he may defend the crime-stricken citizens of New York and pseudonymously court out-of-his league high school sweetheart, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) in his guise as Kick-Ass. Dave’s initial attempts at fighting crime bring him nothing but broken bones, stab wounds and swift trips to the emergency room, but through perseverance he triumphs over a gang of violent criminals and becomes an internet sensation. He also attracts the attention of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and eleven-year-old dynamo Hit-Girl (the amazing Chloë Grace Moretz), a lethally proficient father-and-daughter superhero team waging a covert war against despicable crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). As their activities take their toll on D’Amico’s evil empire, his young son Chris (“McLovin’” himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) hatches a plan to pose as emerging hero Red Mist and lure the three crime-fighters into a deadly trap.
Adapted from a graphic novel by Mark Millar, who also created Wanted (2008), Kick-Ass betters its source and proves a strong contender for best movie of the year. Those expecting a straightforward superhero spoof may be taken aback by how raucous, edgy and gloriously twisted this film turns out to be. For while Kick-Ass’ costume uncannily resembles the one worn in Superhero Movie (2008), the score brilliantly resembles Carl Stalling’s orchestrations for Looney Tunes cartoons and several scenes riff off Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), the knockabout violence and pitch black humour edge this closer to Quentin Tarantino territory, only with an engaging humanistic streak the movie geek maestro has yet to master.
There are some seriously jaw-dropping scenes here, from Dave’s distressingly bloody failures at crime-fighting to the sight of Nicolas Cage firing a .45 slug into a bullet-proof vest worn by his little girl, but few compare to Hit-Girl’s big entrance. The moment she drops the c-bomb before slaughtering her way through an entire armed gang like a human whirlwind, to the strains of a punk rock version of theme to The Banana Splits, is outrageous, unsettling, wrong on so many levels yet utterly wonderful. It is worth pointing out that stuff like this has been a staple of graphic novels for quite some time, although still shocking for cinemagoers. Although well received by the majority of critics, Hit-Girl’s anarchic antics spurred a handful of tabloids to whip-up some, thankfully non-existent controversy, and drew the ire of venerable film critic Roger Ebert, author of that restrained ode to good taste, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970).
What these scandal-mongers failed to see is that Kick-Ass tells a staunchly moral tale. Not one of the characters, including the heroes, walks away from the violence unscathed and though funny, visceral and exciting, the film still goes out of its way to stress that donning a superhero suit to fight crime or training your eleven-year-old daughter to be an assassin are less than healthy things to do. Ultimately, the film is less about superheroes than it is a commentary on internet subculture and the value of celebrity - is it worthless or can it be used to accomplish something of value? Early on, Dave laments why Paris Hilton is an acceptable role model for 21st century youth while Spider-Man is a geek interest. Jane Goldman’s screenplay asks the idealistic question, why society doesn’t care enough to look after the weak and the downtrodden. More so than The Dark Knight (2008), her script upholds the core idealism behind the concept of heroism. When a friend argues that strength makes a superhero, Dave counters that it takes decency.
Financed independently after the major studios turned it down, there is a real indie idiosyncracy in how the story hops from tragicomedy to balls-to-the-wall action. Not one scene develops the way you expect. Goldman portrays adolescence with wince-inducing authenticity and does a fine job sweetening the teen romance arguing that love makes all the difference in lonely, disaffected people’s lives. Whereas Katy is an absolute bitch in the graphic novel, here she proves endearingly devoted to her earnest, yet hapless beaux even though their relationship hinges on a hilarious misunderstanding that poor Dave is gay. Matthew Vaughn and his talented cast (blink and you’ll miss the likes of Elizabeth McGovern, Dexter Fletcher, Jason Flemyng and Yancy Butler in small roles) bring an emotional resonance to the gripping torture scene and all-action, Elvis Presley scored climax that weaves in nods to John Woo, Scarface (1983) and Enter the Dragon (1973), while there is poetry in how the touching father-daughter relationship segues into an affecting bond between Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl.
Nicolas Cage does some of his best work in years, alternating between subdued eccentricity when out of costume and a wry Adam West parody in his guise as Big Daddy, but this film belongs to two talented youngsters. Doing an excellent cod-Tobey Maguire accent, Aaron Johnson is a wholly engaging lead, ably balancing slapstick buffoonery with genuine pathos. And little Chloë Grace Moretz is phenomenal, a foul-mouthed, death-dealing Zazie dans le métro for the millennium, but exuding sweet-natured vulnerability at two crucial moments that subvert the comic book sadism. Stardom surely beckons.