I know there are positive reviews of this movie out that say something like “Kick-Ass kicks ass.” That’s technically true. However, if we’re using a description to reflect the film’s name, then a more accurate title would be Extreme Violence Super Fun Time. I’ll admit that title is less catchy and isn’t the name of the main character, but it does describe this post-modern superhero flick. Kick-Ass is one of the most fun times I’ve ever had at a movie. It’s a miracle of balance as it imbues heart into a film where people have their hearts impaled with a samurai sword.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a geek who wonders why no one has ever tried to become a costumed superhero before. As his friend Marty (Clark Duke) explains, “Because they would get their asses kicked.” Marty’s not wrong. Dave doesn’t heed his pal’s advice, dons a wet suit, wields two batons, creates the alter-ego of “Kick-Ass” and goes out to fight bad guys. We soon see that despite Dave’s enthusiasm and bravery, he’s only playing at the amateur level. The pros are Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), an adorable father-daughter duo who go out for ice cream by day and render criminals into slaughtered remains at night. The two storylines converge as mafia boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) puts out a bounty on the superheroes that are hurting his business despite the popularity of Kick-Ass as an Internet and pop-culture sensation.
Cage may be the biggest name actor in the film, but he makes a delightful turn in an important supporting role that helps bolster the world while helping to ground Hit-Girl as a real character who isn’t a disturbed individual despite her disturbing actions as a murderous vigilante. But the two real stars of the film are Johnson and Moretz and their performances are key in helping to combine the film’s cartoonish mayhem with a charming naivety and bravado.
The performance people will be buzzing about is Moretz. Hit-Girl steals the show with her brutal-yet-stylish kills, foul-mouthed dialogue, and her disarmingly sweet face. Hit-Girl is like the child on the front of a cereal box except the cereal isn’t a nice mix of toasted oats and marshmallows but of razorblades and shotgun shells (part of a balanced breakfast). If you take a step back, the idea of Hit-Girl is disturbing. She’s a child with no regard for human life or a modicum of mercy. But in the world of Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl is a cartoon. Her father puts a bulletproof vest on her and then shoots his little girl so she won’t be afraid when she’s looking down the barrel of a Glock. First off: who is making bulletproof vests in child sizes? Secondly, a vest may stop a bullet, but it won’t stop a little girl’s ribs from breaking apart. Hit-Girl is grounded in an emotional reality by her relationship with her father, but she, like all the other film’s characters, exist in a comic book world full of bright colors and blazing destruction.
However, it’s Aaron Johnson’s performance that holds Kick-Ass together and gives the film an emotional center. He’s a powerless Peter Parker and he’s skilled at getting his ass kicked, but we never look down on Dave or scoff at his noble intentions. He’s naive and he’s out of his depth, but he’s brave and his desire to do good is good enough. When Kick-Ass fights off three bad guys who are attempting to beat up on another person, he says he would rather die protecting a helpless stranger from three thugs. Superheroes let us imagine ourselves as protectors who can do great things. Dave just makes himself the star of his own superhero comic He may get his ass kicked, but Johnson makes Dave come off like a hero and not a schmuck. As Dave looks into his bedroom mirror and tries out one-liners against imaginary bad guys, Johnson manages to take what could feel like an unnerving Travis Bickle moment and transforms it into feeling like a kid playing superhero in his back yard.
But how do you blend such disparate characters into one story and one world? Ask director Matthew Vaughn because he found a way. For a film that could be wildly schizophrenic, Vaughn rips forth method from the madness and keeps the characters sane despite their insane actions. Working from a charged script he co-wrote with Jane Goldman, Vaughn electrifies the world of Kick-Ass with crackling dialogue, likable characters, and array of miscellaneous tools of destruction that I won’t spoil here. Vaughn’s trick is to not rip comic book characters out of the books and into a real world, but to rip out comic book pages, anime, B-movie action, and push the real world inside the gleeful chaos that cranks what you love about pop-violence entertainment and pushes the envelope of destruction as far as it can go.
Johnson and Moretz give terrific performances and Vaughn’s direction is borderline-supernatural, but as I’m sure you can tell by this point, the real star of the film is violence. It appeals to the child in all of us who laughed when Daffy Duck had a shotgun explode in his face or when Wile E. Coyote fell off a cliff. It devilishly snickers at the little bastards we could be when we happily took our action figures, made them fight, and then put one of them in the microwave to see what would happen (the result: our parents got really pissed off). Kick-Ass appeals to that kid who loves violence and still grew up well-adjusted…for the most part. For the part that remained in a state of arrested development, the film uses piles of corpses and twisted expectations to connect our childhood love of cartoon violence to the mature content we demand as adults. The coyote must now splatter on the desert sands, the duck must now have his head blown apart, and an 11-year-old girl must swear like a sailor and connect bullets to bad guys’ vital organs. If the performances, script, and direction of this film didn’t mix perfectly, we would find ourselves shifting uncomfortably in our seats and/or leave the theater feeling dirty. Instead, we’re cheering and laughing all the way back home.
Kick-Ass transports the viewer into a world of superheroes without superpowers, the celebration of online celebrity, and a level of exaggerated violence that would border on disturbing were it not imbued with childlike joy. It’s Looney Tunes, anime, first-person-shooter videogames, and gritty violence mixed with the innocence of Golden Age comics. It’s a delicious concoction that won’t only kick your ass, but will punch you until you’re smiling through a bloody mouth and broken teeth. Then you’ll ask for seconds.