When Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) asks why no one has ever tried to be a real-life superhero, the question initially sounds like the fantasies of a comic-book geek a few years away from accepting the realities of life as we all know it. But a funny thing happens as Matthew Vaughn’s pulpy rendering of Mark Millar’s graphic novel Kick-Ass takes shape.
Optimism and naiveté, the key ingredients that Dave informs us provide the root of his transformation, infect us as well and make us believe that it might be possible for a kid to slip into green scuba gear, pull a mask over his head and start beating the crap out of bad guys in front of a populace eager to document his exploits on camera phones for YouTube viewers.
And when Kick-Ass comes face-to-face with a couple of real-deal masked vigilantes named Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who do more than kick ass in the name of justice, the film forces us to take a hard look at all the gun and knife play and the hip shocks of having an underage girl cursing and killing with glee because it’s not simply fun and games. It doesn’t take long for Dave to realize that it certainly isn’t true that "with no power there’s no responsibility,” but what’s a geeky kid supposed to do, let life and the bad guys keep kicking ass with impunity?
The bad guys in this case — led by Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), a hot-headed kingpin figure with a son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) eager, in theory, to learn more about the family business — run your standard drugs and intimidation racket, with the father-son dynamic as the alternative fuel source for the narrative.
The younger D’Amico is another comic-book geek, although he’s even further outside the fold because, as the son of a mobster, he lives in a cocoon of enforcers, getting stiff-armed by his father every time business comes up. Like Dave, he’s eager to prove himself, and when the situation presents itself, he finds, also like Dave, that there are hard consequences to face once choices are made.
The film’s character and visual sensibilities are all over the map, from the straight-up comic-book world of Spider-Man (on whom Kick-Ass is clearly based with the D’Amico men echoing the Goblin family) and Batman (Big Daddy’s back story flips the script nicely and allows for Hit Girl to serve as a kicking Robin) to newer incarnations like Millar’s Wanted and even a healthy dose of The Matrix thrown in for good measure (have fun imagining Big Daddy as Morpheus, Hit Girl as Trinity and Kick-Ass as Neo).
But the film finds its own groove and place in the pop-cultural landscape, in no small part due to the solid foundation of Dave and the everyday world in which he wanders. We feel the pull of his friends and father, the girls who never saw him until he developed self-esteem and confidence and the internal conflict of wanting to do the right thing but struggling in the face of real danger.
Somewhere deep in the mix, possibly beneath all the splashy flashy colors and the humorous digs at the gay subtext about guys running around in tight spandex costumes, the film that Kick-Ass should truly remind audiences of is Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s understated superhero origin story. Kick-Ass doesn’t aim for the emotional depths or the oppressive worldview of Shyamalan’s tale, but it drives by those alleyways and allows us to take a sneak peek.
Vaughn (who unfortunately passed on the chance to helm the third X-Men installment) and his actors seamlessly stitch together the disparate fabrics of pulp and an almost John Hughes-like weave of teenage drama. But the real standout is Cage, who has flamed out as a superhero already (his Ghost Rider didn’t even manage to achieve real campiness) and has overacted and chewed enough scenery since winning his Academy Award in Leaving Las Vegas to warrant a real intervention, which Kick-Ass feels like.
Cage’s Big Daddy has been framed and imprisoned, and he’s got something to prove no matter what the costs. Cage, the actor, convinces us that he’s still ready and willing to do the same. Grade: A
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