Why, wonders teen schmo Dave Lizewski, don't ordinary Joes such as himself ever try to be superheroes? Surely the lack of superpowers is no impediment, as Batman proves. Ah, but Batman has super gadgets (and millions of dollars), Dave's friends remind him. Dave and his pals spend much of their free time reading comic books, talking about comic books, and thinking about comic books. They are well-versed in the logic and lore of superheroes. Dave (Aaron Johnson), despite his solidly middle class family and scrawny physique, is unpersuaded that his superhero dreams are doomed to fail. So he buys a green and yellow scuba suit, sets out to fight crime and... almost gets himself killed for his troubles. This does not deter him, and when one of his heroic escapades is captured on amateur video, Kick-Ass the superhero goes viral. An anonymous star is born.
That's the basic premise of Kick-Ass, a scrappy, weird little superhero movie directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust), and adapted (by Vaughn and Jane Goldman) from the graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romia, Jr. Kick-Ass is fast, furious, extremely violent, and sporadically funny as it both satirizes and embraces the cliches of action movies.
Kick-Ass soon discovers that he's not the only DIY superhero in Manhattan. Notably, there's Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who sports a Batman-esque rubber suit, and daddy's little girl Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a leather-jumpsuited spitfire in a mask and purple wig. Hit Girl, it must be said, totally rocks -- she's equally deadly with a katana sword, a switchblade, and a gun. (Moretz, who is now 13, was only 11 when she played the potty-mouthed, super-violent Hit Girl, which has prompted consternation in some quarters about the exploitation of child performers in movies they are not old enough to see themselves. This issue seems to pop up every now and then -- Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Natalie Portman in The Professional -- and aside from hand-wringing, nothing much ever comes of it. Indeed, Shields, Foster, and Portman all seem to have survived both being child performers and Ivy League students. Whether it's the language or the violence in Kick-Ass that's setting off alarm bells, the movie fully and consciously intends to push those buttons. And so it does.)
Hit Girl and Big Daddy are vigilantes who are particularly intent on destroying a drug kingpin named Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). D'Amico thinks it's Kick-Ass who's after him, so his teen son Chris hatches a plan to catch the superhero by inventing yet another superhero, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Before long, Gotham is crawling with superhero wannabes.
Kick-Ass has got the usual complement of teen boy troubles -- he's ignored by girls, except the hottie who thinks he's her gay BFF -- to go along with the superhero sturm und drang. But never mind him; he's not actually that interesting. Well, okay, what's moderately interesting about Kick-Ass is that he regularly gets the snot beat out of him -- he bleeds real blood, and never develops any discernible fighting skills, yet he continues to fight the good fight until it becomes too much of a drag for him. Hit Girl and Big Daddy are far more compelling. Cage does one of his fun n' creepy weirdo turns here as a father who brainwashes his little girl, creating the perfect avenging angel assassin. He's nuts, and it's child abuse, of course, but he adores his daughter and Hit Girl loves her daddy and seems to be having a good time. Plus, she's got mad skills and the weapons are the neatest. (Cage also has Big Daddy talk in an Adam West-as-Batman voice -- an incongruously funny bit of campy homage for a guy who takes his crime fighting very seriously.) Moretz, with her cutie pie looks and voice, completely holds her own as the wall-climbing, knife throwing, guns-a-blastin' half-pint killer. She and Cage are great together, and, at any rate, aside from a quick backstory that reveals the source of Big Daddy's animus for D'Amico, the movie's not terribly motivated to dig into this nutty and unsettling parent-child relationship. It might be quite interesting if it did, but there's little time for that with so many bad guys to annihilate.
The movie ends with a big blowout, a battle royale in which Kick-Ass has to decide if he's really a superhero, or just a poseur. To end an action movie with a big ol' fight is de rigueur, and Kick-Ass isn't so original that it's going to forgo that tradition. Nonetheless, it's in the denouement that Kick-Ass puts a (slightly) new spin on the superhero story -- Hit Girl was groomed for vengeance from toddlerhood, but Kick-Ass has to will himself to heroism, setting aside fear, ineptitude, and a pretty lame costume if he's going to kick some bad guy ass.