A study in comic book schizophrenia. Superheroes have always been a bit schizophrenic, with costumed guises always clashing with their secret civilian identities. The new movie Kick-Ass, based on the creator-owned title of the same name by writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr. and published by Marvel Comics, wants to be a "real world" tale of a teenage boy who dons a homemade costume and becomes a superhero. But it's also a traditional fantasy superhero movie with the same over-the-top, impossible-but-fun fight scenes and more. It's a goofy satire, but then there's a sequence where two characters are tortured and about to be executed on live video which is very chilling.
Let's face it, this movie is bi-polar.
It begins as the story of Dave Lizewski (British actor Aaron Johnson), average eyeglasses-wearing, girlfriend-less teen, who gets jacked regularly by two high school thugs who demand his "money and cell phone." One day the comic book-reading teen decides to send away for some rudimentary supplies - a scuba suit and some nightsticks - and becomes Kick-Ass.
On his first venture out, he not only gets his ass handed to him but nearly dies in the process. He is much more successful his second time out, when he defends a man who is set upon by three thugs. He's beaten (again) and outnumbered, but he won't give up. It's the best moment in the movie for the Kick-Ass character but the movie never provides another moment as good as that one for him.
Meanwhile, we meet ruthless but somewhat goofball NYC mobster Frank D'Amico and his son McLovin, I mean Chris/Red Mist (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse who with his scratchy voice and slight frame will forever be known as McLovin; sorry, but its true). The mobster tries to hide what he does for a living from his son, but the kid has a pretty good idea how pops brings home the cocaine-covered bacon.
Also meanwhile we meet cute as a button 11 year old Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz, the breakout star of the movie) and her more than a little unhinged daddy Damon MacReady played by Nicholas Cage (soon to be known by superhero monikers Hit Girl and Big Daddy, respectively). The first time we meet this odd couple is a great piece of storytelling, I mean how many loving fathers shoot their pigtail-sporting little girls point blank with a pistol? And who knew they made kevlar bullet-proof vests for 11 year olds? Where in WalMart do they stock those?
It turns out that Big Daddy has a mad on for Mobster D'Amico and starts killing off his goons and messing up his coke shipments. Kick-Ass gets blamed for this at one point, drawing him into D'Amico's sphere of influence. Along the way there is a lot of punching and kicking and blood and more blood and even some severed limbs.
I liked big chunks of this movie - the major action scenes, especially involving the whirling dervish Hit Girl, are well done in terms of choreography and editing (and pint-size stunt doubles) - but when I step back and try to look at the whole thing I really don't understand it. It tries to have its cake and eat it too. It gives us a "realistic" take on being a real world superhero, but then it more than dips its Doc Martin-wearing toe into the traditional fantasy superhero world. The comic book creators and the filmmakers apparently believe that merely letting the main hero get beaten to a bloody pulp a few times is enough to qualify as grounding their story in the real world. But then the movie only shows Dave doing a few sit ups to get himself ready to go out into the world and kick ass. He doesn't take any martial arts or self defense classes or even check out a library book on karate or something. He's not particularly strong or athletic so how he's able to withstand multiple beatings from big goombah thugs is beyond me. (Yes, the movie states that after his first beating he becomes somewhat oblivious to pain, but it also appeared to give him a "healing factor" because NO non-superpowered person could get beat up like that without being a bruised, shredded, pulpy mess - Dave just wipes the blood off his skin and VOILA he's whole again. If the blood is just on top of his skin, WHERE is it coming from?)
Once Hit Girl and Big Daddy hit the screen they completely overshadow Kick-Ass; this dynamic duo is simply much more interesting than our teal-suited teen (Dave even intones at one point with "No power comes no responsibility" so why should we care about him). Moretz owns the movie, to use a current phrase. I think she could even stand an award nomination or two for her work here, she's funny, confident and self-assured. But it's beyond me why it was necessary for her character to use the foul language (the f word, the c word) she employs. When she does it as Hit Girl you might argue it's to throw the bad guys off balance, but that isn't the case; none of them seem to mind, so it's done for the audience's sake not the story's. But then she also uses foul language when she's not in costume, just as Mindy, who is apparently home-schooled by her dad. Her father doesn't swear and he doesn't seem to notice his daughter using the foul language, so, once again, I don't understand the point (other than British writer Mark Millar and British director Matthew Vaughn think it's funny for an 11 year old girl to cuss like that). Cage does something as Big Daddy that I wasn't expecting. I won't tell you what it was but it was brilliant on his part (if it was his idea). This is a welcome return to earlier form for Cage, who got his start in quirky movies like Raising Arizona and Vampire's Kiss
One thing that really hurt the story of Kick-Ass was that the movie spent a lot of time with its villain, Frank D'Amico, played by Mark Strong. Too much time, in fact, that it hurt the rhythm of Dave's story. D'Amico started out a bit like Dennis Farina's mobster in Midnight Run with some humorous turns, but became much less interesting and more traditional and one-note as the movie went along. I didn't understand why most of his goons were portrayed as total morons, more cartoons than anything. At one point they're trying to get information as to who is messing with the boss's coke shipments and they put a guy in a "giant industrial microwave" used to dry lumber (or so the movie says). Of course all the goons are shocked at the obvious messy outcome of putting a man in a giant microwave. I guess none of them has ever popped a bag of popcorn before.
I don't think I could recommend this movie. Perhaps if I saw it again I might like it better, but as it stands it felt like two different movies smashed together: one the slight story of Kick-Ass and the other one - the better one - the story of Hit Girl and Big Daddy. I prefer the exploits of the latter.