Turn off your cell phone and your moral compass for this one. "Kick-Ass" is a guilty pleasure of the highest order, a guns-blazing, media-savvy superhero comedy designed to thrill geeks and outrage prudes.
What makes it different from "Sin City" or the "Kill Bill" movies is that it features Hit Girl, a moppet who swears like Joe Pesci and turns villains into corpses by the dozen: a tween Tarantino. If that's a deal breaker, too bad for you, fuddy duddy. You're missing a fabulously insane piece of work -- original, self-aware and so cartoonishly extravagant with bloodshed that it makes a joke of hollow Hollywood violence. If you look beyond the jokes and gore, you'll find a strong belief in a code of honor. Honor among vigilantes perhaps, but a virtue nonetheless.
Directed with racy, action-packed style by Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake"), the film has so much eagerness and verve that it transforms its ingredients. We wind up feeling affectionate toward some highly unlikely people, beginning with Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a garden-variety high-school nerd who decides to become a costumed comic-book hero. His origin story: He's bored.
This nice, modest kid dons a green scuba suit, christens himself Kick-Ass and takes to the streets of New York City like a crime-fighting Kermit the Frog. It's tougher than he expected, and he's promptly sent to the emergency ward, emerging with a set of new titanium bones and damage to his nervous system that leaves him unable to feel pain. A true fanboy, he crows, "I'm just like Wolverine" at the very moment we think it. The movie is studded with clever in-jokes that hit the bull's-eye.
Kick-Ass makes a splash on YouTube, and the city has a new folk hero, much to the chagrin of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (intensely likable Chloe Moretz, delivering her zingy wisecracks with a wonderful, dirty good humor). Big Daddy's a doting dad gone haywire, tutoring his little princess in brawling, knife fighting, sharpshooting and lariat work to clean up the corrupt town. As many blood-spurting, kinetic action scenes demonstrate, she's a natural.
Kick-Ass, who uses nonlethal weaponry, becomes the ultraviolent duo's reluctant partner. Their adversary is a volatile gentleman racketeer (Mark Strong) whose morally conflicted son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) can't decide if he wants to enter the family business or join the good guys.
Vaughn structures the picture as an exciting series of shootouts and brawls, but he lets us recuperate, too. Patricia Goldsmith's comic-melodramatic script pauses for daffy interludes with Dave and his high-school crush. The story also gives us time to consider the impact of all that violence. It doesn't waste any sympathy on the villains, but when our antiheroes are worked over, you can't help but whimper. In the movie's overall scheme, though, that's like worrying about a ballet star's bunions. Vaughn stages the action scenes with manic exhibitionistic joy. He makes the bodies dance and crash and bounce back, like a rowdy slapstick physics lesson.
There's much to admire here, from the garish color scheme to the slick flow of the editing. But the conversation about this film will center around Moretz, whose work here puts her alongside "Taxi Driver's" Jodie Foster and "The Exorcist's" Linda Blair as a juvenile actress in a taboo-busting, breakthrough role. All I can say is that she provides some of the best delivery of hard-boiled dialogue that ever graced an action thriller. Cage provides some cockeyed moments, channeling TV's Batman, Adam West, but it's the superlative Moretz who gives "Kick-Ass" its sizzle and charm.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186