“Kick-Ass” most certainly does. Equal parts audacious dark comedy, wish-fulfillment fantasy and over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek action-adventure, Matthew Vaughn’s bloody funny adaptation of a cult-fave comicbook series manages to be sufficiently faithful to its source material to please fervent fanboys while remaining easily accessible for ticketbuyers unfamiliar with the superhero storytelling conventions Vaughn (“Layer Cake”) and co-scripter Jane Goldman satirize as well as celebrate. Scenes of hilariously overstated violence perpetrated by an 11-year-old girl doubtless will discomfort many and incense quite a few. But this deservedly R-rated Lionsgate release should nonetheless score a knockout in theatrical and homevid venues.
The title is both an alias and an attitude adopted by Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), an all-too-ordinary Manhattan high schooler who’s neither especially nerdish, despite his immersion in comicbook culture, nor confidently cool. He’s so eager to transcend his anonymity — and, not incidentally, impress a pretty classmate (Lyndsy Fonseca) — that he clads himself in a DIY superhero costume (a green-and-yellow scuba outfit ordered online) and sets out to prove you don’t need otherworldly origins to fight crime and do derring-do. Unfortunately, Dave’s first attempt at superheroics as Kick-Ass end with — well, with his getting his ass kicked. But even a forced trip to the hospital is not enough to dissuade him.
While Dave takes his tentative first steps toward heroism, bespectacled eccentric Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and spunky young daughter Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz) make bold strides forward in their preparations for purpose-driven lives as relentless vigilantes. Dad is encouraging but implacably demanding as he teaches his little girl how to survive point-blank gunfire and wield lethal weaponry. Fortunately, she’s a quick learner, and Damon is so pleased with her progress that he buys her all the ice cream she wants — and helpfully shoots the sole survivor of her first armed assault on felons.
The latter gesture comes as a kicker to a jaw-dropping, mind-frying sequence in which Mindy — decked out in cape, mask and purple wig as the aptly named Hit Girl — violently dispatches a dozen or so bad guys to the tune of the “Banana Splits” theme. (Her father, whose own disguise closely resembles Batman’s, assumes the identity of Big Daddy.) Hit Girl’s dramatic arrival is perfectly timed: Before she shows up, Dave/Kick-Ass once again is outmatched by unfazed foes.
To be sure, the would-be hero scores enough relatively minor triumphs to become an instant celebrity — enough to attract millions of hits for the YouTube video of his skirmish with street thugs. But Kick-Ass simply isn’t in the same league as Hit Girl and Big Daddy. (For one thing, he’d prefer not to actually kill anybody.) He’s not even as ruthless as another masked marvel, Red Mist, who’s really Dave’s classmate Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Chris also is the son of a slick, sadistic crime lord (Mark Strong) who’s trying to smoke out the heroes who are decimating his henchmen.
Here and there, “Kick-Ass” offers some genuinely clever observations about the creation of celebrity in a world where viral video clips and latenight talkshow quips can turn attention seekers into overnight sensations (and inadvertent role models). Pic also takes a few potshots at not-so-innocent bystanders who refuse to get actively involved in anyone else’s emergencies.
For the most part, however, “Kick-Ass” is less concerned with social commentary than slam-bang outrageousness. Hit Girl’s increasingly escalating mayhem is a running joke that somehow gets funnier as the pic progresses, and Moretz’s deft mix of girlish sincerity and steely ferocity only increases the laugh quotient. Of course, that won’t be enough to keep some professional moralists from taking issue with her onscreen activity.
As Dave, Johnson (a young Brit soon to be seen by U.S. auds as John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy”) makes a reasonably credible and thoroughly ingratiating transition from enthusiastic klutz to self-empowered hero, while Mintz-Plasse amusingly plays Chris as a kind of darker, more dangerous variation of the McLovin’ character he memorably essayed in “Superbad.” Mark Strong, recently a seriously menacing villain in “Sherlock Holmes,” brings the right touch of wink-wink overplaying to this pic’s antagonist. And Cage earns some big laughs as he channels the smiley spirit of several ’50s TV sitcom dads while teaching his daughter how best to kill miscreants.
Fans of Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr.’s original comicbook series — the sort of savvy aficionados who will catch all the inside jokes about Steve Ditko, the Spirit and other graphic-novel icons — might complain about certain liberties taken by Vaughn’s adaptation. (The motivation for Cage’s character is substantially different here, and pic allows Dave more romantic success than the comicbook ever did.) According to the press notes, however, scripters Vaughn and Goldman began and completed their scenario before the comicbooks ever wrapped up their ongoing storyline.
Production values are fine, though perhaps not up to the standard one would expect of a more serious and straightforward comicbook pic.