When movie studios realized that billions of dollars could be made by raiding comic books, most of the films that followed used the same blueprint: Throw $150 million or more at massive sets, tons of effects and big names, and line up some mammoth merchandising deals. Some of these movies are great; some are bad; most are average. And only a few are built around the experience of the audience.
Kick-Ass is ahead of the pack, probably because it doesn't follow that formula. In fact, director Matthew Vaughn had to finance this movie outside of the system, because the studios all wanted to avoid a violent, profane, R-rated comic-book movie with teenagers (and one pre-teen) killing bad guys left and right.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Comic-Con: Audiences saw footage from Kick-Ass last summer and couldn't stop talking about it. The studios, which had so badly missed the mark by passing up the opportunity to make the movie, climbed over each other for the chance to distribute it. This is not the sort of superhero movie Hollywood makes, but hopefully it will be now. Kick-Ass doesn't just happen on a screen in front of an audience; it deeply involves them.
Based on Mark Millar's comic, Kick-Ass has no superheroes. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) asks his friends why nobody has ever tried to become one. The answer, as one of his friends puts it without looking up from an issue of Marvel's Runaways, is "because they'd get their ass kicked." But Dave has nothing else going for him, so why not? He buys a ridiculous-looking scuba suit, commits himself to helping the little guy ... and proceeds to get his ass kicked.
As he tries to ward off three heavies beating an unarmed man in a parking lot, Dave—having adopted his alter ego, Kick-Ass—takes his fair share of punishment, but keeps fighting. A camera-phone recording of his exploits becomes a viral-video sensation, attracting the attention of Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his young daughter, Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz).
As a cop, Macready had been set up by Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), one of New York's most ruthless gangsters. After his release from prison, he decides to bring down D'Amico's crime family, and Macready trains his daughter to become the ultimate fighting machine. Lesson No. 1: How to take a bullet to the chest.
When he watches the Kick-Ass video, Macready not only sees a kindred spirit; he also gains a convenient way to attack D'Amico's mob: If the mobster thinks it's Kick-Ass killing his low-level thugs, Macready can operate without suspicion. Macready and his 11-year-old girl get costumes, too, becoming Big Daddy and Hit-Girl.
Dave narrates his story, telling us that his mother wasn't murdered in a dark alley by the Joker, but instead died because of an aneurysm. He wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider; his only superpower is willpower. And it's this everyman's approach that is so appealing about the story.
Once Vaughn establishes his main characters, it's really the director's show. Vaughn's two previous films, Layer Cake and Stardust, have distinct visual styles; Stardust also has a warped sense of humor. But neither hints that something so special is just around the corner. Kick-Ass is being marketed as a kind of slacker action-comedy take on the superhero flick, and while it certainly contains those elements, Vaughn effortlessly, almost invisibly, adds layers of depth and heavy personal drama. In so many films, that sort of shift seems cloying, and it's hard to execute properly. Vaughn damns the consequences and goes for broke, like Quentin Tarantino does with his best work.
Each of the film's fight scenes has its own energy and look; one of them is almost heart-stopping. However, unlike many examples in the bloated superhero genre, the action sequences aren't the main course in Kick-Ass. It's interesting that so little of the action takes place early in the film; Vaughn uses his characters to build up to the visceral payoff. Once we're on board with them, the real fun begins.
The star attraction in these fight scenes is clearly Hit-Girl, a butterfly-knife-wielding, pistol-packin', foul-mouthed small fry in a purple wig. While Kick-Ass is not usually much good in a fight, Hit-Girl thinks nothing of chopping through goons in Italian suits like a Weed Eater.
The key performances are uniformly strong. Aaron Johnson is a newcomer to American audiences, but he's more than up to the challenge of carrying most of the emotional weight of this film on his shoulders. Cage has a lot of fun as the nebbish Damon Macready, who takes on a different vibe under Big Daddy's cowl. With memorable work in RocknRolla, Sherlock Holmes and Body of Lies, Mark Strong has already established himself as one of the best villains going; his Frank D'Amico is another great addition to his rogue's gallery. However, Chloë Grace Moretz steals the spotlight from her co-stars; Hit-Girl is one of those rare characters that makes going to the movies worthwhile.
As good as she is, the real highlight is director Vaughn, proving that he can make a superhero movie for less than $30 million that's more fulfilling and outright better than films Marvel and DC have made for five times that amount. It's a movie nobody wanted to touch a year ago—and now it's a movie that ought to change the game.