WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Plain Dave Lizewski is a nobody, a curly-haired geek with geeky friends, and so innocuous that the girl he likes mistakenly makes him her gay best friend. However, when Dave has the idea to assume the mantle – and outfit – of a superhero, despite having no powers whatsoever, he opens himself up to a world of excitement, adventure, and a lot of pain. He discovers that he’s not alone in the vigilante business, which is just as well because ‘Kick-Ass’ quickly makes some very powerful enemies.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) ain’t no hero, he’s just a goofy comic-loving kid with goofy mates, and the usual teenage hang-ups about his English teacher’s cleavage and the cute girl in class, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). But one day in his local New York comic store, a question comes upon him: why has no-one ever gone out on the streets and tried to mete out justice, superhero-stylee? The answer arrives very painfully when his first attempt, clad in green scuba gear, results in a vicious kicking from thugs, leaving him with a bolted-together skeleton and dodgy nerve endings; but ‘Kick-Ass’ – as Dave dubs himself – is not one to give up and his subsequent vigilante battle turns his alter ego into an internet sensation. He even impresses Katie, the only problem being that Dave has somehow become her gay BFF. However, playing hero is no game, as Dave finds out when he has to be rescued by a pair of proper part-time heroes, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his pint-sized but lethal (and very sweary) daughter Mindy, aka Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Daddy and Hit Girl are getting ever closer to bringing down callous but increasingly jumpy mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his corrupt police contact Gigante (Xander Berkeley); what the amateur avengers don’t know is that Kick-Ass, via his contact with copycat ‘hero’ Red Mist – actually D’Amico’s son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) – is inadvertently leading them into the fight of (or for) their lives.
Kick-Ass very much beat Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to the punch back in 2010, gaining plaudits as an independently-produced and incredibly ballsy piece of slice-‘em-up movie-making whilst Scott Pilgrim – which Kick-Ass itself references (though for good or bad, it’s hard to say) – was liked by some (not least me) but largely written off as a whimsical, indulgent big-budget flop. The two share the same comic-book roots, but other than that have very little in common, since (to generalise massively) Edgar Wright’s film is a comedy with action whilst Vaughn’s is an action movie with some laughs. While Scott Pilgrim has fight scenes aplenty, they’re stylised and bloodless like the videogames they ape; Kick-Ass is equally stylised, but at the other extreme, luxuriating in blood, dismemberment and pain being inflicted on the characters. The point of the comparison is that it’s a case of horses for courses, and this particular horse much preferred the relatively cutesy fun of Scott Pilgrim to the graphic violence of Kick-Ass, chiefly because I didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh at the hero’s exploits or feel disturbed by the beatings he (and others) frequently took.
For make no mistake, although the concept of the nerd suiting up to take on the bad guys has comic potential that the film occasionally exploits, Kick-Ass is a pretty brutal film, not least for Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and, most cruelly treated of all, Hit Girl. In a sense, it’s entirely appropriate that the violence should feel uncomfortable – painful even – otherwise it’s not working. On the other hand, every time Dave was outnumbered by thugs or Hit Girl got injured – specifically, when she was being thrown about and punched repeatedly in the face by D’Amico – I felt I’d rather not have this happening for my entertainment. The very ordinariness of our heroes made me uneasy in a way the violence in fantasies such as The Matrix or Dark Knight didn’t; and while this may be exactly the film’s point (“Sickening violence, just the way you like it” as the comic satirically had it), I still had trouble with the way the broken bones sat alongside the movie’s more facetious moments. It was almost as though the more callous the violence, the cooler the movie, and the same logic went for the film’s brief but spicy raunchy scenes, its very frank language and its no-holds-barred assessment of adolescent male behaviour.
With that pretty major caveat duly noted, Kick-Ass is a thoroughly enjoyable film. Aaron Johnson is very credible as a dorky guy out of his depth, but in truth the movie belongs to Big Daddy and Hit Girl: Cage is better here than he’s been in a long time, giving Big Daddy a warm heart and Adam West’s wonderfully stilted speech patterns, while Moretz is simply terrific, combining the weariness of experience and the vulnerability of her tender years into an involving whole. Other parts are filled adequately – Mintz-Plasse is a bit wasted, Fonseca’s a routine hottie – but mention should be made of Mark Strong, who simmers nicely as the mob kingpin. Vaughn stages the fight scenes really well, and the climax easily matches the likes of The Matrix and Face/Off, the whole movie kept on the move by a busy, eclectic soundtrack. Furthermore, Kick-Ass respects its origins with a lovely bit of comic-based animation to fill us in on Daddy and Hit Girl’s backstory; it’s also stuffed to the gills with pop culture and movie references, though that can come across as smug and show-offish (particularly Dave’s narration about posthumous narration).
So, while I prefer (with plenty of different caveats!) Scott Pilgrim as a viewing experience, I understand absolutely why the adrenalised, blood-spattered world of Kick-Ass proved a bigger box-office draw. I just worry about the unthinking whooping, high-fiving and laughter that I imagine being the soundtrack to youngsters getting beaten to a pulp; and if that says more about me as a person than Kick-Ass as a film, so be it.