"Kick-Ass" is the movie our parents warned us about, the movie you don't want your children to see. A highly seductive enterprise that's equal parts disturbing and enticing, it will leave you speechless because its characters — especially a 12-year-old virtuoso of violence named Hit Girl — are anything but.
This shrewd mixture of slick comic-book mayhem, unmistakable sweetness and ear-splitting profanity is poised to be a popular culture phenomenon because of its exact sense of the fantasies of the young male fanboy population. Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, this comic-book-come-to-life was not just based on a book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., but made at the same time the original comic was being created.
"I never understood why nobody did it before me," says teenage protagonist Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) in the voice-over that starts things off. What "it" is in this case is making the decision to present yourself as a superhero even though, as the young man says, "my only superpower was being invisible to girls."
So it's more than the desire to "put on a mask and help people" that turns Dave into Kick-Ass, an earnest young crime fighter in an odd-looking wetsuit. He wants to impress the opposite sex, especially fetching classmate Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), who at first doesn't notice him and then comes to believe he's gay.
We've seen this kind of high school bildungsroman, including the currently mandatory references to masturbation, more times than anyone can count, but here the scenario is helped by the genuinely likable nature of the leads and by the fact that the romance provides an appealing backdrop that the more unnerving aspects of the film play out against.
It's not by accident that it's rated R for, among other things, "strong brutal violence throughout (and) pervasive language." For after events conspire to make Kick-Ass an Internet phenomenon who ends up fighting all kinds of crime, the bad guys take notice and strike back.
Led by drug kingpin Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and his son Chris, soon to be Kick-Ass' nemesis Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the hooligans and the good guys mix it up in an ultra-violent "Kill Bill" kind of way. As zestily orchestrated by director Vaughn, who did similar work on his earlier "Layer Cake," this is the kind of cartoonish violence, choreographed to upbeat music, that's come to define modern action movie culture.
What makes "Kick-Ass" different is that a father-and-daughter team known as Big Daddy and Hit Girl are going the vigilante route at the same time as our hero. They're played by Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz in a way that already wound people up when the film opened in Britain at the end of March.
Big Daddy (real name Damon Macready) loves his daughter (real name Mindy), but for reasons of his own he has turned her into a pint-size, profanity-spewing killing machine in a purple wig and pleated skirt. Her language is so astonishingly crude that it has taken people's attention away from all the killing she does, which is mind-boggling as well.
Yet at the same time as we're unnerved by someone so young acting this way, what makes this film so intriguing is that, largely due to the terrific spirit and skill of young actress Moretz, if you are any kind of action film fan it's difficult to deny the live-wire pulp energy that plays out on screen. It's as if all the arguments about these hyper-violent films — why they are so popular, what they have done to our culture — are open for business in one convenient location. It may or may not be the end of civilization as we know it, but "Kick-Ass" certainly is Exhibit A of the here and now.