Kick-Ass: Not much ass-kicking, but what's there is awesome

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

"How come nobody's ever tried to be a superhero?" That's the question at the heart of the black comedy Kick-Ass, and the answer is: "Who the hell knows? Because being a superhero is friggin' awesome!"

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is your ordinary chronic masturbator who attends a run-down high school until one day, in a fit of boredom, he buys a wetsuit and christens himself Kick-Ass. His first time out as a masked vigilante doesn't work very well. Dave is armed with a pipe but has no particular skill as a martial artist or understanding of the streets, so he gets stabbed and then immediately nailed by a hit-and-run driver.

But soon a legend will be born! Not Dave, someone else.

Because you see, across town, 10-year-old Mindy gets shot in the chest by her own father. It's totally cool, though, as Mindy is none other than the bloodthirsty Hit Girl (the charming Chloë Grace Moretz), and her father is the ultraviolent mass-murderer vigilante Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, paying off some debt or other). They don't fight crime so much as commit lots and lots of crimes, but for the very good reasons well known to anyone with the brain cells to wonder, "Where's mom during all these high-caliber shenanigans?" Daddy and daughter are the real deal, but thanks to YouTube and MySpace—one supposes the script was written before everyone except the whores migrated to Facebook—it's Kick-Ass that gets all the attention ... even from his lust object Katie.

Sadly for Dave, and for the second act of the movie, Katie decides that Dave will be the "gay BFF" she's has always wanted. (Katie sure hopes that isn't homophobic.) This particular subplot is more like an episode of Glee than anything else, except there isn't any singing. You'd think that would make it actually interesting, but no, not really. That Katie was a do-gooder type instead of the more usual stuck-up cheerleader is neat, especially given the thrilling amorality of the rest of the film.

When Kick-Ass goes for the mayhem, the movie is action gold. Hit Girl tearing through the usual central-casting mix of Fuggedaboutit Italians and Large Black Men never gets old—well, except for the ethnic laziness. At least the mob boss doesn't go on about eating his mama's famous ragu. Don't expect gritty realism in the fight scenes, either, as Hit Girl is all about the thrill of gymnastics and the kill of karate, if you get my drift.

Despite the lack of superpowers and an excess of teenage flailing around, Kick-Ass is just as much a fantasy as Spider-Man or The Dark Knight or Sex and the City. But Moretz's Dirty Harry delivery and little snaggletooth makes Hit Girl the best pint-sized lunatic since Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach, and all the blood missing from Wolverine's claws in those X-Men movies gets a leading role here. (TWO people burst like a teenager's zits! Kick-ass indeed!) Almost as wonderful as Moretz is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Red Mist, a much richer, and nerdier, superhero wannabe than the almost-normal Kick-Ass.

Ultimately, Kick-Ass doesn't do all that much ass-kicking, despite the repeated media broadcasts telling the viewer how famous he's become and the repeated montages of Kick-Ass answering his thrilling email. Kick-Ass is less the hero of the film than he is a stand-in for the audience, fuming at injustice, shrieking at the gore and explaining his own motivations to himself on demand. As both Kick-Ass the character and Johnson the actor would be outclassed by the others anyway, this isn't a bad thing. He's a little hole in the film, a hole shaped exactly like Jesus. I'm just kidding; the hole is shaped like you! So step on in.

The plot, perhaps because Kick-Ass doesn't have 40 years of comic-book continuity to boil down into two hours, holds together surprisingly well for a superhero flick. There are betrayals and twists, only one overlong villainous soliloquy, a knowing nod toward the problems of motion pictures with protagonist voice-overs, and a pair of pretty cool set pieces at the movie's climax. The movie even subtly explains how Big Daddy can afford his armory, even if it skips on Hit Girl's preternatural wire-fu skills.

Kick-Ass also differs sufficiently from the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic book to keep fans of the original guessing. Nicholas Cage does his best Adam West impression, but only when wearing the Big Daddy cowl. Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn should be awarded an honorary doctorate in Dorkwad Psychology from MIT for his handling of the teen and tween ass-kickers and ass-kickees. I suspect that many reviewers will reach for the headline "Kick-Ass Kicks Ass!", and it does, but it also kicks at least a little bit of brain. No heart, though. Hearts is for stabbin'.

Lonely weirdoes of the world, go forth and make this film your personal version of Avatar.

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