A kicking good movie

By David Orlikoff

Preproduction for the film “Kick-Ass” reportedly started within three months after the release of the Mark Millar-created, Marvel-published comic, which hit shelves in February 2008. That’s an even faster turnaround than his “Wanted” comic, and with good reason—“Kick-Ass” is bound to be a hit. The film is director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn’s third feature, though he’s probably still best known for producing “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.”

The film stars an appropriately young Aaron Johnson as the titular hero and his mild-mannered high school student alter ego Dave Lizewski. Apart from his suit, Johnson isn’t green, but audiences probably won’t remember him from “The Illusionist” or recognize him from “Shanghai Knights.” Chloë Grace Moretz, 11 at the time of shooting, plays Mindy Macready and Hit-Girl. She absolutely owns her plucky, ultraviolent character. Nicolas Cage is Damon Macready, a.k.a. Big Daddy, a gun-loving cross between the conservative anti-crime sensibilities of Chester Gould, Dick Tracy creator, and the destructive tendencies of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Following his best work in Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” last year, Cage is entering a golden phase of his career. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, known for playing McLovin in “Superbad,” is the Goth superhero Red Mist, while Clark Duke remains the only one not running around in tights. Who knows how much longer the 24-year-old can get away with playing a high school student, but he does an effective and hilarious job, spreading his wings more here than in “Hot Tub Time Machine.”

The most amazing thing about “Kick-Ass” is its almost biblical knack for coming up on both ends of opposing ideas. It mixes shocking, over-the-top, stylized violence with subdued realism. It indulges and lampoons the fantasies of the audience as carried out by its main character, and remains irresponsible in its treatment of an 11-year-old girl and somehow responsible for suturing those elements off from Johnson. More than once, and in brutal and varied ways, Johnson is punished for his superhero avocation. He laments his only true power is the slightly above average ability to take a beating. The message is clear: don’t try this at home. Meanwhile, Hit-Girl is “Kill Bill” and “Ichi the Killer” neatly packaged with a skirt and pigtails. That combination has already shocked some parent groups, but the film deserves credit for relegating those traits to an unidentifiable character.

For what feels like the first time in a comic book movie, the plot actually works. That’s because there are no superfluous superheroes. Screen time is determined by importance to the story and not showcasing powers. Of the tight-knit group, everyone serves their narrative purpose, sometimes two or three times over. Couple that with the self-aware writing and this story could easily endure.

The action is what any action fan could hope for and, though psychotic and grotesque, the audience remains guilt-free. The most shockingly violent scenes come as a surprise, so there is no knowing culpability in spectatorship. Instead we can wince, groan and smile freely at some of the most creative action since the cartoon “Superjail” or the videogame “Mad World.”

At the end of the day, it’s the details that stick with you. Like how they slip a “Watchmen” book into the frame, or how Cage tapes on a fake goatee under his Big Daddy mask. Scenes beautifully render into the film from comic book form, while Johnson has a crack on his cell phone screen and receives only 4/5 stars for his crime-fighting antics on YouTube.

“Kick-Ass” is like “Zombieland,” a reaction to the ubiquity of one element in our cultural consciousness. It’s self-aware enough that audiences don’t even need to like superheroes to love this film. They do need to like action, though, which this film has in spades.