REVIEW: Frantic, Fragmented Kick-Ass Brings the Overkill
Based on a 2008 Marvel comic, Kick-Ass appears to be making a preemptive bid for franchise status (the final issue of the series came out earlier this year), and its gleefully jacked-up intentions are as dubious as those of the filmmakers racing it to the screen. Knowing, impatient, and prone to shuddering violence as both a substitute for plot and shorthand for exhilaration, Kick-Ass oozes a supreme confidence in the knowledge of its audience. The film speaks fluent fanboy, which for the rest of us is a disorienting but occasionally -- almost accidentally -- diverting proposition.
"Sickening violence: just the way you like it!" promises the tagline of Scottish graphic artist Mark Millar's second issue (he is also responsible for Wanted's source material). That's a basic summation of the reckless allure of this pseudo-superhero story: An R-rated comic-book movie featuring a foul-mouthed tween girl with a seemingly limitless capacity for killing, Kick-Ass is a long way from from "ka-pow," and loving it.
The film's inverted take on the superhero doesn't want the badge of satire ("Satire is a lesson," Nabokov once sniffed, and there's no guiding intelligence here, moralistic or otherwise), but it's not an effective parody, either; the story is too fragmented and unfocused for any kind of sustained thematic play. While some of its allusions are satisfying, most of the attempts director Matthew Vaughan (Layer Cake) makes at prodding the genre and its icons are superficial, and serve mostly to grease the way to the next round of frantic, graphic, seizure-triggering violence. The cold deployment of shock tactics, and not subversion, seems to be the point -- the delight -- that Kick-Ass has to offer, and it's an offer that's made pretty relentlessly over the almost two-hour running time.
Kick-Ass begins with an introduction, via a retrospective voice over that will lapse in and out, to Dave Lizewski (Brit Aaron Johnson), a New York City teenager with a couple of friends, a comic book habit, and a major sideline in masturbation. Early on he poses the film's only mildly interesting question -- "How come nobody's ever tried to be a superhero?" -- and is answered without delay. Costumed as a cross between Aquaman and a Fresca can, Dave confronts a couple of local thugs and is beaten into broken heap. The world is a nasty place, and without superhuman powers good intentions don't stand a chance. After recovering from major surgery and extensive nerve damage, Dave tries again anyway. Unable to feel the full force of the blows he attracts while breaking up a fight, Dave (who has christened himself Kick-Ass) prevails with a combination of stubbornness and a small band of witnesses, one of whom is about to strike YouTube gold.
The multimedia bonanza that follows draws the attention of a couple of other self-styled superheroes, a father-daughter team played by Nicolas Cage and Chloë Moretz. Their introduction, a cloyingly ironic sequence in which Cage tries to get his 11-year-old daughter comfortable in her bullet-proof vest by firing several rounds into her chest, is tame compared with the carnage and sardonic trash-talking to come. As "Hit Girl," Moretz channels Clint Eastwood in a knee-skirt and purple wig, and Cage's Big Daddy is a slightly melted Batman whose hammily stilted inflections -- an apparent tribute to Adam West -- manage to cross Lon Chaney with a GPS navigator.
Using Kick-Ass's newfound fame as a cover, they decide to settle a long-held vendetta against a mob boss named Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) using not magic or moral intelligence but an astonishing cache of weapons and what looks like serious training in the art of wuxia. Mistaking Kick-Ass for the assassins killing his men, D'Amico orders a hit, and it is his proto-dweeb son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who sets a trap under the guise of a rogue in leather tights named Red Mist. Having lost interest in his own superhero gambit almost as soon as it reaped a couple of public rewards (MySpace fame, the lust of the girl who had previously assumed he was gay), Dave takes a back seat to his fellow would-be's in a narrative death trap that barrels, in sequence after bloody sequence, toward its ostensible, ultimate taboo climax: a vicious battle between a grown man and a young girl.
Vaughn embraces the video-game aesthetic more fully and ardently than he does the ink-and-paper charms of the comic book, and the action scenes -- many shot with whirling 360-degree rotations and single-player perspectives -- suffer for it, numbing the viewer with every kind of overkill. Far from pure entertainment -- it is both too droopy and too manic for popular pleasure -- Kick-Ass is that new breed of popcorn film, an over-stuffed snack for those without stomachs.