Genre: Action, Comedy
Play time: irector: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriters: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloë Grace Moretz
Kick-Ass, based on a comic book series by Mark Millar (Wanted), has a schtick of which it is clearly enamored: blithe ultraviolence involving children. The point is to push the envelope not to shock you, but to make you laugh, and the movie takes pains not to push it so far that you become uncomfortable. In an early scene, Nicolas Cage, playing a former cop bent on revenge against a local drug kingpin, plies his pre-teen daughter (Chloe Moretz) with offers of ice cream to convince her to take a bullet in the chest, and then proceeds to shoot her, point-blank. She’s wearing a bulletproof vest, but it still hurts like hell; “it won’t be much worse than a punch in the chest,” he assures her.
The SXSW audience went wild during that scene, and I must admit that it’s pretty funny (not least because Nicolas Cage, in an appropriate follow-up to The Bad Lieutenant, is at his most hilariously Cage-ian). The problem is that the schtick is pretty much the film. Kick-Ass amounts to a bunch of clever stuff uselessly circling a void; a superhero comedy without compelling heroes, villains, or subtext.
The idea is that a bullied high school nerd (Aaron Johnson) becomes a costumed avenger — not through being bitten by a radioactive spider or investing millions in elaborate gadgetry, but through sheer force of will. He dons a costume he fashions out of scuba gear, buys a couple of nightsticks, names himself “Kick-Ass” and goes forth into the night. Before long, he encounters a pair much farther along the superhero path (that would be Nicolas Cage and his daughter, who goes by the moniker Hit-Girl), and runs afoul of the drug kinghpin (Mark Strong), whose son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) decides to call himself Red Mist and get in on the act.
This is not a terribly original notion — Spider-Man 2, Watchmen and other films have all played with the idea of regular folk becoming “superheroes,” whether out of necessity, a drive for vengeance or meaning, or something else. Kick-Ass doesn’t bring much to the table thematically; the title character opines that all you need to be a superhero is a blend of optimism and naivete, but that’s about as philosophical as the movie gets. At one point, the movie sabotages its own high concept, putting Kick-Ass through reconstructive surgery that leaves him largely invulnerable to pain, which to my mind makes him sort of like one of the X-Men.
The biggest problem, though, is that the movie doesn’t connect with its high schooler hero, who never develops much of a personality; it doesn’t help that the star, Aaron Johnson, gives a performance that’s largely charmless and not very funny. After the first act, Kick-Ass ditches him for long stretches, choosing instead to focus on the villain and his son, or Hit-Girl and her dad, with the result that the movie lacks an emotional center. There’s nothing to care about; the movie’s all attitude.
This is the latest in an endless series of plays on the superhero movie, and the genre remains ripe for exploration and satire. But Kick-Ass is more interested in striking a pose than doing anything interesting. It’s fitfully amusing, but not much more.