Kick-Ass is a movie disinterested in its own premise. It starts by repeatedly asking the question, "What would happen if someone tried to become a comic book superhero in real life?" The great disappointment of the movie is that it isn't half an hour before the film completely abandons that intriguing question to deliver another cartoon fantasy.
The story involves Dave, your standard issue high school loser, played by Aaron Johnson, who one day decides to stop merely reading about costumed crime fighters and become one. After modifying some scuba gear ordered off the internet into a disguise, he heads out into the world to thwart criminals as Kick-Ass. He is grievously injured by car thieves immediately. Of course.
So far so good. But after our hero is released from the hospital the film quickly loses focus of the material and starts departing into Marvel fantasy land, albeit with more violence and less wit. Dave finds unlikely success fighting off some muggers and predictably becomes an internet sensation, and it's here the material starts to flatline. Nothing we've been shown about Dave suggested he should be anything but a disaster as Kick-Ass and watching him do well isn't clever or ironic. It misses the point. Kick-Ass's incompetence is the heart of the comedy and glossing over it is like having Steve Carell's character in The 40 Year Old Virgin suddenly get really smooth with the ladies. Why are you telling this story again?
In a parallel story that never touches a toe down in reality, a disgraced former cop, played by Nicolas Cage, plots revenge against the mob boss who ruined his life. He too decides to go the super hero route and enlists his ten year old daughter Mindy as Robin to his Batman, or in this case, Hit Girl to his Big Daddy. He teaches Mindy to be an ultra-violent killing machine, training her to play with switchblades and automatic weapons the way most girls play with Barbie's Dream House. They are memorably introduced with Daddy shooting daughter point blank into her bullet-proof vest so she can get used to being shot.
I can't for the life of me decide what the filmmaker's think they're satirizing with these characters. They are just two more comic book creations with no more connection to reality than the Green Lantern and the script doesn't even scratch the surface of what should be an incredibly disturbing pair. It isn't long before the film is merely putting them through the motions of your standard comic book action scenes with Hit Girl laying waste to countless henchmen. Beyond the novelty of seeing a cute little moppet cursing like a Mamet character while committing mass murder this is nothing we haven't seen a hundred times. There's a fine line between spoofing action movie cliches and exploiting them and Kick-Ass ends up on the wrong side of it.
So why didn't the filmmakers follow through with such a killer idea? Maybe they had pressure to deliver the slam-bang action goods to a teenage audience and it overwhelmed any attempts at parody. It's possible they concluded, "Hey, you know what? Superheroes wouldn't work at all in real life," and just fell back on the usual comic action tropes, albeit with an amped up level of violence. Some will no doubt argue that the Kick-Ass is just being faithful to the well-regarded graphic novel by Mark Millar, but fidelity to source material is no excuse.
So Kick-Ass doesn't work as the movie it set out to be, what about the movie it is? Sorry to say that's pretty much a dud too. Kick-Ass is neither clever enough to be a satire of the comic book superhero nor exciting enough to merely be a decent example of one. With its premise out the window all were left with is some very forgettable characters and no real story to speak of. A few kids and an ex-cop puts on costumes and shoots some mobsters - The End. Aaron Johnson as the title character is all too convincing as a zero, not particular likable as Dave or fun as Kick-Ass. Just because you're playing a high school loser doesn't mean you need to have your personality removed. He lacks Tobey Maguires pluck as Peter Parker or the desperate humor of the Superbad guys. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, now there's a pair I'd enjoy seeing suit up to fight crime.
The supporting cast fares better, scoring some funny moments when the film takes a break from the action. Mark Strong and Superbad alum Christopher Mintz-Plasse are amusing as an inept team of father and son villains, and Cage is reliably goofy as Big Daddy, actually providing the film with something approaching humanity in his relationship with his daughter.
Much fuss has been made about the level of violence involving Hit Girl, an eleven year old child. A lot of these complaints miss the point, I think, objecting to the very idea of a child in a violent scenario. I'm of the opinion there is pretty much nothing you can't show in a movie if you get the tone right. A Fish Called Wanda involved the murder of three dogs and damned if I still don't chuckle at the thought of it. Unfortunatley Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaugh has no such light touch, thoroughly losing his grip on the material early on, so by the time Hit Girl is being pummeled in the face by a full grown man we are cringing when we should be having fun.
Hilarious, I Swear
Tone is a slippery thing to get a handle on - Cross it and the audience will sit through comedy with stony faces and yawn through drama. But make a friend of it and you can get away with damn near anything. Want to do a comedy about a nuclear holocaust? How about a farce about vicious racism? Get the tone right and you've got Dr. Strangelove and Blazing Saddles - and I defy you to find two funnier films. If director Matthew Vaughn had done Strangelove I imagine we'd get lingering close-ups of Russian peasants burned alive in a nuclear hellfire. When audiences winced and turned away Vaughn would cry "What's the problem? I'm being ironic!" You can't stand back and say you don't mean it when you spent the first 40 minutes of your own movie telling me the opposite.