Hapless teen Dave Lizewski (Johnson) decides to man up and fight crime as a costumed vigilante, Kick-Ass. After first becoming an internet phenomenon, he quickly bites off more than he can chew when he falls foul of a ruthless mobster, but two genuine superheroes, Big Daddy (Cage) and his daughter, Hit-Girl (Moretz), may hold the key to salvation. And kicking ass.
Where the heck did this come from?
Clearly, Matthew Vaughn is not a man lacking in confidence. After all, anyone who can chat up Claudia Schiffer is doing okay in the stones department, while he’s never been backwards in coming forwards about the merits of his movies. Stardust and Layer Cake, his two films to date as director, were entertaining and satisfying; no mean feat.
Kick-Ass, though, is an evolutionary leap, and the work of a director ready to gatecrash the A-list. If there’s a more entertaining movie this year, then 2010 is going to be a belter.
Vaughn went outside the studio system to independently fund and make Kick-Ass; it was the best move he could have made. Without studio stormtroopers breathing down his neck, Vaughn found the freedom to make a thrilling, hugely violent, darkly funny comic-book
flick that didn’t have to pander to toy manufacturers or fast food chains putting pressure on him to pull his punches. Little girl in a superhero costume? Cute. Shifts Happy Meals. Little girl in a superhero costume slicing people’s legs off and saying the C-word? Not so much.
Like Watchmen, Kick-Ass is a comic-book movie that knows it’s a comic-book movie. In fact, it’s a film that couldn’t exist without previous comic-book movies, with constant references to its predecessors — Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy wears a suit that’s about one button from receiving a cease and desist letter from Batman’s lawyers — but here, the emphasis is on fun, not po-faced profundities. Here, the smiley face is genuine.
It starts — after a crunching opening gag — with a raspy-voiced, ‘Who am I?’ narration from Aaron Johnson’s Dave Lizewski that obviously recalls Tobey Maguire’s Moaning Minnie ways in the Spider-Man series. A normal teen — bit geeky, bit gawky, very invisible to girls — Dave is driven to answer his own question — why does nobody ever try becoming a superhero in real life? — when he’s beaten up, for the umpteenth time, by snarling thugs.
With a web-bought wetsuit as a costume, Dave transforms himself into the world’s weediest vigilante. From there, we all know how it’s going to play: the nervous newcomer must
have his mettle tested and his ass kicked in order to learn from the experience and become a better hero. Right?
Well, ish. Vaughn’s creative freedom means that not only does he pull no punches, he throws in some kicks, a quick stabbing and a moving car for good measure. The incident gives Dave metal plates in his bones — a clear nod to Wolverine — and deadened nerve-endings, more than enough to ensure he can take a beating, and so the newly named Kick-Ass returns emboldened and rapidly — in just one of the many neat pops at modern culture — becomes an internet celebrity.
But that brings him to the attention of local Mafia boss, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong, continuing his run of menacing bad guys), whose people are being butchered by a superhero. D’Amico, heading for a Scarface-esque meltdown, thinks Kick-Ass is responsible and, with the aid of his wannabe superhero son, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, showing another string to the McLovin bow) tries to hunt him down. But the real culprits are Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, a father-daughter vigilante team who are the Real Deal when it comes to offing bad guys.
Ah yes, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. One of Kick-Ass’ many glorious perversions of the superhero genre is the admission that none of the main characters is playing with a full deck. At one point, Dave compares himself to a serial killer, pushing his fantasy into reality for bigger kicks, and while the motivations of our heroic crimefighters may be noble — essentially, with no power comes great responsibility — their methods and behaviour is borderline bonkers.
But the father-daughter team who propel both the plot and most of the film’s genuinely world-class action sequences are something else entirely. A former hero cop with a wispy ’tache on his upper lip and vengeance on his mind, Big Daddy has spent years of his life training his 11 year-old daughter, Mindy (Chloe Moretz), into becoming a pint-sized Angel Of Death. When we first meet them, he’s shooting her at point-blank range then buying her ice cream. They are, the pair of them, batshit deranged. They are, the pair of them, a complete hoot.
Cage, who’s been on moon-faced auto-pilot for a while now, is a revelation here. Maybe it’s because — whether it’s taking on
a warehouse full of bad guys in a single-shot action scene that bears comparison with Oldboy’s corridor punch-up, or suddenly lurching into a wonderful Adam West impression when speaking as Big Daddy — he’s having fun again. But it’s clear from the first moment we see him, sporting a ’70s gay-bar ’tache and drawling, “Good call, baby doll,” as he shoots his 11 year-old daughter in the chest, that this is the vital, energised, anything goes Cage of yesteryear.
But really, this is Hit-Girl’s show. She’s the character that will
be on most people’s lips when they leave the theatre. Some, especially if they write or read the Daily Mail, will be falling over themselves to decry the character as a shockingly irresponsible, blindly violent encapsulation of everything that’s wrong with modern society. The rest of us, though, will be too busy noting that the film’s violence is clearly fantastical and cartoonish and not to be taken seriously. In fact, as Hit-Girl mows down scores of henchman with murderous élan, like a cross between The Bride and Leon’s Matilda, there’s no doubt that Vaughn has opened a packet of instant icon powder. Just add water.
And, as with Cage and Big Daddy, it’s all in the casting. Vaughn has an unerring eye for talent — would Daniel Craig be Bond without Layer Cake? Would Mark Strong be Hollywood’s go-to bad-guy without a trial run in Stardust? Would Vinnie Jones... okay, we’ll stop there — and in Chloe Moretz, he’s locked in on another sure thing. Mature beyond her years, Moretz is a dab hand with the knives and the cocky one-liners, but never lets us forget that, beneath the bravura and butterfly knives, Hit-Girl is just a kid.
With characters as luminous and exciting as Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, it’d be easy for Kick-Ass to pull a Clooney Batman and get lost in the scrum. But Vaughn, working from a wonderfully zesty screenplay written with Jane Goldman, ensures that the focus remains on Dave.
In fact, the real trick — the genuine triumph — is that Vaughn makes us want to follow Kick-Ass, throwing in all sorts of interesting story wrinkles (the girl he’s after thinks he’s gay, so he plays along) and making Dave’s teen angst compelling in a way that Sam Raimi’s otherwise excellent Spider-Man work missed by a mile. And Johnson — a world away
from Nowhere Boy’s John Lennon — even gets the big, barnstorming, standing ovation hero moment at the end of the film’s insanely OTT finale. We won’t say too much, but for this: you’ll never think of Elvis Presley in the same way again.
But the real hero here is Vaughn, steering this material like he’s been doing it all his life, handling wild tonal shifts with the implacable calm of an opening batsman, and marshalling a series of world-class action scenes, including a standout strobe-light shootout that nails the video-game aesthetic more perfectly than any movie to date, as if he were the bastard son of John Woo and Tony Scott. We’ve still no idea where the heck Kick-Ass came from, but we’re glad it did.
A ridiculously entertaining, perfectly paced, ultra-violent cinematic rush that kicks the places other movies struggle to reach.