The more I mull over Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, the more I feel disappointed in it. Having much enjoyed Vaughn’s last feature, Stardust (2007), and having liked his first film, Layer Cake (2004), more than anyone else I know, I had high hopes for this movie. Add in a potentially clever premise—a teenage nerd with no superpowers decides to become a superhero—and the possibility of a bout of bad taste and absurdity in the form of over-the-top violence, and my anticipation for a couple of hours of trashy entertainment was great.
The pity is, however, that what I was hoping for and what I got only kind of match up—and a lot of this has to do with Kick-Ass never quite latching onto the right tone. The general idea is for the movie to be one of those postmodern deconstructions of superhero lore that pop up from time to time, from The Tick to Pixar’s The Incredibles. Here, the premise is firmly wedged between the real world and the question of what would happen if a normal, everyday teen—out of a sense of optimism and naïveté—decided to become a masked superhero called Kick-Ass.
The sometimes clever, often cheeky observations of comic-book truisms are the film’s apex. This is when Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman are at their best, and when the film manages to be both quirky and funny. But if you start to poke around underneath, you’ll find a tendency for the movie to subvert its own subversiveness.
With all the trouble the film goes to in order to reinvent the comic-book movie, the bare bones of the plot is Superhero Flick 101. Even the subplot of nerdy, psychotic superhero Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter and protégé Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) gets whittled down to nothing more than a revenge yarn. For all the effort the film takes in making itself the antithesis of yet another Batman or Spider-Man movie, it never manages to quite set itself apart. At the same time, while Kick-Ass aims to exist in the real world, the action scenes are nothing but absurd. Unable to find the right pitch, the movie wavers from one mood to the other.
None of this means the film has little going for it. On the contrary, the action scenes are assured, coherent and—best of all—imaginative. Vaughn’s direction oozes style, and this kind of over-energized action picture suits him perfectly. But he does more than just shoot fight scenes and shoot-outs. In one instance, Vaughn managed with a couple of mugs of hot chocolate to get more of an emotional reaction out of me than he has any right to. And along with Werner Herzog and his recent Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans, the movies have me reassessing my opinion of Nicolas Cage (at least until he and his animal-pelt hairpiece return this summer in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). In a lot of ways, it’s the things that Vaughn nails that makes the movie a bit of a letdown, because they point to the potential for something so much greater.
A lot has been made in some quarters—including a pretty scathing review by Roger Ebert—of the fact that the film features 11-year-old superhero Hit-Girl partaking in wholesale (albeit extremely stylized) murder on multiple occasions. (It’s worth noting that the objections are more to the age of the character than the acts themselves). The movie never condones any of this, but never completely damns it either. Maybe I’m too jaded or desensitized, but I never found Hit-Girl’s antics as morally repugnant as some believe I’m supposed to.
In the end, does Kick-Ass up the ante in action movies? Yes. Is it horribly offensive? It would appear that is up to the viewer to decide. Rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use—some involving children.