Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as Aaron Johnson), Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse
My rating: ★ 1/2 stars
Ultra-violent comic book adaptation with good performances but limited appeal.
Kick-Ass is based on a comic book whose raison d’être, I understand, is to be irreverent and outrageous. Its point is to delight its readers by presenting them with material that some people would consider shocking and subversive, for example an eleven-year-old girl who curses and kills bad guys. But this material is not really subversive. It’s not trying to undermine anything. Instead, it merely revels in juvenile naughtiness.
The film is about a high school doofus, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who dons a wet suit and tries to be a superhero called “Kick-Ass.” The viewers spend much of the movie watching him suffer various painful confrontations and other indignities. That injury is funny is an underlying premise of this movie. We are invited to laugh at Kick-Ass. Yet, by the climax, the audience is expected to identify with him in vicarious wish-fulfillment as he triumphs over the bad guys. The change in audience identification isn’t completely successful.
In his superhero endeavor, Kick-Ass is aided by two more competent masked vigilantes, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), the above-mentioned eleven-year-old girl. The three of them, working both together and separately, attempt to bring down the organization of crime lord Frank Damico (Mark Strong), who reluctantly receives assistance from his son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), in thwarting Kick-Ass.
The puerility of the film comes out in the extreme level of violence, particularly with that violence used as a subject of humor. I assume there are some people who find other people getting hurt to be funny; otherwise, movies wouldn’t contain so many supposedly humorous sequences based around pain and injury. But I’m not one of those people. I don’t understand the humor in seeing characters beaten, mutilated, impaled, burned alive, or blown up in a giant microwave.
The problem with the extensive violence spread throughout the movie is that it becomes boring. Any musician will tell you that a piece needs dynamic changes. By the time the movie reaches its climax, the constant violence has ceased to be shocking or exciting. It’s just relentless.
Beneath the violence, however, is a movie that isn’t half bad. The story of an ordinary guy rejecting apathy and confronting crime that surrounds him has the makings of a strong story. This premise differs from most superhero films because the protagonist lacks any ability or equipment that makes him special. Dave references the famous line from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility,” when his voice-over narration says, “With no power comes no responsibility. Except that’s not true.” The idea that everybody, no matter how ordinary, has a responsibility to make the world a better place is a robust theme. Unlike most movies today, Kick-Ass actually has something to say.
Furthermore, the performances in the film are universally good. Moretz is a standout as Hit Girl, with astonishing charisma for a child actor. Taylor-Johnson is an appealing young lead. Mintz-Plasse shows promise as a character actor. As for the adults, Cage and Strong deliver their performances with appropriate over-the-top gusto. Both could play these roles in their sleep, though.
Kick-Ass makes the least interesting choices it could. Instead of trying to leverage its story and theme potential, it chooses to settle for shocking spectacle. Yet, in doing so, it’s staying true to the nature of its source material. Fans of the comic would no doubt be disappointed if the film strayed from the outrageous extremes of the source. Toning those down would undermine the whole point of making an adaptation of that comic book. And, yet, by not toning down the violence, by not elevating the source material and making a more ambitious movie, the filmmakers ensured that the appeal of the movie would be limited.