Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: "Kick-Ass"

There are a lot of movies that want to be regarded as edgy and rebellious, but fall squarely into mainstream Hollywood mores. They toy with conventions rather than shattering them. "The Runaways" is a recent, agreeable example.

"Kick-Ass" is something different: A film that is entirely subversive.

This off-the-wall adaptation of an underground comic book about underage superheroes is ultra-violence mixed with laughs, the one segueing into the other and back again. It's "Spider-Man" meets "A Clockwork Orange."

I was disturbed, and entertained, and disturbed by how much I was entertained.

Director Matthew Vaughn lingers lovingly over slo-mo depictions of bullets perforating bodies and fists smashing lips. In one scene, a goon gets the muzzle of a gun pressed inside his mouth, and when it blows out his cheek, the expectation is that the audience will laugh.

And we do.

I should mention that the most heinous blood-letting is perpetrated by an 11-year-old lass who wears a purple wig and mask and calls herself "Hit-Girl." As for the bad guys she's about to blow away and/or carve up, she calls them the f-word, the c-word, and pretty much all the other words little girls aren't supposed to say.

It's a smashmouth performance by young Chloe Moretz, who speaks those naughty epithets with an unpracticed ease, using that dramatic rasp so favored by avengers from Dirty Harry to Batman. Having them come out of this kewpie-doll-sized character's mouth immediately renders all those other iterations utterly ridiculous.

The star of the movie, at least in name, is the title character. An everyday put-upon nerd who can't get a date or stand up to bullies, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) finds courage when he dons a green-and-yellow wetsuit and starts carousing around Manhattan, calling himself Kick-Ass and looking for crime to fight.

"Like every serial killer knows, eventually fantasizing doesn't do it anymore," Dave/Kick-Ass narrates about his super-hero longings.

His first outing doesn't go so well, resulting in an extended hospital stay. But eventually his exploits are captured on YouTube and he becomes a sensation, attracting the attention of other super-wannabes.

Chief among them are Hit-Girl and her partner Big Daddy, who dresses like Batman and actually is her daddy, played by Nicolas Cage. Cage, who's a huge comics fan himself and almost played Superman, is delightfully cracked as a man who trains his only child to be a cheerful killing machine. Their target is Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), the local mob boss with whom they have history.

Also popping up is Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who's even geekier than Lizewski. He wants to be Kick-Ass' sidekick, which seems a little odd since he owns an awesome red Mistmobile and a lot of hardware, while all Kick-Ass seems to have at his disposal is a couple of billy clubs.

The screenplay for "Kick-Ass" was written by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. I haven't read it, but based on its cover teaser -- "Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!" -- they seem to have nailed the tone spot on.

Fanboys are apt to enter full-on gush mode for the movie's gleeful depictions of brutality. But will a film that doesn't play by the rules gain a mass following? Heaven help us, we can only hope.

3 stars out of four


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