"Kick-Ass" is that rare film that actually improves upon its source - a rarity in general and positively unique in the sub-genre of comic book films. It also performs a special magic trick, beginning as a parody and ending as a genuine film in its own right. "Kick-Ass" is funny, thrilling, and, at the risk of killing the pun, pretty kick ass.
The Lionsgate film tells the story of one Dave Lizewski, an average kid who decides to actually do what others only dream of: become a costumed hero. He buys a scuba suit and after several failed attempts, manages to save someone inspiring a wave of interest in the concept of superheroes. He is, however, not alone. It is a familiar premise, but one the filmmakers handle well.
Based on the comic by co-creators Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., the film version of "Kick-Ass" diverts from its source in one major way. Whereas the book sticks to its initial premise of "real life superheroes" from start to finish, the film gleefully kicks this concept to the curb once Dave, in his Kick-Ass garb, meets Hit-Girl. While that scene is played for its shockingly grim reality of a ten-year old psychopath in the comic, the film decides that the mere existence of Hit-Girl jerks the story firmly out of our reality and accepts hers as the more interesting one to film. Indeed, Hit-Girl's first scene in costume is a joyous bloodbath played to triumphant rock music, setting the tone for the rest of the film as Dave's life becomes more surreal.
The latter half of Millar and Romita's comic series was produced concurrently with the film, a process that was no doubt the source of many of the plot divergences between the two. Initially, the film stays pretty close to the first three or four issues; the scene in which Dave first fails as Kick-Ass and gets hit by a car, for example, is wonderfully realized. While the movie continues to follow the broad plot of the series, its tone splits off for something brighter, poppier, and, honestly, more exciting than Millar's remit allowed.
At first, the film version of "Kick-Ass" sets out to be a parody of the most successful comic book films. For example, a sequence in which Big Daddy hits one of villain Frank D'Amico's operations could be right out of a Batman movie. Several exterior shots of the Lizewski home directly evoke similar shots of Aunt May's house from the first "Spider-Man." Many of the scenes are familiar ones, but play out with that "Kick-Ass" twist. All of this is intentional, aiming to disarm the audience with the lightness and energy of it. By the time Kick-Ass and Big Daddy are tortured over a live Internet stream, you find you have come to like Dave as a person in his own right, divorced of the comic book cliches surrounding him earlier.
It is a brave choice by director Matthew Vaughn. Parody usually comes at the expense of jeopardy, and jeopardy usually comes at the expense of laughs. Yet Vaughnn manages to straddle the line and deliver on both poles. While "Kick-Ass" is only his third film as a director, Vaughn shows a rare confidence as the film effortlessly weaves betweens its extremes. Unlike the comic, Dave gets the girl in an utterly ridiculous scene that manages to play on the exact same last-second reversal trick as the similar scene in the final pages of the book, though with completely opposite results. By rights, the scene should not work. She should call him a creep and kick him out of her room. Instead, they end up having sex behind the comic book store a few scenes later...and it just works. Yes, the film is fantasy fulfillment, but Vaughn actually earns the audience's belief in that fulfillment.
A large part of that is due to the inherent doofiness of Aaron Johnson in the role of Dave/Kick-Ass. Yes, Millar openly declares Dave to be "a regular teen," but Johnson is closer to regular than Romita's decidedly nerdier depiction. Perhaps he is more physically built than one would expect, but the Vaughnn establishes he had been working out in preparation to become Kick-Ass, which explains that nicely. While the Millar vision of Dave actually becomes more isolated by becoming Kick-Ass, the film version comes more to life. Johnson plays awkward and out-of-his-depth very well, far more likably than actors who have been in similar roles. By the point where his life is truly out of control, you genuinely want to see Johnson's Kick-Ass succeed.
That said, the film is entirely stolen by Chloe Moretz turn as Hit-Girl. Both in and out of the mask, Moretz takes the part about as far as it can go. Even in scenes with Nicholas Cage, she holds her own and even pulls scenes away from the actor known for his supersized performances. The most potent symbol of the film's "innocent, but knowing" tone, Moretz is both in on the joke and exudes credibility as the character. The film is quite aware of the character's power and how well the actress playing her carries it. She is the star of the final action sequence in which she storms a heavily armed penthouse to avenge her daddy. While Kick-Ass has his moments of triumph, Hit-Girl's final fight with D'Amico is the true climax of the film.
It should also be mentioned the film does not flinch when D'Amico smacks, chokes or slams a ten-year old girl into a desk. It is pretty brave and only underscores the genius of Hit-Girl as a film character when she takes her knocks and gives back as hard as she gets.
The film is also supported by strong performances by Mark Strong as Frank D'Amico and Nicholas Cage as Big Daddy. The film uses the initial relationship between the two characters as presented in the book, but omits the later revelations about Big Daddy's true identity. Cage brings his unique spin to the role when out of costume and adds an Adam West style diction to his vigilante persona. His scenes are funnier than they have any right to be, and it is all down to Cage's choices as an actor. Strong continues to deliver effortlessly as the bad guy. As in Vaughn's previous film, "Stardust," Strong commands attention simply by appearing on camera. It is no wonder he is becoming Hollywood's favorite heavy. Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Clark Duke round out a cast that is simply top-notch at delivering funny dialogue.
It is interesting to note that in a movie that features shocking visuals, truly outrageous comedy and well-crafted action scenes, that the actors and the parts they play are the more notable aspects of the film. That may be the biggest surprise "Kick-Ass" holds for its audience.
Does that mean the film only appeals to a certain niche that knows the grammar of a superhero film well? Possibly. It is also possible a person could go into the film only ever having seen the first "Spider-Man" and get as much out of the film as someone who watches every film based on a comic character. "Kick-Ass" is the sort of stylish, bright, poppy action flick we never see anymore. In the time of muddy, earth-toned movies attempting to reach for some sort of realism, "Kick-Ass" stands boldly on the rooftop and shouts, "Not me, brother!" It embraces garish color and character with equal abandon, highlighting why sometimes a movie needs to be big, loud and, yes, kick-ass.