Rated: R. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. 3 stars.
"Kick-Ass" begins with the wide-eyed teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) introducing himself as an average kid who loiters at comic book stores with his smart-alecky friends, drools over pretty girls he can barely say hello to, and takes an enthusiastic interest in Internet porn. Sounds like another gross-out, coming-of-age teen comedy. "Kick-Ass" is some of that, but it also, well, kicks ass.
Based on the hit comic book series by Mark Millar, "Kick-Ass" is a promising example of the next generation of comic book-based movies. The classic comics of the Marvel and DC variety have been picked over for decades and, good or bad, they come with a lot of baggage and fan hysteria, leaving filmmakers little wiggle room. But "Kick-Ass" is fresh material told with the attitude of today's fan-boy (and girl) generation.
Tired of routinely getting mugged by the neighborhood bullies, Dave decides it's time to fight back by transforming himself into a real-life superhero he calls Kick-Ass. For a naive kid, this means a head-to-toe green wet suit, no self-defense training, and not a drop of superhuman ability. His first outing does not go well, and, after a lengthy stay in the hospital, he's back at it — with extra steel plating that allows him to take a beating better than most. When one of his determined poundings is caught on amateur video and becomes a YouTube sensation, a superhero legend is born.
Kick-Ass' big splash unintentionally escalates a war between drug king pin Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage), a vengeful ex-cop who's created his own better-equipped superhero called Big Daddy. Macready is also a doting father of 12-year-old Mindy (Chloe Moretz), and he's spent the past few years training her to be his eager sidekick — a purple-wigged, 4-foot-tall death machine called Hit-Girl.
Though underused here, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin' in "Superbad") holds onto his teen geek legend status as Frank D'Amico's son, who's eager to enter the family business but is always a little left out. To impress his dad, he invents his own superhero character, Red Mist, and uses his flashy accessories to lure Kick-Ass and Big Daddy to their doom.
Director Matthew Vaughn makes a risky choice by slowly escalating the film from teenage geek-comedy to stylized comic book adaptation. Without the visual treatment that signifies "comic book fantasy" in the film's first half, we essentially have children cheerfully partaking in starkly violent acts that leave you thinking more about Child Protective Services than superhero mayhem.
When we first meet the Macreadys, Damon is helpfully describing how to take a bullet to the chest — and then he blows Mindy away. She's wearing a bulletproof vest, of course, but it's still unsettling, as are most of Hit-Girl's initial scenes once she jumps in to help the underequipped Kick-Ass. She may be a wiz with a switchblade and can take down a roomful of armed gangsters, but she's also a homicidal child who kills without blinking.
Lucky for us, Vaughn's risk pays off with a stellar second half that makes the first part of the film surprisingly easy to forgive and forget. Memorable performances from Johnson, the terrifically weird Cage and, especially, Moretz as the nimble Hit-Girl make this an underdog adventure that will have you laughing, gripping your armrest and bursting into applause when asses are ultimately kicked.