Like any good caped crusader, the two-fisted superhero satire Kick-Ass maintains a dual identity. Kick-Ass partly plays up the incongruity of wimpy social misfits donning dorky costumes to fight crime; imagine a Kevin Smith film with capes. But it's also a darkly comic, anarchic revenge picture, as if Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez tried to push their love of violent slapstick as far as the budget for stage blood would allow.
Only a filmmaker with powers beyond those of ordinary directors could balance Kick-Ass' changes in tone. Matthew Vaughn, director of Stardust and Layer Cake, only partially integrates the film's bipolar personality. Scenes driven by cruddy, uninspired clichés partner up with moments of crazed, genre-flick genius, especially those involving a foul-mouthed, tween-age titan.
Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar (writer of Wanted), Kick-Ass begins with high schooler Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who often fantasizes about his English teacher's rack, and occasionally about the perplexing absence of superheroes in the real world. Sick of bullies and do-nothing bystanders, Dave orders a wet suit, matching balaclava and thick batons to become Kick-Ass, self-appointed guardian for New York. His patrols mostly consist of wandering the streets in costume and soliciting messages on his MySpace page.
A vaguely described medical mishap increases Dave's ability to withstand pain, but a run-in with vicious drug dealers proves that he's in over his head. Fortunately, a dynamic father-daughter duo, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) come to his rescue and reveal themselves to be highly trained, armed to the teeth and, unlike comic book do-gooders, eager to massacre underworld goons.
Meanwhile, Kick-Ass' viral popularity and folk hero status draw the attention of crime lord Frank D'Amico's (Mark Strong) spoiled, ignored son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Mintz-Plasse, immortalized as McLovin in Superbad, affirms his skill at playing adenoidal young men who waver between frustration and delusion, and his character concocts a scheme to play sidekick to Kick-Ass.
Vaughn clearly intends the "origin of Kick-Ass" portion of the film to be a highly specific parody of Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man, from the voice-over narration to the working-class row houses. Chris arguably serves as Harry Osborn to Dave's Peter Parker. Unfortunately, too many scenes come across as a hacky imitation of a superhero film. It's hard to tell which is more derivative and unconvincing: the gangsters, the high school scenes or the romantic subplot.
Nevertheless, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl elevate Kick-Ass to the pop culture big leagues from their first scene, in which the father tests his daughter's bullet-proof vest in an insane variation on the William Tell story. Flashbacks, illustrated comic book style, reveal Big Daddy's backstory and why he raised his daughter to be a killing machine. In plainclothes, Cage comes across as a geeky Ned Flanders type, but as a vigilante, he speaks, hilariously, like Christopher Walken doing an Adam West impression. His outfit looks like he stole Christian Bale's batsuit and removed the logos, and its awkward appearance only reinforces the character's tenuous grip on reality.
Moretz's butch, breathy delivery suggests Clint Eastwood as played by Little Miss Sunshine. Hit-Girl's action scenes literally had the audience cheering: She bounces off walls, reloads in mid-air, and uses anything from handguns to kitchen implements to dispatch platoons of hulking bad guys. Her bulky costume, with mask and purple wig, also keeps from overly sexualizing the role, although her brief sequence in a schoolgirl uniform feels a little pervy. And while Big Daddy's notion of good parenting may be completely bonkers, the tenderness between father and daughter gives Kick-Ass its heart.
Kick-Ass leaves some ideas frustratingly unexplored, like Dave and Chris' budding relationship as frenemies, or the recurring theme of bad fathers. Nevertheless, every time the film's entertainment value seems to be in jeopardy, here comes Hit-Girl to save the day.