The problem with Kick-Ass is that it has too much Kick-Ass in it. That statement could be read a couple of ways, all true. There’s a terrific story and a terrific film in this material—there’s probably several terrific films, truth be told—but for Matthew Vaughn’s version to work like it should, he needed a different protagonist. So what’s wrong with Kick-Ass? Haven’t we all dreamed of righting wrongs, of playing the hero and garnering the admiration of a grateful city? Dave Lizewski sure has. That’s the first thing he does—ask us, via voiceover, why nobody else had ever thought to try being a superhero. Most of us, of course, just entertain the notion and move on with our lives, but Dave, being a socially awkward, hormonal teenage comic-book nerd, hasn’t much of a life to move on to. So with no superpowers other than a combustible mix of optimism and naiveté, Dave procures a green wetsuit and sets about turning himself into Kick-Ass, baton-wielding dealer of righteous justice.
Thing is, there’s very little interesting about Dave Lizewski: aside from his disturbing tenacity, he’s just your average bespectacled high school outcast, and Aaron Johnson invests his role with little more than Everyman blandness. As the superhero Kick-Ass, he’s not very good at living up to his name, which is where Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Mortiz) come in. Out of costume, Big Daddy is disgraced ex-cop Damon Macready and Hit-Girl is his prepubescent daughter, Mindy. The two fight crime with psychotic gusto—they compensate for their lack of superpowers with an imposing arsenal of weaponry and, on the part of Hit-Girl, some serious martial-arts agility—and their presence in Kick-Ass is the most welcome thing about it. The familial dynamic is bizarre and a little off-putting (the two are introduced as Damon fires a gun at Mindy in order to teach her about absorbing the shock from a bulletproof vest), yet there’s a recognizable spark of emotion in it, a wellspring of paternal protectiveness and pre-adolescent need to please. Cage and Moritz are both excellent, nailing this difficult dynamic with what seems a minimum of effort and dredge that wellspring for all they can, in the process getting the film’s sole credible emotional moment. (Also, Cage does a hilarious impression of Adam West.)
Clearly, there’s a dichotomy set up here between Kick-Ass, the well-meaning but ineffectual fantasist, and Big Daddy & Hit-Girl, the dangerous and efficient vigilantes. This, then, is where the choice of protagonist becomes an issue: Vaughn wants an action-oriented vehicle that would best suit the latter and not the former and has done what he can to fashion it in this way. Yet he has to keep the title character in there, because the damn film is named after him. So while Cage and Moritz sneak around fucking people’s shit up and Mark Strong, in a performance far more entertaining and threatening than his recent turn in Sherlock Holmes, seethes and hollers as beleaguered cocaine kingpin Frank D’Amico, Johnson spends much of the film wandering dazedly through what seems like some other movie—a crime-fighter version of Observe and Report, complete with blatant Taxi Driver homages.
The point is clear: much like Observe, Kick-Ass is ostensibly about the allure of delusional fantasy and what happens when the fantasy collides with a cruel reality. But while seeing bad guys get theirs from a nimble and noble do-gooder is satisfying and cathartic on the page, it’s damned difficult to actually go out and do it, especially when you consider that most true villains like D’Amico aren’t as easily defeated in real life as they are in fiction. Vaughn doesn’t seem to give a damn about this, though; there’s a lot going on here about the kind of headspace one has to get into to do the things that his characters do and violence leading to more violence, but the filmmaker doesn’t question any of this.
Vaughn sees in this material little more than a candy-colored, empty-headed whirligig, a high-calorie feast of aesthetically fetishized ultraviolence.
Vaughn’s vision is a film where a character can say, “Like every serial killer already knew, eventually fantasizing doesn’t do it any more,” as explanation for his crime-fighting and not mean it ironically; a film where Nicolas Cage can get into an argument with his former partner over his murderous tactics and have Cage coming out as the determined voice of reason. In short, Vaughn sees in this material little more than a candy-colored, empty-headed whirligig, a high-calorie feast of aesthetically fetishized ultraviolence. Because Vaughn doesn’t do anything (or want to do anything) with the subtext that pushes at the seams of the story—because he merely wants to make a hyperactive basher—Kick-Ass, a series of bombastically bloodthirsty set-pieces constantly interrupted by a whiny dork in a wetsuit, falls apart.
Those set-pieces, though, try real hard to make themselves worth the wait. Vaughn definitely knows how to make something look good, and Kick-Ass is well-crafted. The look of the film is rich and evocative, with colors that pop and vibrate like comic-book frames. It’s a joy to look at, and it really sings during the action scenes, which are kinetic and thrilling, carefully assembled to move quickly without edging into incoherence (no mean feat, considering how quickly Hit-Girl moves). One sequence in particular, Hit-Girl’s nighttime raid on a warehouse, is flat-out terrific—Vaughn utilizes night-vision green visuals and limited perspective as a cheeky hat-tip to first-person-shooter video games, and his creative work with light sources, combined with solid sound mixing, makes for giddy, exhilarating action cinema.
Given that most of these scenes take place in the film’s latter half, it shouldn’t be surprising that Kick-Ass gets better as it goes—when Lizewski teams up with Hit-Girl to learn something about better living through violence. It’s straight-up power-fantasy stuff without a thought in its meaty head, and that’s not a dismissal or an insult. The issue isn’t with what the film is but how long it takes to accept the truth about what it is to itself and the audience. If only we’d gotten action-movie theatrics from the start—but the bulk of Kick-Ass is Vaughn pretending to care about the fact that his film is less about superheros and more about the disturbing, deranged mindset of the kind of people who would want to be superheros. It’s notable that things kick into gear only when Lizewski comes clean to a girl he has a crush on about his true identity—when he stops playing with her at not being a hero (and not being heterosexual, which gets into gender-issue stuff in which the film has no interest), Vaughn stops playing at making a film about ridiculous superhero fantasies and starts making a ridiculous superhero fantasy. His film is the better for it afterwards, but it takes a lot of doing to get there. Inadvertently or not, Kick-Ass takes on the worst aspects of its title character—the film is awkward, halting, unsure of itself and, despite its best efforts, unmemorable and ordinary.