"Kick-Ass" exceeded my expectations. One could chalk it up to my intense dislike for the source material, an 8-issue comic series from Mark Millar, that really made me weigh heavily whether I should give this movie the time of day. In the end, the track record of the director, Matthew Vaughn was enough to get me into that theater seat. Fortunately for fans and non-fans alike, "Kick-Ass" manages to find a happy medium between the c-rate source material and a very competent action-comedy. The film begins like most superhero movies, with the origin of our hero, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), your average "invisible" awkward high schooler. A number of factors influence his decision to don a costume and attempt to fight crime. Dave, under the mantle of Kick-Ass, soon experience all the effects of why there are no superheroes.
From here, the movie departs reality, and like any real superhero, our protagonist is officially called to action due to traumatic events (a point our hero and narrator slyly mocks on his first attempt). Quickly moving from breaking up fights and finding lost pets, Dave uses his alter ego as a way to win the heart of his crush, Katie, who believes Dave to be her gay friend. Enter Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and, to borrow a phrase from the great Jim Ross, "business is about to pick up." Unfortunately, "Kick-Ass" is nearly two hours long and amidst the gold of the movie is a lot of silver. "Kick-Ass" on a whole is an above average movie and it is a testament to Vaughn's skill that he makes Millar's source material watchable without a lot of eye rolling. Gone are entirely one-note characters, side plots which go nowhere, and sophomoric humor that tries too hard.
Vaughn's film fleshes out the characters of the movie quite nicely, boldly taking one of the original comic's only memorable plot points and spoiling it up front, instead using it to make the intentions of this strange cast of characters feel just a little bit more plausible. The villain of the film, Frank D'Amico and his family are still thinly written characters, but thanks to a great performance by Mark Strong and the film's willingness to not hide the villain as some shadowy force, he becomes a character to be feared, even if you already know how events will play out. On the flipside though, Kick-Ass himself still feels underwritten. The viewer becomes apart of both his lives, but the character often is nothing more than the butt of joke after joke, deviating only to deliver a pithy one-liner and the occasional "holy crap" moment.
What makes "Kick-Ass" come off as a better movie than it actually is comes in the form of Hit-Girl and Big Daddy. Vaughn's adaptation is quite different from Millar's, but it's all for the better. They get the best lines, best scenes, and best back-story; as a result, whenever they are on screen, "Kick-Ass" feels like one of the best offerings of the superhero genre. When they're absent, things are back to being just ok. Nicolas Cage delivers another "out there" performance, selling the most absurd and shocking scenes with perfection. When he's in character as Big Daddy, he lends a performance that just doesn't work on the printed page, delivering lines echoing Adam West's Batman. Chloe Moretz is nothing short of amazing and horrifying as pre-teen homicidal maniac, with the mouth of a sailor.
When Hit-Girl is on the job, Vaughn delivers some of the most amazing action set pieces I've seen. A pitch-black assault in the film's final act should easily cement its spot in the history books of action sequences. Lit solely by gunfire, first-person night vision shots, and one final trick I won't spoil, it's brutal and will leave your jaw on the floor. Its spectacle is easily topped in the final action scene, but the sense of importance and emotion is never recaptured. Moretz deserves all the kudos in the world for portraying a sadistic killing machine, who, deep down, is still a little girl with a heart in the quiet moments.
There's a lot more to "Kick-Ass" than what I've said, but that's one of the film's biggest faults. It's a movie that should be easy to describe, but gets too bogged down by quantity instead of quality. Unfortunately, that quantity is so tightly weaved together, that the fat couldn't be trimmed without starting from square one. That blame falls back on the shoulders of Millar as this movie is skeletally a strong adaptation of his work, but work that isn't that good to begin with. Matthew Vaughn and company did the best with what they had, put their own mark on the package, and have provided audiences with a (darkly) fun film. The audience I was with was committed to the movie and some of that good cheer made the experience much more memorable, but that good cheer doesn't make "Kick-Ass" a better movie.