While there are films such as The Dark Knight and Watchmen which represent the powerful possibilities of the comic-book movie, there are also ones like Kick-Ass which remind us why there are still disbelievers out there. Director Matthew Vaughn, who has impressed many with his first two feature films, takes a big step back here, although it is not because he doesn't have what it takes behind the camera. It is because he and co-writer Jane Goldman (who adapted the script from Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.'s comic books) have such a hectic disregard for tone that the range of emotions they are trying to evoke combine to create one giant, forgettable mess.
Aaron Johnson stars as the title character, and although I think he is a rather talented actor, he struggles his way through most of this film. Much of that is because his role, like so many others in this film, is painfully underwritten. He plays high-schooler Dave Lizewski, a teenager who spends his days either reading comic books or staring at his computer screen. He has dreams of his English teacher, as well as Katie (Lyndsy Fonesca), the girl who has a locker close to his own. If things weren't bad enough already, Dave's mother died about eighteen months prior to the film's introduction, and his relationship with his father (Garrett M. Brown) doesn't stretch far beyond debating cereal brands before school begins.
Dave finds a reason to live when he places an online order for a yellow and green costume, which, despite his lack of extraordinary physical attributes, he plans to wear to fight local crime. Up until the point of receiving the costume, Kick-Ass starts off on a tolerable note. Dave shares some snappy dialogue with a few of his closest friends, and Johnson is able to form some type of a character through his voice-over. When the costume comes in the mail (and he subsequently becomes Kick-Ass), however, the film becomes entangled in an annoying mix of realism and fantasy.
While watching this film, I was reminded of Zombieland. This is a film I respect and enjoy because it wants to be a comedy, and it works very hard to be a darn good one. Kick-Ass, on the other hand, has absolutely no idea what it wants to be, and that is a very off-putting attribute for a film to have. For example, when Kick-Ass tries to combat evil for the first time, he is left with a brutal stab wound. Is this realistic? You bet, and even though it doesn't exactly fit with the tone of the first fifteen minutes, it works within the moment. Unfortunately, after receiving the wound, Dave is hit by a car traveling at high speeds in what seems to be no more than a 30 mph zone. This is where the film begins to sacrifice its realism for bizarre comedy, which ended up leaving a sour taste in mouth.
And Vaughn doesn't stop there. Kick-Ass is filled with moments of harsh violence (notably, a third-act torture sequence) that are intended to draw deep emotional response from the audience. Even though these scenes might stand well on their own, they become repulsive when juxtaposed with similarly-brutal violence that is intended for laughs. I have a problem watching a film that wants me to laugh at a punch to the face in one scene, and laugh at the exact same physical violence a minute later.
To its credit, the action sequences are clever and well-filmed, and the performers are very appealing. Hit-Girl is played with remarkable swagger by the 13-year old Chloe Grace Moretz and her father, Big Daddy, is performed with similar attraction by Nicolas Cage. These two actors share scenes early on in the film that are delightfully funny, and they gave me a false sense of hope for the rest of the film.
The other plot points of Kick-Ass include a struggling mob boss (Mark Strong) who agrees to let his admiring son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) dress up as a superhero in order to gain the trust of Kick-Ass, and hopefully stop the murders that are ruining his business. Strong does an entertaining job with another stock character, and although Mintz-Plasse is somewhat of a disappointment here, I can't help but put most of the blame on the screenwriters.
I believe the actual violence in Kick-Ass has been over-hyped. It is an R-rated film, and it certainly has content that deserves such a rating, but it is the context of the violence that makes this film such a chore to connect with. It's not because the young Moretz stabs and swears her way through this picture, but rather that the filmmakers seem to so blissfully disregard any point they want this film to have. Parts of the second act suggest a film depicting the power of modern technology, but after Kick-Ass's first video receives over 20 million hits, the viral aspects of the film virtually disappear.
I can't recall a recent film with such limited (or unwilling, I'm still not so sure) control over its tone. But I have to give credit where credit is due, and Chloe Grace Moretz makes quite a statement in this film. She graces the screen with the established likes of Nicolas Cage and Mark Strong, and actually commands more attention than they do. When something like Hit-Girl is created, a character that every audience member will walk out talking about, and there also happens to be a performer of Moretz's caliber playing it, there is a fine line between overusing the role and underusing it. To exemplify, Heath Ledger's Joker rode that line beautifully in The Dark Knight, whereas Kristen Stewart was undervalued in The Runaways. Regrettably, Moretz is also underused, and the obscene, drawn-out elements of Kick-Ass take front stage.