Review: 'Kick-Ass'

(Three stars)

What if fanboy zeal inspired a superhero-loving teen to take to the streets -- in his own homemade costume -- to clean them up and bask in the glory of a grateful citizenry? That's the idea behind "Kick-Ass," itself based on a fanboy-fave comic-book series by writer Mark Millar ("Wanted") and illustrator John Romita Jr.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Millar nevertheless understands that a zero isn't going to just waltz his way into being a hero. On the page and on the screen, "Kick-Ass" riffs on the wish-fulfillment afforded by tales of derring-do and the ill-advisedness of taking on the task in real life. "With no power comes no responsibility," Dave Lizewski muses, but he's wrong, of course. When he pulls on his eBay-bought wetsuit and prowls the streets as "Kick-Ass," he's taking his very life into his hands.

Lizewski quickly lands himself in the hospital, lucky to be alive. But that accomplished, the story spins wilder and wilder "what-if"s, throwing Dave (an appealingly nerdy Aaron Johnson) into a world much broader than the walls of his high school. First, having had a taste of adrenaline, the kid can't stop himself from donning his outfit and returning to his patrols -- shivs and guns be damned. Then, he gets the world's attention when a cell-phone video makes him an Internet celebrity.

His naivete compounded by small-scale success, Kick-Ass needs a reality check. Oddly, it comes in the form of an unreal pair of more experienced superheroes: the Batman-styled Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year-old sidekick Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). The secretive father and daughter are all kinds of wrong and, in their own ways, just as delusional as Dave. But they're exceedingly more successful, cutting down their foes with fatal efficiency.

The sight of an 11-year-old girl slicing criminals to shreds with a katana (and the sound of her uttering the nastiest of profanities) will prove too much for many, but "Kick-Ass" will be catnip for the superhero crowd and audiences hungry for material that's deliriously edgy. Director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman (previous collaborators on "Stardust") embrace Millar's gleeful disinterest in political correctness. (In fact, the film was developed side by side with the initial run of six comic-book issues, a new precedent in comic-book movies).

While up-and-comer Moretz (recently signed to Scorsese's next film) will get the most attention from "Kick-Ass," the real news may be a return to form for Nicolas Cage. Along with the recent "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," "Kick-Ass" displays a reinvigorated Cage eager to take risks (his vocal choice, for Big Daddy, which I won't spoil, is jaw-droppingly funny). Cage can play a second-fiddle Johnny Depp for Disney as long as he continues to step out to indie films like this one.

"Kick-Ass" isn't Ibsen, but it knows just what it is (I refer you to the title) and goes for the gusto: gratuitous ... well, gratuitous everything.

Rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use -- some involving children. 1 hour, 57 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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