Gleefully amoral and almost sinfully entertaining, Kick-Ass is a smart and smart-alecky takedown of the superhero era that never quite comes up with the ideas to match its bravado. It zips along with such energy and bravado that nearly any audience will be captivated, but a slow second act reveals a few seams beneath the ultra-smooth polish, and at the end it's hard not to be frustrated that the movie so nearly reaches perfection.
Still, the list of things to enjoy is immense, starting with the terrific breakout performance by Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski, the most average of average outer-borough New Yorkers you can imagine. Obsessing over comic books and girls along with his two best friends (Clark Duke and Evan Peters), Dave decides, appropos of nothing really, that it's high time someone try to be a superhero in real life. His disastrous first outing in the Kick-Ass uniform of a green scuba suit and Timberlands leaves him with a body full of metal pins, which in this slightly-off comic book universe, is basically equivalent to superpowers. Everyday citizens are encouraged to contact Kick-Ass on MySpace for help solving their dilemmas, and though he's keeping his identity secret, Dave's new side job helps bring him closer to hottie Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), although that's mostly because she thinks he's gay.
But Kick-Ass is just a child in costume compared to the vigilante duo of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), a father-daughter team taking it upon themselves to destroy the city's crime syndicate and avenge their wife/mother's death. Done up in a purple bob and with savage knife-throwing skills, Moretz's Hit Girl outdoes every single person in the movie, combining karate-kicking energy with a little girl's desire to see her dad smile. Big Daddy, clearly mentally ill and depriving his daughter of an actual childhood, is a complicated character made hilarious and empathetic by Cage's totally wacko performance, and the rapport between him and Moretz grounds the movie precisely where it could have flown off the handle entirely. These two characters never should have worked, but it says a lot about Matthew Vaughn's sure-handed direction that they're the absolute highlight.
Representing the villains are Mark Strong as crime boss Frank D'Amico and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as his dweeby son Chris, who creates his own superhero persona Red Mist in order to draw Kick-Ass in and, eventually, destroy him. The relationship between Kick-Ass and Red Mist that develops in the middle of the film-- two awkward teenagers really just looking for a fellow superhero friend-- is touching but underexplored, and a few scenes of Dave swooning over the blank Katie could have been swapped out for a few more seconds of Kick-Ass and Red Mist dancing to Gnarls Barkley. The four self-styled superheroes are by far the best part of the movie, and had Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman put them together more, they could have bolstered the saggy middle act of the film.
By the time the action-packed third act gets started, though, it's easy to forget all the middle section flaws and get caught in the sheer bliss of a movie that knows exactly where it's going and won't let up for a beat. What makes Kick-Ass special is its humor and insane violence, but perhaps its biggest pleasure is just that it's a good action movie, well-choreographed and inventively shot and, oh yeah, featuring a 12-year-old girl as the central assassin. Adapting Mark Millar's graphic novel, Vaughn employs comic book-style transitions and candy-colored production design to create a unique world that's enough like ours to be funny (Kick-Ass first achieves fame via YouTube) but simplified enough to act as a living comic. Making his film entirely outside the studio system and on a shoestring budget, Vaughn took seriously the idea that, like his characters, "With no power comes no responsibility." Free from rules and constraints, Vaughn made the first great alternative to our superhero movie era, and one that comes dazzlingly, if a little frustratingly, close to perfection.