Kick-Ass (****)

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Kick-Ass.  117 mins.  R.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn.  Written by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn.  Starring Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mark Strong, and Nicolas Cage.

As the comic book/graphic novel film genre has grown in popularity over the years, audiences have been treated to almost every kind of iteration: from big-budget tentpoles (Spider-Man, The Dark Knight) to Oscar-baiting dramas (Road to Perdition) to gothic horror (From Hell) and even hipster, ironic comedies (Ghost World).  But if you think you'd seen it all - rest assured, because Kick-Ass certainly lives up to its title, and delivers a fresh and clever take on superheroes that proves immensely entertaining and easily rewatchable.  Others (especially here in Chicago - Ebert, Phillips) have labeled the movie irresponsible, immature, sick, twisted, and gratutitously violent.  To a degree - they're right.  Kick-Ass is all of those things. And that's exactly why you should see it.

I've always wanted to do a movie about someone trying to be a superhero in the real world, with no powers, no money, and armed only with a pressing need to preserve justice and save others.  Turns out the characters in Kick-Ass have the same idea.  Newcomer (and Brit - doing a flawless American accent) Aaron Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski, an unremarkable high schooler and comic book geek, but just a normal kid - no more or less cooler than anyone else.  At lunch with his friends (including the always-welcome Clark Duke, last seen in Hot Tub Time Machine) one day, he floats the idea of someone donning a costume and fighting crime for real.  They laugh, but Dave finds himself smitten with the idea, and he proceeds to do just that, taking the moniker of Kick-Ass.  When Dave becomes an Internet sensation after one fight that he just barely survives, his feats inspire two other crimefighters to come out of hiding - the father-daughter team of Damon and Mindy Macready (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz).  This proves to be a real headache for the big bad guy who basically runs New York City (Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong), and it all builds to a violent showdown, that tests the limits of everyone's "powers."

There are several remarkable things about the movie, but I was most taken with how the movie subtlely and gradually develops from a tongue-in-cheek comedy at first to a rip-roaring action thrill ride by movie's end.  Kick-Ass parodies the comic book genre, and then manages to honor it, giving us a perfect example of what these movies can achieve.  Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn basically gets to have his cake and eat it too.  Though his past movies have been hit and miss for me (Layer Cake, Stardust), Kick-Ass is almost consistently great.  The action scenes are kinetic and exciting, and apart from a snoozy middle section that just seems to be running in place, the movie moves along at a rapid clip.  It's also one of the rare films, especially for comic book flicks, where the build-up pays off and the last third of its running time is the best part.

You've probably already heard about the character of Hit Girl - that's Mindy Macready's costumed superhero - and with good reason.  She is the breakout character in the movie.  She's only 11-years old, and she can lay waste to a room full of 20 grown men in a flash.  She's got the mouth of a sailor and can really wield a knife.  Boy, can she wield a knife.  She's played by Moretz, who was Joseph Gordon Levitt's annoying little sister in (500) Days of Summer.  Well, she's not annoying here.  Hit Girl is a blast, and when the movie ramps up and switches its focus from lead character Kick-Ass to supporting character Hit Girl (a rare but welcome development), the results are gripping and totally satsifying.

The relationship between Mindy/Hit Girl and her father, Damon/Big Daddy (Cage) really sealed the deal for me with this movie.  We first see them in an open field, with Cage firing a gun at her (while wearing a bulletproof vest) as a means of training.  She whines about getting ice cream - he says fine, as long as she takes a bullet two more times.  The tone is perfect - it's a unique relationship, and Cage does a masterful job of conveying the paternal love, mental imbalance, and need for revenge that fuels his Big Daddy character.  Even if you're not a fan of comic book movies, Cage and Moretz make this worth seeing.  The Hit Girl/Big Daddy story arc is very remnisicent of Luc Besson's 1994 film, The Professional (with a young Natalie Portman), only Kick-Ass is a little more, well, kick-ass.

Is it perfect?  No.  The middle sags, the relationship between Dave and his high school sweetie (Lindsy Fonseca) is clumsy - she thinks he's gay for no real reason for a good portion of the movie, and the use of music is kind of distracting.  But you won't care by the end.  Kick-Ass earns its stripes.  It's funny and original, with great action, some deft acting and an awesome climax, and it's the first movie of 2010 that, while not exactly a "must see," definitely falls into the category of "should see."  I'm anxiously awaiting the sequel - Hot Shit.  Let's see the filmmakers get away with the MPAA on that one. 

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