Anyone who didn't get that last reference will find themselves on the outside looking in at "Kick-Ass." Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., the movie asks what would happen if a typical superhero-loving teen actually tried to fight crime. When Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), our skinny, bespectacled protagonist, gives voice to that question in an early scene, a friend answers, "He'd get his ass kicked." That's exactly what happens to Dave once he takes to the streets as Kick-Ass. Donning a wet suit and ski mask, and armed with only two night sticks and some subpar athleticism, he receives a series of spectacular beat-downs, coming back for more again and again as he searches for something to shake him from his teenage ennui. Things get even bloodier when he crosses paths with Big Daddy and Hit Girl (Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz, respectively), a father-daughter crime-fighting team with all the skills and heavy artillery Kick-Ass lacks.
Director Matthew Vaughn, working from a script he co-wrote with Jane Goldman, plays much of this violence for laughs, some of them well-earned. The best ones come after Moretz enters the picture. The essential joke of Hit Girl—that she is an angel-faced 12-year-old who delights in severing limbs and dropping F-bombs—is pretty cheap. In the hands of a lesser young actor, it could be the undoing of "Kick-Ass." But Moretz plays it better than it deserves to be played, turning from normal little girl to foulmouthed wisenheimer to seriously scary action hero with blade-sharp precision. She steals the movie, and you get the feeling that Vaughn and company are fine with that. As Dave, Johnson is sufficiently geeky but manages not to stumble into Michael Cera territory. Being the straight man around which all the real weirdoes orbit, he gets the chance to show a broader range than the other actors. The script makes a surprising number of attempts at nuance, and though most of them fall flat, Johnson shows some skills. Cage, meanwhile, is funny but uneven as Big Daddy; Christopher Mintz-Plasse is too understated as Kick-Ass' would-be archnemesis.
But what holds "Kick-Ass" back is that, Mintz-Plasse notwithstanding, it's not understated enough. Anyone who would anticipate subtlety from a movie called "Kick-Ass" probably also expects truth from United States senators and victory from the New York Mets. But in between all the cursing and ass-kicking, the film devotes too much energy to screaming about its influences. Occasionally it does this gracefully, as with a nice nod to the rooftop-jumping scene in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man." But more shameless references to "Scarface" and Tim Burton's "Batman" are downright grating and undermine the movie at critical moments. The worship of geekdom in "Kick-Ass" proves to be too evangelical, the filmmakers way too intent on proving their bona fides with the core audience. You don't need to hear a guy riff on "With great power…" for the millionth time to know that it's cool to watch a dude in a mask smack bad guys around.
Written by: Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse