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Movie Review

Kick-Ass

Take that!: Crude-humored parody riffs on superheroes, rudely knocking them down to size

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 16, 2010

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‘Kick-Ass’’ wants to shock your momma.

The new superhero action-parody — half a scrappy sendup of the “Spider-Man’’ genre, half a desperate wannabe — indulges in all sorts of bad behavior designed to appall the guardians of culture while delighting the young, the jaded, and the smug. Fusing teen comedy, bad-boy raunch, Tarantino-style gonzo mayhem, and tossing in a bloodthirsty little girl vigilante who swears like Steve Buscemi in a Coen brothers movie, the film has its moments of high-flying, low-down style. It’s also nowhere near as subversive as it thinks it is. But don’t tell that to the fanboys; the more hot and bothered you get, the happier they’ll be.

At the core of “Kick-Ass’’ is a terrific idea, the same one that enlivened the comic book on which the movie’s based. (That comic, written by Mark Millar and drawn by second-generation Marvel talent John Romita Jr., is as cheerfully upfront about its antisocial tendencies as the film, with the second issue promising “Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!’’ Unlike the movie, the comic holds on to its tricky, semi-satiric tone without losing its cool.) The idea is simple: What would happen if a real high-school doofus sent away for a costume and tried to become a masked avenger?

Short answer: He’d end up in the hospital. Surprisingly, this doesn’t stop Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). The new metal plates in his head and limbs have him crowing, “I look just like Wolverine!,’’ so what’s a little permanent nerve damage? Actually, in his green and yellow wetsuit, Dave — a.k.a. Kick-Ass — looks more like an ambulatory cucumber.

During his second attempt to be a hero — an ugly, exceptionally funny brawl in a quick-stop parking lot — Dave has the good fortune to be caught on cellphone cam by a bystander, and soon he’s the most-watched clip on the Internet. This makes sense: As any 16-year-old will tell you, it hasn’t really happened until the video goes viral. (What doesn’t make sense is that Kick-Ass reaches out to his followers via a MySpace page. How very 2007.)

As long as “Kick-Ass’’ is playing with the gap between its hero’s fantasies and woeful reality, the movie is rude, witty entertainment. Keeping his superhero identity under wraps, Dave allows himself to be adopted as a gay BFF by his dreamgirl, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), thus neatly taking the passive-aggressive crown from Peter Parker and Clark Kent. Director Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake’’), one of the nihilistic lads in the Guy Ritchie school of filmmaking, keeps the tone rough but bright, with comic-book intertitles and fast, farcical bursts of violence that are meant to bruise.

Eventually, though, the wit gets choked off by the rest of the movie, which daubs a veneer of shock comedy on top of the same old comic book yada yada. “Kick-Ass’’ baits sobersided grown-ups with the appearance of a few more masked superheroes: Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a former cop with a grudge to settle against the town’s major gangster, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong, doing a lazy “Sopranos’’ riff), and Daddy’s little darling, Hit-Girl (Chlöe Moretz), a middle-schooler with a taste for nunchucks, butterfly knives, and the “C’’ word. That last bit was highlighted in the top-secret “Red Band’’ trailer for “Kick-Ass’’ that your kids were probably streaming on their laptops last January, making this R-rated movie the must-theater-hop title of 2010.

Eh. An 11-year-old girl swearing is not the end of the world, just one more jokey coarsening in the fabric of life in our 24/7 googolplex. I’m more concerned that Moretz can’t keep up with Cage, who’s a past master of serious wack. This time out, the actor has swiped Adam West’s diction from the old “Batman’’ TV series as Big Daddy grudgingly accepts Kick-Ass into his and Hit-Girl’s gruesome revenge plot. For all the flying masonry and stuntwork, Cage remains this movie’s most special special effect.

Moretz is game, but she’s still playing dress-up, and the sneakier parts of the character elude her. Is there an extra Fanning sister stuck at home with nothing to do? Maybe she could have taken this role into truly transgressive realms while convincing us of the character’s humanity — the power charge Hit-Girl gets from wasting bad guys and the price she pays in losing her childhood. Moretz will be seen next as the girl vampire in the remake of the Swedish horror film “Let the Right One In,’’ and it’ll be interesting to see just what she can do if and when a film slows down and lets her.

“Kick-Ass’’ has no such intent. Vaughn and company keep cranking up the old ultra-violence and weaponry — the film eventually breaks out a bazooka with a joy that can only be called orgasmic — and at some point it becomes exactly the big, boneheaded movie it was making fun of in the first place. By then, Dave Lizewski has been lost in his own story, trumped by the gangster’s nerdy son, Chris, who himself suits up as Red Mist, a sort of devolved Robin figure.

That this character is played — with great good humor — by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the found-object dork of “Superbad,’’ tips the movie’s hand. “Kick-Ass’’ breaks a few taboos but leaves the central power fantasy at the genre’s center untouched. Why mess with the engine that drives our adolescent entertainment culture, especially when millions can be made by pretending to mock it? With “Kick-Ass,’’ you get to have your layer-cake and eat it, too, and as long as you don’t dare think about it, everybody wins.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

KICK-ASS Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Written by: Vaughn and Jane Goldman, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.

Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chlöe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Lyndsy Fonseca

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 117 minutes

Rated: R (strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use — some involving children)

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