A total knock out

Kick-Ass is the best film you will see this year – a lofty claim with not even half of the year under our collective belts, I know, but it has already blown everything else in 2010 out of the water. Don’t read this review – go see it now. But if you need convincing, then read on.

What if superheroes were real? Or, more accurately, what if ordinary people were so inspired by fictional heroes that they decided to become ones themselves? After all, as narrator and protagonist Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) points out, villains are certainly real enough.

Dave, a 17-year-old New Yorker, is the poster boy for mundane. He claims his only superpower is being invisible to girls, especially long-term crush Katie Deauxma (Lyndsey Fonseca) and that he’s not even the funny one among his friends. He’s an easy target for muggers and bullies, and hates how no one seems willing to stand up for anyone else.

After one injustice too many, he decides it’s time to take action, and sets about turning himself into a superhero, with the aid of eBay and MySpace, dubbing himself the optimistic Kick-Ass. But it’s YouTube that really does the trick, when a video of an unexpected victory goes viral and propels him into the hearts and minds of disillusioned New Yorkers. While Dave has just a handful of MySpace friends, Kick-Ass has 16,000 and counting.

Unbeknown to the budding superhero, however, there’s a more dangerous game being played, between crime lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and father-daughter vigilante duo, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). When one of Kick-Ass’ deeds lands him in the middle of the real action, he has to decide whether to give up his one-man quest for justice or join the big “boys”.

Kick-Ass is like so many films, yet entirely original. Dave and pals Marty (Clark Duke) and Cody (Dexter Fletcher) – and their quest for girls out of their league – wouldn’t be out of place in Superbad. The makeshift costuming is reminiscent of Mystery Men. A number of conversations could have been inserted into Pulp Fiction. But it all comes together smoothly and inventively, adding up to an emotional rollercoaster – hilarious, thrilling, tense, romantic and exuberant, sometimes all at once.

Set in a real city with realistic characters, the film walks a fine line between plausibility and outlandishness – but it pulls it off as skilfully as a Cirque de Soleil acrobat on a tightrope. It  earns its  jaw-dropping moments, from a return from death to a superhero flying as high as a skyscraper.

This is mostly thanks to the fresh writing and fast pacing – and the surprisingly spot-on casting. I was doubtful the dreamy Johnson could be the geek Dave was meant to be – it seemed as if they were going to remove his glasses to reveal Superman perfection at some point. But I needn’t have worried – Johnson has excellent comic timing and immense likeability. The glasses do come off, but Dave stays true to his trajectory, becoming heroic in a believable way.

Furthermore, Johnson’s nasal narration enhances the film, as he delivers self-deprecating observations and clever pop cultural nods – at one point he reminds the audience not to be so confident about his fate, as narrators can talk from beyond the grave, as in Sin City and American Beauty.

Even Strong (last seen in Robin Hood) as yet another villain won me over and Cage was on good form, allowing the spotlight to focus on his younger co-stars. After her sparkling turn in Hot Tub Time Machine, Fonseca again proves herself to be an entertaining love interest, while Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as Frank’s wannabe gangster son, proves an ideal foil for Kick-Ass.

But the true star of the show is Moretz, to whom I award the title of Least Annoying Child Star Ever. Hit Girl is what you would get Kill Bill‘s The Bride raised Leon‘s Matilda. I foresee little (and big) girls dressing up in purple wigs and kilts for Halloween. Hopefully they’ll forgo the switch-blades.

Besides Hit Girl’s profanity, the gore is likely to incite the most controversy. One especially gruesome incident involves a man in an industrial microwave, and the body count is through the roof. Still, it doesn’t feel unnecessary – the violence either serves to heighten tension or has artistic merit.

In fact, Kick-Ass does much to de-glamorize violence. Dave, as Big Daddy observes, might have done better to name himself Ass-Kick, as he’s often the one being beaten. The characters feel real enough that when they are attacked, it’s truly visceral and horrible – their bruises and aches don’t disappear with the next scene. And the issue of Hit Girl being raised as a fighter is intelligently addressed.

Among the film’s other highlights are the energetic soundtrack – Mika, The Prodigy and Gnarls Barkley feature – and incorporation of comic book graphics, especially in one stunning sequence that explains Big Daddy’s backstory, again tying the fantastic back into reality.

What the film succeeds most in, though, is its thoughtful exploration of what means to be a hero. The answer may surprise you – especially as the answer won’t be the same for every viewer.

Verdict: A rare occasion of a film living up to its name in a good way. Kick-Ass is the most fun you’ll have at the cinema in 2010 – you’ll want to watch it again and again.

Kick-Ass (Universal Pictures, 117 minutes)
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Produced by Matthew Vaughn, Brad Pitt, Kris Thykier, Adam Bohling, Tarquin Pack
Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Mark Millar (comic book)
Starring Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloë  Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong

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