LOS ANGELES — Nursing a nasty Jack Daniels hangover, director Matthew Vaughn spent Wednesday morning doing the same thing he’s been doing for weeks: defending “Kick-Ass,” his ultra-violent and deliriously profane superhero film, which opens Friday.
“Awkward conversations? Oh, yeah, are you joking? It’s every day. It’s every day. And, of course, the people that do complain, 99 percent of them haven’t seen the film. I tell them, ‘Go see the movie and then call me up after and I’ll chat as long as you want, I’d be interested in your opinion.’ And a lot of those people call up and tell me, ‘I don’t know how to say this, but I loved it.’”
Love it or hate it, “Kick-Ass” is one of the most audacious films of the year, a sort of loopy R-rated mash-up with the loser-turned-hero mythology of “Spider-Man,” the mayhem fetish of “Fight Club” and the high-school nihilism of “Heathers.”
The movie, which was written by Vaughn (he’s also the producer along with Brad Pitt) and Jane Goldman and based on the Marvel Comics series of the same name, asks the question, “What would happen if costumed crime fighters showed up on the streets of real-world New York instead of imaginary Gotham City?” The answer, of course, isn’t pretty.
The film is a black comedy but there’s a dash of the creepy vigilante fantasy of Travis Bickle and “Taxi Driver,” and like that 1976 film, this new movie is stirring controversy because of a young female actress presented in a lurid role. In the Martin Scorsese urban-loner classic, it was a 13-year-old Jodie Foster playing a young hooker; in “Kick-Ass,” it’s 13-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit Girl, a whirling martial-arts killer with a shockingly salty mouth.
The movie, which opens Friday, has already attained a certain amount of infamy for the word that Moretz growls with her first line in the film.
Moretz has been telling interviewers that if she ever uttered that particularly blistering bit of dialogue beyond the movie set she would be “grounded for life.” It’s a cute line but the creative team behind “Kick-Ass” is bracing for a barrage of criticism when the film opens wide.
“It’s not something we did as a stunt or something, it is provocative but it fits the character and the story and spirit of the comic book and the film,” said Goldman, who was the co-writer of the 2007 film “Stardust” and is married to British television personality Jonathan Ross.
Goldman added that as a parent herself she didn’t take the issue lightly. “Everything that happens in the film is true to the characters. But as you can probably tell, there weren’t lines we weren’t going to cross.”
By all accounts, Moretz, who trained intensely with gymnasts and at a circus school, steals the film with her wild-child warrior. The youngster has a number of high-profile projects coming up, including the Scorsese adaptation of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” and the vampire film “Let Me In.”
“The temperature just rises and rises as soon as she comes up on the screen,” Vaughn said. “I’m sitting there and in weird way I’m just counting the minutes until she shows up because I know when Hit Girl is on the screen we have the audience, we’ve got them. And people that see her know what she’s accomplished. She wasn’t sexualized, it wasn’t gratuitous, it was fun and she comes off as a great, fully realized female heroine.”
At the center of the film is Dave Lizewski, portrayed by 19-year-old British actor Aaron Johnson, who will portray John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy,” slated for an October release. Lizewski is essentially Peter Parker without the good grades — or the super powers. Eager to see what would happen if he emulated his heroes in comic books, he gets himself a lime-colored wetsuit via mail order and goes into the do-gooder business, nearly getting himself killed in the process.
Lizewski calls himself Kick-Ass and becomes a YouTube sensation, but the film goes into a different gear when he crosses paths with the strange father-daughter hero team of Big Daddy, played by Nicolas Cage, and Hit Girl. They’re looking to take down a crime lord (Mark Strong from “Sherlock Holmes”) who has a son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse of “Superbad”) who dons a costume himself.
The movie represents a unique moment in comic-book films; it’s not an adaptation, per se, because the script for the film was being written as the comics series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. was still being created.
The property was scooped up before the first issue was published and then the film team and the comics creators collaborated.
“This movie has broken every rule. The way it was made, the way it was written, the way it was financed, the way it was directed. We didn’t do anything by the book. Maybe that’s why it feels so fresh,” said Vaughn, who financed the reported $30-million film himself.
The modern superhero cinema began with Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” a decade ago and reached a zenith in 2008 with the bright charm of “Iron Man” and the grim gravity of “The Dark Knight.”
The film premiered at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, and has been a sensation with fanboy audiences, such as the one last weekend at WonderCon in San Francisco, which cheered wildly for the cast.
The tracking for the film looks strong although it has a built-in challenge with its R-rating and the fact that some of its most eager consumers might not be able to get past the ticket window.
Still, the appeal of a punk-rock take on the Peter Parker story (“No power, no responsibility,” as Goldman put it) may be irresistible to a generation raised on cape films.
Clark Duke, one of the co-stars of “Kick-Ass,” said that after this film, Hollywood may have a hard time finding a young audience willing to sit in the dark with stiff, conventional superhero movies.
“I think every genre superhero movie after this will have to be reactionary,” Duke said. “I don’t see how you make, like, ‘Spider-Man 3’ or ‘Fantastic Four’ after you see this.”