My heroes had the heart

To lose their lives out on a limb.

And all I remember

Is thinking, I want to be like them.

— Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”

“Daddy, I’m scared.” An adorable little girl stands across an empty lot from her father, Damon (Nicolas Cage). He’s pointing a gun at her. “Nothing to be afraid of,” he assures her, reminding her that the vest she’s wearing will protect her, that the shot will feel only “like a punch in the chest.” She waits. “You’re gonna be fine, baby girl.” And then, blam! Her tiny figure flies up into the air for a second, then her bright pink parka hits the dirt.

This bit of business introduces 11-year-old Mindy (Chloë Moretz), in training since the day she as born. She’s perky, with pigtails, a very good sport and expert assassin. As reward for so agreeably learning the lesson of the vest, her dad takes her out for an ice cream sundae. Like so many movie kids, Mindy is not only cute, but also wise: she understands her father’s pain: a former cop, he’s holding massive grudges for his wife’s death by drug overdose, and has made it his life’s mission — and Mindy’s as well — to wreak vengeance on the corporate monsters who oversee local (Manhattan) drug traffic.

Or, one of them, anyway. Damon is fixated on a villain named Frank (Mark Strong, essentially the same guy he played in Sherlock Holmes), a target he’s literally spent years trying to stop, mainly by taking out minions and lesser dealers. This delayed gratification makes Damon’s quest that much grander, as well as tragic (he’s been tying himself in knots and accumulating high-powered weapons for years!) and, of course, comic booky. For this is yet another movie based on Marvel Comics series, this one by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. And Mindy and Damon, as mesmerizing and disturbing as they may be, are actually supporting players in the titular character’s coming-of-agey pop-melodrama.

This would be Kick-Ass, nee Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). When the movie’s not off gallivanting with Mindy, he’s at its center, explaining how he came to become a sorta-superhero in a green jumpsuit, armed with large batons he straps to his back like a ninja. That is, Dave’s a nice-enough geek who discusses the finer points of Spiderman with his nice-enough geek friends, stares daily at his English teacher’s cleavage, and yearns to impress his classmate Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). “I didn’t have a piercing or an eating disorder or 3000 friends on MySpace,” he sighs, “Like most people my age I just existed.” After a few posing sessions in his bedroom (“You are fucking awesome!” he tells his masked reflection), Dave ventures forth as a crime-fighter. Even if he lacks focus (“With no power comes no responsibility,” he observes, so allusively), he is also so full of good intentions that he’s seriously surprised when the bad guys fight back, brutally.

His avocation takes off when Kick-Ass is captured on a cell-phone recording doing battle in a convenience store parking lot. The video goes viral. He’s a star (Kick-Ass “Version 2.0,” he calls it). This even as Dave’s reputation turns another way, with rumors of his gayness sparking Katie’s interest (as one buddy puts it, she’s “all about the lame ducks”), which means they’re soon sharing hairstyle secrets and watching hours of Ugly Betty, as Dave gets up his nerve to confess his true feelings.

This thinking-about-coming-out plot parallels Kick-Ass’ trajectory, for as he’s called on to target increasingly violent offenders, he comes increasingly close to Frank’s sadistic henchmen. When at last Kick-Ass clambers into a very scary dealers’ den, he’s rescued from certain death by a stunning masked pixie in a plaid schoolgirl’s skirt and purple wig. Her name, she announces, is Hit-Girl, and her father, decked out in Batman-like armor, is Big Daddy. The child is full-on perverse and enthralling, slashing and smashing the bad guys into a pile of bloody corpses and oh yes, slings the c-word. Saved, Dave heads home to lie on his bed and ponder his life’s work compared to his new acquaintances, who are, he perceives, “the real deal.”

This is the question posed by the intersection of Hit Girl/Mindy’s plot with Kick-Ass/Dave’s. As the movie’s violence accelerates to accommodate its target demo’s presumed appetites (more carnage, language, and cool-kid references ranging from Oldboy and John Woo to Sin City and Lost), conventional superheroic pathologies also come to the foreground. It’s one thing for a 16-year-old to fight generic, if brutal, crime in a costume and pursue sex with a romantic object, his antics the projected fantasy of any number of viewers. It’s another thing for Big Daddy to train up his daughter to be a killing machine. A brief detour into Damon’s backstory — occasioned by a visit from his erstwhile cop partner Marcus (Omari Hardwick) and rendered in comic book panels under Cage’s dreamy narration — reveals that while he was wrongly imprisoned for his wife’s death, framed by Frank, Marcus looked after Mindy.

Marcus serves one purpose here, to deliver the film’s not-so-earnest injunction against Big Daddy’s monomaniacal exploitation of his daughter: “You owe that kid a childhood!” With that done, the movie can proceed apace, exploiting her in every way it can think of. Serving as Kick-Ass’ mentor, savior, and inspiration, she’s abused and abusive, horrified and horrific, tearfully vulnerable and ingeniously cruel.

Kick-Ass doesn’t sort out its own feelings about Mindy and Hit Girl. While Dave and Damon are repeatedly called “crazy” for their aspirations, she’s positioned as a victim and a vehicle for what they want, incidental and entertaining, titillating and not nearly so transgressive as she seems. She dotes on Damon and welcomes Dave’s faux-dad protective efforts. For all her audacious ass-kicking, she’s not the real deal. She’s still a little girl, constructed by her unhealthy (if darkly amusing) parent and in need of help from bigger boys — or boys who imagine themselves bigger, anyway.

RATING 5 / 10
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