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Originally published April 15, 2010 at 3:22 PM | Page modified April 15, 2010 at 3:22 PM

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Movie review

'Kick-Ass' knocks comic-book conventions upside down

"Kick-Ass" is a weirdly ambiguous film that challenges audience expectations about superheroes in a dark story about a masked loser, a vengeful father and a little girl who kills bad guys.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Kick-Ass," with Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Mark Strong. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, from a screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, based on comic books by Mark Millar. 117 minutes. Rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use — some involving children. Several theaters.

MOVIE REVIEW 2.5 stars

A bizarre and ultimately self-sabotaging movie that defies categorization, "Kick-Ass" is at times cheap and cynical, while in other moments is ingenious and strangely noble. Much of the R-rated film's middle is agitating and repulsive, yet a climactic battle sequence can make one light up inside like a child.

It's not that "Kick-Ass" is a typical roller-coaster ride of a thriller, nor is it a typical comic-book movie, despite being adapted from a comic-book series by Mark Millar. In fact, it's a deconstruction of both comic books and the films made from them, a disassembling and reshuffling of essential elements both from comics' narrative form and the very pact between superhero culture and readers/audiences.

That's why it's possible to watch "Kick-Ass" and experience such a chaotic and contradictory flow of feelings. The conditions that engage one's usual responses to a superhero movie are turned on their heads, even betrayed, causing one's emotions to bounce from one extreme to another.

How, exactly, should an audience respond to the sight of a little girl gruesomely blowing away a dozen mobsters with a variety of weapons, all for the purpose of enacting her father's pathological vengeance against an old enemy?

"Kick-Ass" wants us, on one hand, to see that kid as made to do something wildly inappropriate. On the other hand, her violent exploits present all the heroic derring-do of a scene from "Spider-Man." "Kick-Ass" tries to show us that our relationship to a comic universe is more than escapism: It's a double-edged sword, morally and artistically.

The film is really a pair of intertwining stories pushing the limits of audience understanding and appreciation. The story's action generally revolves around would-be superhero Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson), by day a forgettable high-school boy named Dave Lizewski and by night a semi-hapless vigilante in a green diver's suit.

Regularly getting his butt kicked, Kick-Ass nevertheless becomes a YouTube sensation just for being willing to get in over his head in dangerous situations. Co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake") thus begins "Kick-Ass" by confronting an interesting question: Can we care about a character with the will to be a hero but not the ability?

Eventually, the aforementioned child, Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), has to rescue Kick-Ass by eliminating a bunch of drug dealers and assorted hangers-on in a bloody assault. Hit-Girl is the daughter and protégé of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a Batman-like figure going to his own criminal lengths to destroy a crime boss (Mark Strong).

The ethical conflicts kicked up by the intersection of Kick-Ass' misadventures and Big Daddy's mayhem are meant to be intriguing. They sort of are but would be more so if Vaughn didn't cheapen his work with smug, nudge-wink, pop-culture references. Setting Hit-Girl's rampages to the "tra-la-la" chorus of "The Banana Splits" theme song is nothing but perverse, as is Cage's pointless impression of Adam West's clunky cadences as Batman in the 1960s television series.

Fortunately, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is on hand as the villain's frustrated son and probable Joker-like figure in a "Kick-Ass" sequel. He reminds us not to take this weirdly ambiguous film too seriously.

Tom Keogh:

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