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SXSW 2010: Kick-Ass

Matthew Vaughn hasn’t had the greatest luck with comic book movies – first, he walked away from “X-Men: The Last Stand” mere weeks before filming began, and more recently, he was replaced by Kenneth Branagh as director of Marvel’s big screen adaptation of “Thor” – so it’s nice to finally see him find a little success in the genre. Of course, “Kick-Ass” has had its share of problems as well, most notably in the lack of studio interest when the project was first being shopped around. And considering just how much graphic violence and language courses through Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s eight-issue miniseries, you can sort of understand why. Thankfully, that didn’t deter Vaughn from just securing the financing himself, because in doing so, he was provided the freedom needed to create the kind of balls-to-the-wall comic book movie that its bold source material deserved.

For teenage geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), comic books aren’t just an escape from the social hierarchy of high school, but a lesson in morals as well. When he wonders why no one has tried to do the superhero thing in real life, he throws on an old wet suit and heads into the city to fight crime. It doesn’t go quite as well as he imagined, but his random act of bravery is recorded and uploaded to YouTube where he becomes an overnight sensation as the masked crusader, Kick-Ass, spawning an entire subculture of costumed heroes in the process. Meanwhile, father-daughter duo Damon and Mindy Macready (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz) really are living the secret lives of superheroes, and when they catch wind of Kick-Ass’ clumsy heroics, they decide to team up with the kid to take down the local crime boss, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong).

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There’s more to the story that would be considered a spoiler to first-time readers of the comic – namely, the reveal that Kick-Ass’ new superhero pal, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), is actually Frank’s son, Chris, in disguise – but it’s announced so early on in the film version that you’re not surprised when he turns out to be working for the bad guys. In fact, there are plenty of differences between the book and the movie, but with the exception of Dave’s relationship with high school crush Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonesca) – which follows the same general path until it veers off into a decidedly more Hollywood-friendly direction – it’s mostly just additional material meant to flesh out characters that didn’t have as much of a presence in the comic book.

And even when the movie isn’t using the comic as a blueprint, it still feels like it belongs in “Kick-Ass.” Director Matthew Vaughn clearly understands the world that Millar and Romita Jr. have created, and that familiarity resonates throughout, from the high-energy action scenes to the colorful performances from its cast. Aaron Johnson is a real find as the title character – a Peter Parker type who can play both dorky and cool – but it’s his pint-sized co-star who walks away with the film. Chloe Moretz has already proven that she’s mature beyond her years (see: “500 Days of Summer”), but she easily trumps that performance with an instantly iconic role that places her in the middle of some of the coolest, most wildly violent fight sequences since “Kill Bill.” Even Nicolas Cage is at the top of his game as his character’s alter ego, Big Daddy – a vigilante so conceptually similar to Batman that Cage speaks with an Adam West-like cadence.

That’s exactly the kind of detail that might drive some fans crazy, but it complements Vaughn’s vision nicely, because his “Kick-Ass” is more of a satire of the superhero genre than a straight-up action flick. And when you have an 11-year-old girl running around town chopping up gangsters, how could you not acknowledge the absurdity of the situation? Millar’s book had its moments, but Vaughn mines the material for even more laughs, especially in the relationships between Aaron and his friends (Clark Duke and Evan Peters), Kick-Ass and Red Mist, and Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. The end result is an entertaining blend of action and comedy that, despite falling short of its ridiculously high expectations, delivers everything that was awesome about the comic and more.

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