Rating: * * * * *
Verdict: Superhero movie reinvented as gory comedy? Works out well.
If you want to define the peculiar sensibilities behind this mad and outrageously funny anti-superhero movie, then check out the art.
We're not talking about the comic-book sequence which tells the back story of some characters as well as reminding of the film's illustrated origins, either. Though that's still quite something, a visual flourish in what is for the most part a refreshingly low-tech high-violence action flick.
No, the art in the penthouse of the film's resident Mr Big. He's got some Warhol gun screenprints setting off his study, just so. But pride of place goes to what is presumably a copy of British sculptor Marc Quinn's infamous Blood Head, a bust made from the artist's own refrigerated plasma.
It's never really pointed out and the bust only figures in the action as a plinth for a character to hide behind in a gun battle. But the work is a touchstone for the whole film - it's bloody, brainy, British, provocative, full of bodily fluids, utterly contemporary and so squeamishly entertaining that those of delicate sensibilities may need the smelling salts.
And just as Quinn effectively cannibalised himself, this is a comic book movie which riffs off other comic book superheroes and villains.
Yeah and so has the likes of Watchmen, among many others. Except Kick-Ass makes it fun borrowing their lines and interpreting their dress sense - very badly, in the case of Dave Lizewski a comic book dweeb of raging hormones, who wonders why, with the wealth of reading material available on the subject, no-one has tried being a masked crimefighter. Ordering up a costume online, he gives it a go. It gets him beaten to a pulp but able to withstand further punishment.
And soon he is mixed up with another couple of vigilantes - lethal father and daughter combo Big Daddy (Cage) and Hit Girl (Moretz) - who are actually up to the job. They're on a mission to take down crime lord Frank D'Amico for past wrongs. The pair's costumes might resemble a caped crusader copyright infringement in the making, and their borderline dubious double-act might remind some of Natalie Portman and Jean Reno in assassin flick The Professional.
As Big Daddy, Nick Cage relocates his crazy man mojo which made him once so entertaining. While Moretz is a wonder as lethal and potty-mouthed tween Mindy/Hit Girl. Her sugar-rush enthusiasm for violence - in one scene set to the music of cartoon The Banana Splits - undercuts any nagging worries about her role in a R18 flick.
In another scene, she's shown in a firefight which neatly captures the tunnel vision of videogame first person shooters. While the movie adds in some sly commentary on celebrity in the age of YouTube and people happier to watch or video crime against others than try to stop it.
In fact, it's so so right now it's surprising no-one called "ZeitgeistMan" doesn't turn up to add a few in-jokes from the Iron Man 2 trailer which plays before this.
Kick-Ass could have been a hyperactive mess, especially if it had been delivered as typical studio- fare burger-franchise superhero movie.
But Brit director Vaughn largely funded this himself and it feels like nothing else in a crowded field, and offers the genre's best laughs - both at itself and affectionate ones - in years.
That freshness is helped by the unknown Johnson as Lizewski/Kick-Ass who is a gawky wonder in his dual roles.
Even beneath the mask and the growing facial contusions, he sells the role. He may be in a movie that maybe does a little too much winking at its audience, but Johnson's fanboy-turned-superman gives us a hero, well a well-meaning dork in a wetsuit, to believe in. His performance does kick ass, and gives a heartbeat to a film which is otherwise one spectacular rush of blood to the head.
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Running time: 117 mins
Rating: R18 (graphic violence, drug use & offensive language)