There is more disreputable fun to be had watching the Day-Glo action-comedy Kick-Ass than anything else currently on release. But for all that the picture resembles an adventurous revision of the superhero movie, it dutifully upholds the genre's every last convention. Like the film that bears his name, the capeless crusader Kick-Ass is not what he seems.
This amateur crimefighter dresses like a bargain-bin Spider-Man, in a Ninja mask and a pond-green wetsuit. Lacking any superhuman powers, he brandishes a Taser gun that he ordered over the internet. In the hiking boots that complete the ensemble, he has the look of a clumping, comic-book Giacometti.
Kick-Ass is not the name on his library card: he is really Dave Lizewski, a New York teenager whose proclaimed nerdiness is somewhat undermined by the look of the actor who plays him: plump-lipped, dreamy-eyed Aaron Johnson, with his tousled curls and the usual pecs and glutes. Where's the acne? The bad posture? The greasy hair? Call me old-fashioned, but in my day, being a nerd really meant something.
Dave turns to the superhero life - or, rather, to fancy-dress vigilantism - not because he is picked on (though he is), nor because he lost a parent (though he did, to an aneurysm, rather than the Joker), but because he wonders why everyone wants to be Paris Hilton, yet no one aspires to be Spider-Man. A noble jumping-off point, although viewers coming to the film for a critique of celebrity culture will go home less satisfied than those who seek the sight of a man in a car-compacter being popped like a zit.
The idea of a weakling cheerfully deciding to fight thugs is novel, but not quite the truth. Following an accident, Dave returns to action with metal plates in his body and a heightened pain threshold. He also has the good fortune to have entered the superhero trade at the same time
as a father-and-daughter team who outclass him, and do not mind coming to his rescue. Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and the 11-year-old Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) are waging war on a crime boss, Frank d'Amico (Mark Strong), for reasons explained in a comic-strip flashback (the film is adapted from the even grislier comic by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr).
Younger audiences won't understand why Big Daddy talks in a halting manner whenever he dons his naff costume, but it's a prize gag for anyone who grew up on Adam West as Batman. The film also gets much comic mileage from the disparity between the Girl Scout demeanour of Mindy, aka Hit Girl, and the abominable things she says and does. You'd ground her if there wasn't every likelihood that she'd remove your oesophagus with her sword.
The script, by Jane Goldman and the director, Matthew Vaughn, is at its weakest in the matter of voice. Hit Girl's potty-mouthed taunting is funny and scandalous. But where did she pick up a vocabulary so at odds with her wholesome upbringing that it makes Lenny Bruce sound like Lorraine Kelly? And it rings false when Dave warns us not to use his narration as a guarantee that he will survive to the end of the film: after all, he reasons, what about Sunset Boulevard? The Dave Lizewski we have seen is no more a Sunset Boulevard-loving cineaste than Gloria Swanson was a Silver Surfer aficionado. (Still, I liked the idea that his big fear about dying is that he won't find out what happens on Lost.)
It's Vaughn, not Dave, who knows his movies. What a shame they're the same ones that everybody else knows. Nods to Natural Born Killers and John Woo, and a blast of Ennio Morricone during a shoot-out, suggest that Vaughn needs to expand his DVD library. Most of the film's central ideas have also already occurred to other people. Domesticated superheroes were better portrayed in Unbreakable and The Incredibles, crap ones in Mystery Men.
If Vaughn is not a great director, he is a decent rabble-rouser; he can give you a rush of the giggles, even if you feel ashamed afterwards. You could complain that he overdoes every effect: it's a blast when Hit-Girl slices and dices a den full of crooks to a pop-punk soundtrack, less so when it happens again. But then anyone who goes to a film called Kick-Ass expecting restraint is perhaps their own worst enemy.