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Cute kids cheerfully engaged in garroting, pulverizing and assorted R-rated bloodletting

Hit Girl, from "Kick-Ass," doing as the title tells her to. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate


Review: Two out of four stars

Starring: Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Rated: R for strong, brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and drug use - occasionally involving children

It's unclear exactly how bad of an idea Kick-Ass thinks vigilante justice is. The first 20 minutes feature the film's most realistic depictions of the consequences of trying to be a superhero - donning a silly spandex suit and cape - without the benefit of actual superpowers. You and I, as sane, sensible people, know that this behavior is beyond stupid, and just as dangerous.

When Dave (Aaron Johnson), the nerdy high school narrator, suits up and starts calling himself Kick-Ass, he is promptly beaten to within an inch of his life after trying to stop a car theft. As an audience, we think, "Yes, that is exactly right. End of movie?"

But Kick-Ass occupies the stupider end of the fake superhero spectrum, and so continues his crusade against evil. It's at this point that we're introduced to the psychopathic end of the spectrum via the father-and-daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and the 11-year-old Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz).

Because of a complicated origin story, Big Daddy has been training his daughter since a very early age to be a killing machine. Watching as he teaches her the ins-and-outs of homicide is rather icky, and when we eventually see Hit-Girl implement her teachings against a group of drug-dealers, we wonder if all that bloodshed is absolutely necessary.

To be clear, these superheroes are not the "string the bad guys up by the telephone poll and leave them for police" variety. Their method of crime-fighting involves all manner of decapitations and vivisections. And it's here where the murkiness of the film's satire becomes a problem.

Throughout the running time, there are numerous winking allusions to our society's unhealthy obsession with violence: a group of bystanders filming a bloody fight with their camera phones, instead of calling police; Hit-Girl carnage as seen through her POV, almost perfectly replicating the effect of first-person shooters; a world-wide audience watching a streaming snuff film with rapt attention.

As much as the movie feels, at times, like your standard action movie, there is most definitely a message at work here. But every intriguing opportunity for satire is white-washed. The perversity of Big Daddy brainwashing his child to kill for him is joked about, but ultimately never examined. Minor characters briefly mention the similarities between superheroes and serial killers - the ritual and the fetishism - but all the same we are expected to root for Kick-Ass, as he's taught the ways of murder by Hit-Girl.

If you choose to take Kick-Ass at face value, it's a fun, but slight, experience. In the past few years, we've seen great post-modern superhero movies (Watchmen) as well as great traditional superhero movies (The Dark Knight, Iron Man), and Kick-Ass just doesn't stack up to either.

The film is kind of fun while it lasts, especially Chloe Grace Moretz's absolutely charming performance as Hit-Girl, but in the end we are left with a movie that chickened out when faced with real questions. Those glimpses of the film Kick-Ass could have been make the final product all the more disappointing.

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