By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Kick-Ass is a rabid puppy of a movie, energetically bounding off the screen and into your lap, where it proceeds to chew off your face.
Like all puppies, Matthew Vaughn's movie ignores the rules of proper behavior, even for comic book adaptations, like don't show an 11-year-old girl dishing out and taking bloody beatdowns, and calling bad guys The Word Women Absolutely Hate.
That morality-watchdog-howl-in-the-making is the budding superhero Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), and although Kick-Ass isn't exactly her movie, she steals it as if she owns it. Hit Girl is the daughter of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), an aging caped crusader with Batman's tailor and Adam West's voice when the cowl is on.
What a portrait of parental love. The first time we see them it's a father-daughter day suited for a Publix commercial — except those ads don't show Dad firing a gun at his little girl so she'll know how a bulletproof vest works. She's training to follow in his boot steps and learning fast, as a gang of muggers soon learns. Like a pint-sized Bride from the Kill Bill flicks, Hit Girl slices and dices, lopping limbs with gusto.
She'll get her own movie someday, inciting more approving roars from fanboys like those at a recent screening. For now, Kick-Ass keys on teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a comic book geek just like those fanboys who want to be a superhero.
Dave admits that his only superpower is being invisible to girls at school. He's Peter Parker with comic book author Mark Millar's wicked winking at Spider-Man's legend. Dave isn't bitten by a radioactive spider but by the love bug, with a crush on a classmate and the occasional fantasy about his English teacher's breasts. He'll need much more than a wet-suit costume, a Kick-Ass nickname and a club to fight crime.
Dave's first attempt leaves him a physical wreck with two advantages: His nerves are dulled to pain, and Kick-Ass went viral when bystanders' video went YouTube. This must be his destiny, so he returns to action, drawing respect from Hit Girl and Big Daddy, and the wrath of a mobster (Mark Strong).
That would be enough shenanigans for one gleefully tasteless romp, but Vaughn is compelled to include the mobster's nerdy son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who also becomes an amateur superhero called Red Mist. That's one psychotic adolescent too many, a silly stroke to an otherwise curiously grounded movie.
I say grounded because Dave/Kick-Ass endures the usual teen angst, dim friends and hormonal yearnings that are cliches by now, solved with an exaggeration of the reckless behavior that passes for solutions in movies. Take a look at his mangled face in the final scene and Vaughn's movie becomes a twisted public service announcement: Kids, don't try this at home.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.