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No thrust in ‘Kick-Ass.’

BOO: Hit Girl flops.
  • BOO: Hit Girl flops.

I will not give "Kick-Ass" the benefit of controversy. A film this lifeless hasn't earned it, no matter how gory and profane. It boasts not a single original idea, imaginative sequence, or unpredictable outcome. There's nothing startling or boundary pushing here — nothing you haven't seen already in "Scream" or "Interview with a Vampire" or "Mystery Men" or "Superbad." And, honestly, is there any idea in those lightweights truly worth copying?

Comic books have been going all meta to signal their seriousness for years. Arguably beginning with Alan Moore's dour inquiries into violence and vigilantism, few crossover superhero comics have managed to completely avoid self-reference.

Commenting on the genre itself is a way of disavowing triviality and defusing the more ludicrous ingredients of popular sequential art. "Kick-Ass" seems to be from the Mike Allred school of self-awareness, embracing the violence of the genre with glee and treating its protagonists with suspicion that borders on contempt, as little more than troubled and lonely losers.

I've never read the comic from which this film is adapted, but I can't imagine the basic ingredients of the book felt any less stale on the page. "Kick-Ass" tells the story of a teen-ager who suddenly decides the world could use a superhero and that he could fit the bill. His plans extend no further than ordering an ugly green wetsuit and patrolling alleyways at random. Things go south immediately, but he soldiers on, exceptionally stupid — even for a teen-ager.

Eventually he runs into a couple more competent vigilantes, each likewise dressed up for Aprilween but at least capable of and comfortable with kicking ass. One happens to be a pre-pubescent girl (Chloe Moretz), a fact which earns a fading smirk but persists in announcing itself for the duration of the film. The other (Nicholas Cage) is a psychotic ex-cop bent on vengeance. Because the plot has to go somewhere, the three get their destinies all mixed up and fall foul of a nasty criminal organization. Lots of people die in sometimes inventive ways.

The lead is played by Aaron Johnson, an actor so bland and unremarkable that he prevents the film from achieving even the most basic watchability. His self-effacing voice-over feels largely expositional and characterless. Not since "The Last Starfighter" has a curly-headed teen-age hero been this stubbornly irredeemable.

Moretz — as the pint-sized, purple-haired, potty-mouthed Hit-Girl — turns in a spirited performance, one likely overshadowed by the crass exploitation of the film's marketing push. She may be able to curse with authority, but she also brings the actors around her to life and carries herself like a star. Hers is the only performance in the film that comes across as anything but unpleasantly knowing.

Moretz does her level best to connect with Nicolas Cage, who deserves better from his director. A more capable filmmaker might have harnessed some of Cage's manic weirdness, laced the film with his pathological soulfulness, rather than allow it to stand out so sharply from its surroundings and wither from the exposure. When Cage tries his hand at reference, channeling Adam West's staccato Batman delivery and then the dying wheezes of Darth Vader, he robs from us the nature of his talent: his lunatic singularity.

A film that can't conjure an interesting performance out of Nicolas Cage couldn't begin to hope for one out of Arkansas native Clark Duke or even that brash geek Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Both go through some irritatingly empty motions. Nobody here seems engaged with the material, least of all the supporting cast. I don't know why the audience should be any different.

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