The parents of Chloe Moretz, the cute-as-a-button child star of the new action movie Kick-Ass, are an Atlanta plastic surgeon named McCoy Moretz and his wife, Teri. Remember those names: If a would-be Dante Alighieri ever produces an Inferno for the new millenium, McCoy and Teri are prime candidates to occupy a hellish circle all their own. Readers will probably encounter them somewhere between the misers and the pimps, in the bubbling ditch of melted-down Oscar trophies reserved for showbiz parents who profit from their own children’s corruption.
Kick-Ass is a superhero film — or, more aptly, it’s yetanothersuperherofilm in an era glutted with comic-book adaptations. At first, it seems to have found a halfway-interesting twist on the usual formula: What if a teenager in the real world set out to imitate his comic-book heroes, and ended up in way over his head? The answer is supplied by Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a milquetoast high schooler with comic-book-geek pals and a predictable crush on the cool, gorgeous, and unattainable Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). In the hopes of becoming somebody worth noticing, he buys a green scuba suit and mask, dubs himself “Kick-Ass” and arms himself with night sticks, and sets out in search of petty criminals to menace. Refreshingly, his first foray into crimefighting ends exactly the way it would in real life. He’s slugged, knifed, and hit by a car, and he ends up in an ambulance, begging the medics not to tell anyone that he was wearing a superhero costume.
But this “superhero with no powers” premise gives ground quickly to the movie’s true ambition, which is to one-up Quentin Tarantino at his most mindlessly exploitative. Kick-Ass isn’t the only would-be superhero on the streets, it turns out: There’s also Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his precocious daughter Hit-Girl (Moretz), and there’s nothing the least bit realistic about them. They’re equipped with the usual comic-book backstory (a quest for revenge against the crime boss who drove their wife and mother into an early grave), armed with a vast arsenal of unrealistic weaponry, and graced, in the case of the prepubescent Hit-Girl (Moretz is 13, but her character is supposed to be 11), with acrobatic powers straight out of The Matrix.
Once these two take Lizewski/Kick-Ass under their wing, the plot takes a more by-the-numbers turn: The crime boss (Mark Strong) has to be vanquished, the girl has to be won, and an array of goons and gunmen need to be dispatched in wild action sequences set to a rock-and-roll beat. There are a few wrinkles that provide some modest entertainment value: Lizewski’s crush, Katie, spends part of the movie assuming that he’s gay, and the crime boss’s son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) turns out to have superhero ambitions of his own. But the only truly distinctive thing that Kick-Ass has to offer is the chance to watch a cherubic, gap-toothed schoolgirl spit profanities and dish out bloody ultraviolence.
The thing to do, I suppose, is to refuse to be shocked. That’s the line that some reviewers have taken: Oh, nice try, Hollywood, but you’ll have to get up a bit earlier in the morning to inflame this critic.
Better to act jaded than to wallow in the exploitation, as Kick-Ass’s many rave reviews have done. And better a yawning dismissal, certainly, than the awful pretentiousness that inspired Time’s Richard Corliss to praise the movie for its supposed moral seriousness, and for the way it “spills out of itself to raise issues about all superhero characters, all action pictures.”
Kick-Ass does raise questions, I admit, but most of them boil down to just one: Is this the bottom? For a while, I thought that torture porn represented the nadir of modern exploitation cinema, but after watching young Moretz put her butterfly knives through a panicking, pneumatic gangster’s moll, I’m not so sure. One hates to outsource in these cases, but it’s hard to do better than The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, who called the movie “violence’s answer to kiddie porn,” and noted that “the winsome way [Hit-Girl] pleads to be inculcated into grownup excess . . . is the dream of every pedophile.”
The filmmakers, of course, would be shocked — shocked — by that analogy. The screenwriter, Jane Goldman, explained in an interview that it’s really Hit-Girl’s “intensity and focus” that draw people to the character, and that her prepubescence actually makes the movie less exploitative, because unlike most female action heroes, she isn’t just “there to look attractive” while she guts and guns down bad guys. She’s a feminist action hero, you see! Just like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien movies! (If, you know, Ripley shot her way out of the alien hive while wearing pigtails and a Catholic schoolgirl uniform . . .)
I’m sure Goldman believes this. I’m sure many moviegoers do as well. And I’m very sure that Mr. and Mrs. Moretz believe it, because how else would they sleep at night? That’s the thing about corruption: There’s always a way to rationalize it, even — or especially — when it’s your own daughter’s soul that’s being sold.