Tarantino detractors like to claim he takes nothing seriously, but even at his most referential, he remains invested in such niceties as dialogue and character. That’s not the case with his imitators’ movies, and Kick-Ass—which sometimes plays like Kill Bill without Volume 2’s moral convolutions—is further proof that comic books don’t necessarily make good films. (The source is a 2008 Marvel series by Mark Millar.) Like Sin City, Kick-Ass is stylized within an inch of its life, a would-be cross between Mickey Spillane and John Hughes. (In this florid context, even Cage’s lunacy seems normal.) The hero is an ordinary dweeb (Johnson) who throws on a costume and calls himself a superhero. But the movie never seems particularly invested in either his adventures or his romantic frustrations; it’s an object lesson in the point at which irony crosses over into nihilism.
Still, Kick-Ass gains significant momentum in its second half, once it abandons the arch origin-story material and starts staking a claim as a straight-up action flick. This is mainly because it cedes the stage to the hilariously foul-mouthed and violent Hit Girl (the 13-year-old Moretz—a star is born), a fellow vigilante tasked with taking down a skyscraper full of goons. A little inventively choreographed mayhem goes a long way. Give Hit Girl her own sequel and there may be some genuine kick-assery indeed.