Chloe Moretz in 'Kick-Ass' -- are toddlers toting Uzis next?

Adapted from a comic book, Chloe Moretz and a bunch of wannabe young superheroes in ‘Kick-Ass’ don’t shy from expletive-filled hard-core violence.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Actors (l.-r.) Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Moretz, and Aaron Johnson pose for a portrait during a media day promoting the film 'Kick-Ass' in New York April 8.

What can you say about a movie in which an 11-year-old girl slices and dices hordes of hoodlums while mouthing choice obscenities that might give even a truck driver pause? Welcome to “Kick-Ass,” the latest and most egregious example of a comic book series-turned-movie. If we keep upping – or, to be accurate, lowering – the ante like this, pretty soon we’ll be watching toddlers toting Uzis. Or haven’t I already seen that?

The perfervid imagination of comic book author Mark Millar was also the basis for the Angelina Jolie splatterfest “Wanted.” As a special service, he and director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn, and Vaughn’s co-screenwriter Jane Goldman, have thoughtfully reached out to preteens by providing them with their very own superhero – though the film’s R rating rather puts a damper on that bit of generosity, no?

The premise to “Kick-Ass,” which plays like a Disney family film hijacked by Quentin Tarantino, is not unpromising, though, like everything else in the movie, it pays homage to – i.e., rips off – a million other comic book actioners. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a geeky New York high-schooler who decides he wants to be a superhero. Calling himself Kick-Ass, he mail orders an unflattering costume, confronts the local bullies, and gets himself so banged up that he ends up with metal plates in his back. This turns out to be a good thing because his dulled nerve endings mean he can fight again and not feel pain. Alas, we in the audience are not so lucky. I found it mighty painful sitting through all the bone crushing and blood-letting.

Kick-Ass is nothing compared to the film’s crime-fighting father-and-daughter duo: Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). Vowing to revenge himself on Mafia honcho Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) for making him a widower, ex-cop Big Daddy has been training Hit Girl (real name, Mindy Macready) for mortal combat. Their first scene together is a touching example of paternal guidance: In order to get her ready for prime time, he repeatedly fires bullets into her bullet-proof-vest protected chest.

It gets better. Their first crime intervention is so gory that even Tarantino might be envious. On the other hand, he’s probably flattered – the double-blade wielding Hit Girl, in her purple Clara Bow wig and pleated skirt, is like a “Mini-Me” version of Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill.” And like that film, we are encouraged to see the violence here as strictly cartoon stuff.

But why should we, especially when the chief perpetrator is an 11-year-old girl? The sheer exuberance of blowing things up, of kicking ass, can be liberating to watch, but too often the most dubious cinematic representations of violence are given a free pass because, after all, it’s only a movie. But it’s not only a movie. If it’s OK to show preteens slicing the opposition while mouthing unprintables, then where, exactly is one supposed to draw the line?

I reject the argument that, because this is a fantasy, no line need be drawn. That’s just an excuse, a commercial convenience. When a preteen Natalie Portman costarred in the sadistic action film “The Professional,” her presence had a smarmy-porny quality that was much remarked upon and which one can only hope the director, Luc Besson, did not intend. This is a far cry from, say Jodie Foster’s preteen hooker in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” a role, and a performance, that was entirely justified because it dealt with the consequences of exploitation rather than being a piece of exploitation in itself – which, essentially, is what “Kick-Ass” is. Having as its centerpiece the pint-size Hit Girl will probably be enough to make it a hit. (Clips from the film have already gone viral in the comic-geek world.) Maybe in the sequel she can spawn a brood of Hit-ettes.

Critics who come out against “Kick-Ass” are leaving themselves open to that worst of contemporary accusations: a failure to be cool. But pretending that “Kick-Ass” is just another good-time comic book blowout is the greater failure. Grade: D+ (Rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity, and some drug use – some involving children.)

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