Mindy Macready (Chloe Moretz) is a pint-sized, foulmouthed preteen, schooled in the art of weaponry by her vengeance-obsessed father, Damon (Nicolas Cage). Just for practice, Dad sometimes has her wear a protective vest and shoots at her, so she'll know what it feels like to take a bullet.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a scrawny, hapless high schooler, suspected of being gay by the girl he most desires. Despite no discernible physical agility or superhero skill, he dons a homemade bright green and yellow costume and decides to go into the crime-fighting business.

The joke of "Kick-Ass," directed with a mixture of good cheer and go-for-broke tastelessness by Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Stardust"), is that these two pipsqueaks will eventually become "Hit-Girl" and "Kick-Ass," the salvation of a drug- and violence-plagued New York City. Based on a comic-book series by Mark Millar (the screenplay adaptation is by Vaughn and Jane Goldman), this movie at once mocks the earnest premise of most superhero pictures — the wide-eyed, lushly romanticized creation myths of "Spider-Man," "X-Men" and "Batman Begins" — and exults in that very same premise.

It's called getting your cake and eating it, too, and for the most part "Kick-Ass" is able to pull it off.

The plot, such as it is, has something to do with a gangster (Mark Strong) who operates a powerful drug-smuggling ring. His young son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a classmate of Dave's, yearns to prove himself a worthy inheritor of the family business. Dave, meanwhile, just wants to win the attention of a pretty girl named Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). Cage's Damon — who later transforms into his own superhero, named Big Daddy — is a former cop who holds a long-standing grudge against the gangster.

All of these players' paths eventually cross, in a manner both dramatically satisfying and completely forgettable. Like most films making a bid to become a billion-dollar franchise, "Kick-Ass" has too many characters and too many plot threads. If you're not predisposed to this brand of fanboyish, back-story-clogged mayhem, you'll likely find yourself very bored.

But Vaughn know he's not making high art — just breezy, self-referential fun. He fills the movie with as many gunfights, kung-fu battles and fiery explosions as he can muster. He allows Cage to chew the scenery with perverse abandon (even by the scenery-chewing standards of Cage). When all else fails, he resorts to the cheap, but admittedly funny effect of having the blond-haired, angelic-looking Moretz let loose with a stream of profanity and bloodshed. The movie's offbeat color scheme — garish purples, greens, and burnt oranges instead of the old-fashioned, all-American reds, whites and blues of most superhero pictures — further adds to the appealing, vaguely hipster-ish vibe.

Does the movie leave you breathless with anticipation for "Kick-Ass" 2, 3, 4 and 5? Not entirely. But Vaughn earns points for allowing his three young leads — Moretz, Johnson and Mintz-Plasse — the chance to create memorably oddball characters, instead of completely swamping them in CGI. Moretz, especially, is a hoot, provided you aren't offended by the idea of preteens wielding guns.

Given a little more onscreen time to shine in future installments, they might even give the "Kick-Ass" series what it's missing thus far: a bit more heart, and a lot more purpose.



Opens Friday

3 stars (out of 5)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Aaron Johnson,Nicolas Cage, Chloe Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse

Running time: 117 min

Rating: R (graphic violence, strong language, sexual content, nudity)