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Laughs, action and violence make for a 'Kick-Ass' festival opener

After a smashing sneak peek last year in Austin, the action-comedy 'Kick-Ass' kicks open the South by Southwest Film Festival

Chris Garcia

Each December since 1999, Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News has thrown a big birthday bash for himself at the Alamo Drafthouse called the Butt-Numb-A-Thon, a 24-hour marathon of classic movies and special sneak premieres. And each year one movie in particular blows away the audience. Such hits have included `The Passion of the Christ' and `The Lord of the Rings.'

Last December, Knowles presented sneaks of `Shutter Island' and an itty-bitty thing called `Avatar.' He also unveiled `Kick-Ass,' an action-comedy based on the comics by Mark Millar and directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn. By nearly all accounts, the movie more than fulfilled the promise of its bodacious title.

One fan wrote online that `Kick-Ass' is `the most fun you will have at a movie in a long time.' Sighed another: `That screening will be the stuff of legend.'

And Knowles himself declared it as a `possible contender for best advance screening in the history of Butt-Numb-A-Thon.' (He added that the movie is more entertaining than John Woo's classic blend of action and comedy `Hard Boiled.')

Director Vaughn was there for the screening. `That response is going to be hard to match,' he says by phone from his London home. `Those guys were just incredible. It played through the roof.'

Making its second Austin bow, `Kick-Ass' receives its official world premiere Friday night at the Paramount, launching the South by Southwest Film Festival, which runs through March 21. Vaughn and Millar, as well as the film's stars Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, will be at the show to answer questions. (The movie opens April 16.)

A whiplash froth of profane comedy and bloody action, `Kick-Ass' both parodies and honors the superhero genre. Following his comic-book dreams, a gawky young man (Johnson) assumes the role of a masked crime fighter he names Kick-Ass. His valiant feats encourage other self-styled superheroes out of the closet, including the ultra-violent father-daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Moretz) and possible villain Red Mist (Mintz-Plasse).

From the trailers - both the G-rated trailer and the now-notorious R-rated trailer available on the Web - `Kick-Ass' looks like a candy-colored romp that might be the three-headed brainchild of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Sam Raimi. In perhaps a sign of its singularity, the film was independently produced after numerous studios turned it down.

Vaughn previously directed the British crime thriller `Layer Cake' and the family adventure `Stardust.' He also produced Guy Ritchie's violent crime comedies `Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' and `Snatch.' (He was slated to direct `X-Men: The Last Stand' and the upcoming `Thor' before leaving the projects.)

Much of the chatter surrounding `Kick-Ass' centers on its 11-year-old star, Moretz, who swears and kills her way through the movie with shocking brio. She was last seen stealing scenes as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's precocious sister in `(500) Days of Summer' and will next play a vampire in `Let Me In,' the remake of the Swedish sleeper hit `Let the Right One In.'

We spoke to Vaughn last week about how much `Kick-Ass' will do just that at SXSW.

American-Statesman: How encouraging was the response to `Kick-Ass' at Butt-Numb-A-Thon? I've read that people were clapping along to the music during the action sequences.

Matthew Vaughn: It was like being in a rock concert. I almost felt I had to get up on stage and sing a solo. It's definitely the most electrifying screening I've ever been to. It's a bummer, because we've had other screenings that have gone really well, but nothing has topped Butt-Numb-A-Thon.

That audience, which leans to comic-book nerds and genre geeks, seems the perfect group for the movie.

Judging by the response, that's true. But it does play to a broader audience. We've shown it to all the female magazines. Last week we had a multimedia screening, and I looked around at all these middle-aged women with note pads and thought, `Oh, we are (in trouble).' But they all loved it. It has a bit to do with female empowerment, but there's also a lot of heart to the film. It's about father-daughter relationships. It's not all action and violence. It's got warmth, humor and heart, and women are responding to that.

And they didn't mind a particularly forbidden word spoken by Chloe (which can be heard in the R-rated trailer)?

Well, it's just a word, and it's a word being said by one of the most empowered young women of all time. I think a few people wonder if it's necessary, and I'm like, `Well, is it necessary that she kills 53 people?' Probably not. But at the same time it's what makes the movie powerful and different.

Viewers have noted the movie's allusions to other films and genres, from Adam West in the '60s `Batman' to spaghetti westerns. Did you set out to make a fun pastiche?

We wanted to do sort of a post-modern love letter to all the films and comic books we grew up with. I felt it was time for a little spring cleaning.

You once said `There are no rules' in filmmaking. Can you elaborate?

I think there are rules and boundaries; you just have to know what they are so you can reinvent them. Some rules make sense, like you need to put film in the camera. But others don't and they're there to be broken.

What rules did you break in `Kick-Ass'?

Having an 11-year-old girl who swears and kills people.

Chloe cusses like a sailor and stabs, shoots and amputates bad guys in the film. Buzz is building around her performance. Do you think it will be huge for her?

I hope so. She deserves to be a massive, massive star after this. She has the same special thing that Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman had at that age. You just believe every word that comes out of their mouth. There's this sweet, young girl doing not sweet, young things, and it feels right. It doesn't feel fake.

You came into the process of making the movie very early. What attracted you to the material?

I came in before they'd even written the comic. The process was unique. I met Mark (Millar) at a party and he pitched me the idea he had for a comic. I said it would make a great a movie, so he wrote the comic while I wrote the script with Jane Goldman.

`Kick-Ass' opens the whole film festival. Are you nervous?

I wouldn't say nervous. I'm really proud of the movie. I want to show it to as many people as possible. I had a very good steak and wine when I was in Austin. I got the vibe that Austin is the sort of town that you don't need to be nervous to go to. Everybody seemed really friendly and cool, and even if they thought the film was (bad) they'd tell me they liked it.

Screening info: ‘Kick-Ass' kicks off the South by Southwest Film Festival at 7 p.m. Friday at the Paramount Theatre. Stars Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn, writers John Romita Jr. and Mark Millar and producer Tarquin Pack will be in attendance.

The South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference

When: Friday through March 20

Venues: G-Tech Theater at the Austin Convention Center (501 E. Fourth St.); Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth St.): Alamo South (1120 S. Lamar Blvd.); Bullock IMAX Theatre (1800 N Congress Ave.); Carver Theater (1165 Angelina St.); The Hideout (617 Congress Ave.); Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.)

Film badge: $475, including the film conference and all films

Film pass: $70

Single screening tickets: $10-$12

Information:sxsw.com/film