Kingsman is a gloriously entertaining, sadistic 21st-century attitude adjustment for the sub-genre that Bond built.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
In 2010, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, based on the Mark Millar comic book, sent up, honored, and brutalized the super hero/crimefighter mythos. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, another comic book adaptation, Vaughn and Millar do the same for the myth of the English gentleman superspy; tailored suits, martinis, highly improbable action set pieces, flamboyant criminal masterminds–no cliché is safe. It’s a sadistic 21st-century attitude adjustment for the sub-genre that Bond built, a gory, vulgar, hilarious frenzy of a movie. It’s a bit of a mess, with wonky pacing and several underdeveloped ideas, but it’s got the same appeal as a rickety wooden roller coaster: it’s dangerous and questionably constructed, but that makes it exciting and fun, in a perverse, death-wish sort of way.
Those who’ve watched the misleading trailer for the film and expect an elegant, international spy thriller populated by posh English fellows will be thrown for a loop, and I’m pretty sure Vaughn’s laughing his ass off about it. It’s apparent that you’re getting more than you bargained for from the get-go, when a man gets split in half, dome-to-balls, by a blade-footed female assassin (Sofia Boutella), his halves flopping to the floor like sliced bread. The assassin works for the film’s big-bad, an American psycho-billionaire with a Mike Tyson lisp named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s scheming to cleanse the world via bloodlust-inducing microchips.
The only ones who can stop him are Kingsman, an independent espionage league made up of dapper chaps who speak the Queen’s English, have Arthurian codenames, and have a secret stockpile of deadly gadgets (bulletproof umbrellas, cigarette-lighter grenades) hidden behind a secret door in a Savile Row tailor shop. Colin Firth plays Harry Hart (codename “Galahad”), a Kingsman who, in the movie’s first scene, leads his team on a Middle East interrogation mission that ends with the death of his protégé. 17 years later, another Kingsman dies on a mission (the poor “sliced bread” guy, “Lancelot”), and Harry must find his replacement. He chooses his deceased protégé’s now-adult son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), to be his new recruit and, potentially, the new Lancelot. The parkour-practicing Eggsy leaps at the opportunity; since his father’s death, he and his delirious mom have been stuck in a ratty apartment, having to put up with his drunk stepdad’s abuse on the daily. He’s had a tough upbringing and is thoroughly rough around the edges, a far cry from the immaculately-dressed and composed Harry or Arthur (Michael Caine), the dignified leader of Kingsman, but he’s willing to learn the ways.
When Harry brings Eggsy back to Kingsman HQ to meet the other young candidates for the Lancelot position (Oxford-educated snobs who look down on Eggsy’s working-class pedigree), the film goes the teenage-bootcamp route, á la Ender’s Game, Harry Potter, and Vaughn’s own X-Men: First Class. Eggsy’s interactions with the sniveling bullies (his only friend is Roxy, played by Sophie Cookson, the sole girl in the group) aren’t nearly as entertaining and easy as his scenes with Firth. The superspy training segments, which include a superfluous synchronized skydive and an exercise in seduction that has “deleted scene” written all over it, are the least engaging bits of the movie, and always seem to drag on longer than you’d like.
Business picks up when Harry is attacked whilst investigating Valentine’s operation, and from there the film gets injected with a giant shot of frenetic mega-violence akin to the films of Neveldine and Taylor (Crank, Gamer), which I happen to get a kick out of despite them being widely panned by critics and audiences alike for their excessive use of blood and mutilation. Vaughn’s bravura scene involves Harry, brainwashed by one of Valentine’s microchips, going on a rampage through a Kentucky church, slaughtering dozens of white supremacists in a flurry of gun ballet, set to “Free Bird”. Depending on your taste in action movies, you’ll either find it disgraceful and repulsive or gloriously entertaining. I fell on the side of the latter, and while Kingsman is a largely indulgent and sometimes shallow affair, I couldn’t help but have a good time. The bite of the goriest moments is also alleviated by the film’s cheeky, jocular tone; it’s not taking itself too seriously, and we’re not meant to either.
There are some seeds of ideas peppered throughout the script (written by Vaughn and regular collaborator Jane Goldman) that are meant to turn the notion of the spy-thriller on its head, but they aren’t given enough time to grow. When Jackson’s Valentine breaks away from the Bond-villain stereotype by shooting one of the main characters in the head instead of inexplicably imprisoning them, he hits the nail squarely on the head when he taunts, “This isn’t that kind of movie” (a line that’s revisited later in a similar context). It’s true that this isn’t your average spy movie by any measure, but it isn’t a revelatory twist on the sub-genre either. When a great stand-up comedian like Chris Rock or the late Richard Pryor exposes the absurdity of a subject on stage, like racism or the government or sexism, they do it from all angles, with no mercy, dissecting and dissecting until there’s nothing left but a bloody pulp. Then, they provide new insight that reveals the real truth of the matter. Kingsman forgets to do that last part.
Vaughn is a filmmaker of flair, and with Kingsman he struts his stuff like there’s no tomorrow. Whenever violence erupts, it’s with the force and magnitude of a supervolcano, and though the cuts and zooms are frequent, they never become redundant, and the staging is well organized. The film jumps around a lot (across the globe, across themes), but Eggsy and Harry are the glue that keeps the film from spinning out of control. Egerton’ street-smart swagger just right, and though the movie isn’t exactly brimming with heart or sentimentality, he manages to imbue it with a sense of youthful nobility. Through the success of his previous films, Vaughn’s earned the prerogative to make the kind of movies he wants to make, throwing convention to the wind. He’s not going to please everyone with Kingsman, but there’s no doubt he’s pleased himself. It’s a treat for genre nuts with a fondness for the grotesque, silly, and outlandish, its cult status is sure to grow with time.