Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Dir: Matthew Vaughn
Matthew Vaughn seems to be impatient. After just missing the opportunity to direct Daniel Craig in the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, he’s gone ahead and created his own coterie of distinctly British secret agents in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Serving as a loose adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic and a chaotic retort to the recent austere Bond, Kingsman is a gleefully raucous romp that melds a rich history of spy films (think Moore-era Bond and Austin Powers) with Vaughn and Millar’s hard-R Kick-Ass to produce a sugar rush of violence and one-liners. It’s knowingly over-the-top and nearly overstays its welcome, but Kingsman mostly succeeds on the strength of its solid action, sheer confidence and juvenile wit.
The prologue makes Vaughn’s intentions clear – in this heightened world of superspies the stakes are high, the violence is real, and the characters have free reign to say “fuck” in an inventive number of ways. Colin Firth is Galahad, a member of the independent spy agency Kingsmen with roots in Arthurian legend and headed by none other than Michael Caine himself (as Arthur, naturally). When one of their members dies in action, the surviving Knights of the Round offer up candidates who will undergo extensive and dangerous training in the hopes of becoming the next superspy. The difference being that these recruits know more about Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer than they do about Bond.
Enter Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a young man who’s grown up in Britain’s public housing system without the knowledge that his father was a Kingsman before him. After nicking a car and landed himself in jail, Eggsy blindly reaches out to Galahad with nothing left to lose. The well-dressed Galahad sees in Eggsy a spark of potential, and after quickly dispatching some chavs looking for trouble (while espousing his mantra “Manners maketh Man”) in a sped-up and manic bar brawl, he takes Eggsy under his wing as a new potential Kingsman.
All this plot happens in the first half hour or so and features no less than 3 separate action sequences, including a mountaintop intro the recalls one of the best Bond flicks – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The pace is breathless and leaves little downtime, simply barrelling along from one incident to the next. It’s clear that most involved are having fun, as there’s a joyful sense of discovery amidst all the winking meta-references and crass jokes. There’s neat touches like: The Kingsmen’s headquarters are disguised as a bespoke suit shop on Saville Row, an underground tunnel connects London to a rural training facility, and in place of Bond’s Q we have Mark Strong as Merlin, a despotic yet well-mannered Master-at-Arms ready to put the Kingsman recuits through their paces. And you want gadgets? There’s weaponized umbrellas, exploding lighters, bullet-proof suit jackets and poisoned Oxfords (not Brogues) with retractable blades. Whew.
En route to using all these toys is the rebellious Eggsy. He’s meant to represent a change-of-pace for the stuffy Kingsmen, and is the only recruit to have received his education on the street as opposed to the storied halls of Oxford or Cambridge. I get that it’s a comment on the deep-rooted classism in British society and not everything needs forced diversity, but it’s strange that the maverick choice is still a white man (as are all the recruits, with the exception of two women). Nevertheless, Firth’s Galahad nobly preaches the merits of being a gentleman – namely being comfortable in one’s own skin and being superior to your former self. It’s a nice spine to build the mythos of the agency around, as they’re independent of government oversight (another key differentiator from Bond) and thus lack the whole “For God and Country” reasoning.
The threat in Kingsman (besides the mortal danger of training) comes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson as Valentine, a billionaire industrialist hiding some ulterior motives. Disguised as a philanthropist, Valentine’s plot is to distribute billions of SIM cards worldwide to grants users access to free WIFI for life. The catch? It’ll trigger a murderous rage in the population, killings billions in the process. Or as Valentine sees it – a virus curing a disease while he and his chosen few watch safely from a remote location, ready to rebuild the world as they see fit afterwards.
Jackson plays Valentine as a foppish dandy, sporting a sideways hat and a considerable lisp. He’s also repulsed by violence and is essentially an environmentalist (his plan is in response to global warming), making him a distinctly modern megalomaniac. It’s just this side of broad, but works in the context of the film. He also has a henchwoman with deadly blades in place of feet so subtlety is not in strong supply here. That self-awareness acts as one of the movies key strengths, as it mostly subverts expectations by being everything that its predecessors are not.
For instance, the film’s best action sequence takes place in a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky (and not in a more conventional area like a secret lair inside an active volcano). It finds Galahad fighting his way out of a group of racist, bigoted churchgoers in a bravura sequence set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird”. It’s bloody, brutal, ramped-up lunacy and it works like gangbusters. The role is a departure for Firth and he seems to relish the opportunity, playing well off Egerton’s brash Eggsy and generally just being a kick-ass British gentleman armed with the lethality of The Matrix‘s Neo.
The movie struggles to top the pure satisfaction and mayhem of that scene but does go on for another half hour or so afterwords, tying it’s multiple films’ worth of plot together into a somewhat satisfying climax. The end effect is a bit numbing as most viewers stores of adrenaline will be depleted by the time the final credits roll. But while Kingsman comes close to giving the audience too much of a good thing, it proves to be a mostly winning pastiche of spy movies forced into a unholy union with modern sensibilities and an immensely likeable cast. Also, who doesn’t want to see Colin Firth maim hundreds of sinners while dressed in an impeccable three-piece suit?