Kingsman: The Secret Service
It’s the most wonderful time of year: when films that I missed out on previously suddenly start popping up all over the place on various streaming options (and there are more in the pipeline, believe me). Matthew Vaughn’s spy/action thriller was something that I was really hoping to check out when it was released theatrically in January, but amid all of the Oscar-bait and other things, the opportunity slipped. But that’s what God invented streaming for. So, would Kingsman: The Secret Service prove to be as good as the critics said it was at the time? Or is just another tired spy film, with unworthy pretensions of being something more, with a clunky title to boot?
“Eggsy” (Taron Egerton) is, politely put, a low-income Londoner, whose circumstances have largely prevented him from achieving much with his life. But things change when he is brought to the attention of Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a leading member of the “Kingsmen”: a secret espionage operation of “gentleman spies”, who have a vacancy in their ranks. As Eggsy undergoes a gruelling selection process, the Kingsmen tackle the megalomaniacal schemes of billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson).
Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, Kingsman is the kind of film that neither desires, nor cares about my criticism. Perhaps the most powerful praise that I could give the film is that it is fully confident in what it is and in what it wants to portray, which is zany, colourful spy fun, in the line of things that came several decades ago, just with updated CGI and stunts. Vaughn and the people that he had around him were clearly inspired by the Bond films of Connery and company, and sought to create something with kind of feeling – indeed, such things are directly referenced several times in the course of the film – with all of the razzle dazzle that 2015 can inject into it.
But the most powerful criticism that I could then lay at the feet of Kingsman, whether there is any point to it or not, is that the film struggles with being both a homage to those kind of pictures and also a parody, and it essentially tries to do the same thing with the more modern brand if spy thriller too: paying tribute and lampooning, and struggling to reconcile the two aspects. Sure, you can laugh at the gadgets, but then the extreme bloodshed in the second half brings right back down to reality. There are quips and puns aplenty, but there is also a seriousness that borders on the sombre at other moments, even as even spy trope and cliché is trotted out. The meta way that Kingsman goes about its business is entertaining only to a point: even in the villain’s final words the film is still struggling to decide whether it wants to be “inspired by” or “making fun of”. At points, it simply stops making any kind of sense, and becomes far too concerned with, essentially, talking to itself, with all of the nods and winks to the spy thrillers of old.
But you do need to appreciate some of those details, since the actual story of Kingsman is the basic enough stuff of a recruit going through training and becoming something more than he previously was, this kind of plot merely a cipher for every over the top action sequence or crazy exchange of dialogue. All of the expected beats are here: the escape from mediocrity, the assholish fellow recruits, the girl fellow recruit, the crazy training tasks, the tests of loyalty, the mad villain with an even madder plan, etc, etc.
But at every point Kingsman is trying to turn the tables on itself. You might expect there to be a predictable love plot between Eggsy and fellow Kingsman trainee Roxy (a passable Sophie Cookson, who doesn’t have all that much to do) but instead Vaughn takes things in an expected, and incredibly low-brow, direction late on, which was legitimately funny despite its crudity. I won’t say more, other than to say that if Kingsman is trying to ape the spy films of days long past, its treatment of female characters is bang on the money, insofar as they are barely characters at all.
If it is over the top action you have come for, boy will you get it, and in spades: Colin Firth proceeds to kick, punch, throw and shoot his way through a horde of not very likeable people, with one sequence, set to “Freebird”, a particular horror show, arms, legs get chopped off at a consistent rate and mothers try to knife baby daughters. Vaughn’s method of keeping the camera largely locked on the central character an interesting way of presenting the visceral back and forth with the named protagonists, something carried forward to the fantastical and bloody bullet ridden sequence that forms the ending, when the crimson mixes with a dazzling array of colures that only partially deflects the sheer horror you might be feeling. Vaughn is no stranger to this, you only have to look as far as the 11 year old killing machine he put on screen in Kick-Ass. It’s hard to be a comedy and have this much of a body-count by the end, no matter how nice the suit you wrap it all up in: this film is no Spy, which was a comedy-espionage entity that meshed the two opposites much better.
If Kingsman has a deeper point to make through the story of lowly Eggsy, a diamond in the rough in every respect, it’s that societal conflict between the haves and have nots is not something that can be brushed under the carpet, and that the perception of such a struggle is as important as the struggle itself. Kingsman depicts a world where this struggle goes to laughable extremes, absurd in the malevolence of the 1% and in the gory retribution that inevitably follows when the other 99% decide to pick up some special forces training. The subtlety of the point is a bit lost amid the mayhem of exploding heads, assassins with blades for feet, President Obama being right on-board with mass genocide and umpteen other crazy elements, but it is there nonetheless. Eggsy is from the low and is brought into the high, but he differs himself from others by reconciling his past and present successfully, becoming a better man than what he used to be.
Egerton is pretty good in the lead role, doing a damn sight better with the enlarged screentime here than he did with his more reduced role in Legend. Eggsy is a chav through and through, but Egerton makes us understand that he really does have a good side, and that such people are better judged on a more complex metric than first impressions. He carries the film through some of its more radically odd moments, and has some great comic timing to boot.
The film has a large and diverse supporting cast, some of which, like Mark Hamill, Mark Strong, and Michael Caine, are essentially in cruise mode. But others, like Colin Firth and the gloriously cartoonish Samuel L. Jackson, positively glowing in his portrayal of internet billionaires/eccentric genocide planner Valentine, are having a ball with every trope and silly aspect thrown their way, tying in nicely to the films overall abandonment of any kind of seriousness in the way it approaches things.
It is in the script that Kingsman really does do its best work though, with Vaughn teaming up with X-Men alum Jane Goldman to bring Mark Miller’s somewhat different source material to the big screen in a way that maximises its appeal as a spy thriller, but also contains plenty of laughs. Hart’s stunning dressing down of Christian fundamentalist – “I’m a Catholic whore, currently enjoying congress out of wedlock with my black Jewish boyfriend…” – Eggsy’s continuing irreverence for everything stoic going on around him – “Oh, like My Fair Lady…” – and any of Valentine’s bombastic speeches, extolling the virtue of genocide. The script, if I may use an overused phrase, “pops” in just the right way, and while it is a major factor in the overall schizo nature of the tone and recurring themes, it’s still something to be enjoyed. Less good is the music from Henry Jackson and Matthew Margeson, which sounds like a rather lame attempt to ape the work of Alan Silvestri on Avengers, right down to some of the repeating motifs.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is not a really great movie. I found it a tad over-rated, the kind of thing sailing by the back of mocking other works, even as it tries to frame itself as a continuation of the same works. The plots weak, some of the cast can’t be bothered and women are treated rather badly. But, it is not a bad movie either. The action is great, the script is great, when the humour works it’s very funny and the key members of the cast – Egerton, Firth and Jackson – simply get the kind of film that they were tasked with making, with scenery-chewing performances to match. Matthew Vaughn has directed and written better films, but at least Kingsman is a memorable experience. A partial recommendation.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).