By Matthew McKibben | February 13, 2015
Directors: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons
Starring: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, Sofia Boutella, Michael Caine, and Sophie Cookson
It’s evident from the opening frame of Kingsman: The Secret Service that Matthew Vaughn clearly loves spy movies, both old and new. Based on the comic book of the same name, Kingsman: The Secret Service is both slyly and overtly loaded with references to everything from the James Bond franchise, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Pixar’s The Incredibles (only with spies instead of superheroes), and Fox’s television series 24 (among many others). Because Kingsman: The Secret Service proudly and blatantly wears so many different spy movie references on its finely tailored sleeve, the movie could at times be unfocused, predictable, and ultimately kind of dumb; yet you’d be hard pressed to find a better guilty pleasure movie this year. Despite my minor misgivings, I liked this movie. Vaughn is a skilled enough director that he was able to create one of the most devilishly entertaining movies of the past few years, yet this is another movie from him where he falls into the trap of sacrificing substance for expertly crafted style.
The story is relatively straightforward and simple, if not a little silly: A secret organization of British spies (more like modern knights), known as “The Kingsman,” each with an Arthurian name (Lancelot, Arthur, Galahad, et al) gather new recruits to fight a mega-powerful telecom CEO, intent on using a high powered telephone frequency to turn billions of his phone service subscribers (save for a few hilariously selected people) into violent uncontrollable killers… all for the benefit of Mother Earth. If this all sounds like a plot from a James Bond movie, it’s supposed to. Of all the movies referenced, James Bond is by far the most frequent and explicit. The movie is fully aware that the plot is kind of silly and has some fun with the idea. I don’t want to give it away, but there’s a “cameo” (well, it’s not really him) that is perhaps one of the most jaw-dropping, hilarious things I’ve seen in a movie in a long, long time. What the movie lacks in satirical undertones, it more than makes up for with shock laughs.
While Vaughn also sacrificed substance for style in 2007’s Kick-Ass, that movie was deceptively smart in critiquing and poking fun at superhero movies. Kingsman: The Secret Service spent so much time mimicking and paying homage to old spy thrillers that I feel like it forgot to make much of a statement on the genre itself. Maybe that was the point. Perhaps there’s nothing left to be said about spy movies that hasn’t already been said by movies like parodies like Austin Powers and modern spy movies like Casino Royale and the Bourne series. I would have preferred to see a little more satire, though, mixed in with all of the visual flair and kick ass action set pieces.
What little narrative tension there is in this movie exists mainly between Galahad (Colin Firth), and his personally selected recruit, Eggsy (newcomer Taron Egerton), a troubled, fatherless kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Like all “bad kids” in these kinds of movies, Eggsy’s a kid with a heart of gold and feels he’s destined for greater things. He just can’t help himself, though. He knows he should do better, but it’s so much fun taking a bully’s car for a joy ride through London. You’re given the reason he’s fatherless in the first five minutes of the movie, and the relationship Galahad and Eggsy eventually develop is one of a master-pupil, but it slowly also incorporates a touch of a father-son dynamic. The movie is at its strongest when the two of these characters are in the same room together. Taron Egerton pulls off the edgier stuff earlier in the movie a lot better than the stuff where he’s all polished at the end. While Colin Firth looks 100% at ease in the highly tailored suit of a gentleman; Egerton always looks like he’s wearing a costume. That’s probably more a sign of his young age than of his acting skill, though.
If you’re worried about the prospect of Firth being believable as a kick ass spy, don’t be. Every single part in this movie could have been played by someone else, save for Firth’s Galahad. King George VI in The King’s Speech will always be my favorite Firth role, but I think a case could be made for this one, too. Firth’s Galahad is pompous in a way only Firth can truly pull off, yet he also has flashes of fatherly warmth, never to the detriment of his dry British wit. Much to my complete and total shock, Firth absolutely nails the action stuff in this movie. There’s a scene in a Kentucky church that will go down as one of the all-time great anarchistic action set pieces I’ve ever seen. To describe it would do you a disservice. I have minor issues with the movie, but trust me, the church scene itself is worth the price of the movie ticket. I don’t often do this, but please be warned that this movie is both intensely and cartoonishly violent.
Kingsman: The Secret Service references old Bond movies in many ways, but none more clearly than how they portray villains Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) and henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). The church scene referenced above is the best scene in the movie, but a close runner up is any scene involving Jackson and Firth discussing classic spy movies and how serious new spy movies have become. They’re both fully aware of the movie they’re in, but also of the current and past states of the big budget spy thriller. They prefer over the top plots, interesting character quirks, and larger than life villains and heroes. They’re enemies, but like Bond and the great villains he’s faced, they kind of have a mutual respect for one another. The dialogue between the two of them sometimes comes close to breaking the fourth-wall and being overly winking to the audience, yet I’m willing to forgive those issues because of how much fun it is seeing them together on screen. What little Vaughn has to say about the spy movie comes via their interactions. If a Henchman Hall of Fame were a thing, Gazelle’s (Sofia Boutella) razor sharp prosthetic legs would belong there next to Odd Job’s hat and Jaws’s iron teeth. She’s really great in this movie.
Merlin (Mark Strong) is basically a mix of Q from the Bond franchise and a spy professor of sorts, and he did well enough with the material he was given. Arthur (Michael Caine) is the man in charge of the Kingsman, but he’s given very little to do outside of sit at a table and scold any students that come his way. When Michael Caine shows up in a movie like this, he’s there more because of his legacy and less because of him having a whole ton of stuff to do. You like him because he’s Michael Caine, but any number of actors could have played his part. Like Hermione in the Harry Potter stories, Roxy (Sophie Cookson) is actually a better spy than Eggsy, but she’s relegated mainly to the sideline in this. If they’re fortunate enough to make a second movie, I’d like to see more with her. Mark Hamill also shows up as a professor who developed the technology needed for Valentine’s grand master plan. He isn’t give a ton of stuff to do, but I did find it oddly reassuring seeing him in a movie and not sucking. Any fears I had about him seeming rusty in Episode VII are now vanquished.
The rest of the movie is set up to be kind of like a spy version of Hogwarts, as the new recruits learn the ropes of becoming first class spies. There were a couple of great set pieces involving the recruits making their way out of a fully submerged dormitory room, and another involving 6 recruits jumping out of a jet but only 5 working parachutes, but I found all of the rest of the training scenes to be largely underwhelming and unimaginative. I was expecting montages of them learning everything from martial arts takedowns, to advanced weaponry, but we’re instead left with montages of people taking tests, scenes of people shooting balloons out of each other’s hands, and a kind of inexplicably silly subplot involving each recruit training with a puppy. The puppy thing does have a payoff, but I find it hard to believe that after months of training, whether you graduate or not would come down to how you interact with your dog.
Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson’s music is pretty good, although not altogether memorable. They were obviously going for the kind of trumpet blaring, James Bond winking music that was used in Pixar’s The Incredibles. The special effects work could be distractingly “pull me out of the movie” bad. Arianne Phillips’s costume design was stellar. If you’re going to make a movie where spies meet below a posh British tailor shop (shoppe?), you better bring your a-game. She probably won’t get any awards recognition, but everyone was perfectly dressed in this.
So yes, Kingsman: The Secret Service isn’t a perfect spy movie, nor is it a particularly smart satire of the genre, but it definitely splits the difference between the two. You won’t leave the theater having learned anything new about spy movies, but it is one of the most fun movies I’ve seen in quite a while.
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