Kingsman: The Secret Service is a confounding experience. Much of it is an enjoyable throwback to breezy action movies of yore, while some of it is as loathsome as the in-your-face modern action movie can get.
Director and writer Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) models it on classic 1960s spy movies, especially James Bond, but with heaping servings of ultra-violence and ultra-vulgarity. It is especially discombobulating that a movie this crude could argue with apparent sincerity for the virtue of gentility. “Manners maketh man,” suave agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) tells a pub full of British hooligans before knocking the bejesus out of them.
First, lets look at the good stuff. Kingsman offers a welcome break from the modern spy game. Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer have convinced even the mighty James Bond that to succeed in the espionage world today, an agent has to be grim, focused on the job and humorless. While I love the Daniel Craig Bond films, especially Casino Royale, I do believe the series could use a dash of its old panache. People seem to forget that even the earliest Sean Connery entries didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Vaughn and his co-writer, Jane Goldman, remember. Kingsman recalls the days when a spy movie could be sly as well as spectacular, when Sean Connery could suss out an enemy agent for making the wrong wine selection or Roger Moore could ski off a cliff and pop a Union Jack parachute (the Mark Millar comic book the movie is based on opens makes a cruel joke out of the famous Spy Who Loved Me stunt). Midway into Kingsman, Harry and archvillain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, reworking his Formula 51 character) exchange veiled threats during dinner conversation as Bond and the villain used to do in the old 007 movies. The topic of their conversation is how Bond and the villain used to exchange veiled threats over dinner in old 007 movies. Wheels within wheels.
Harry is kitted out with the old-school spy gadgetry that the Bond films now seem to regard as part of their childish past. “We don’t go in for that sort of thing anymore,” Q sniffed in Skyfall. Well, Kingsman’s equivalent character, Merlin (Mark Strong), still goes in for it, all in. Harry’s umbrella is a bullet-proof shield as well as a taser with a radar-operated targeting system. His cigarette lighter is a hand grenade. His eyeglasses project holograms.
Kingsman also brings back the Bond movie penchant for outrageous henchman, though henchperson is the more appropriate title here. Algerian-born actress Sofia Boutella plays Valentine’s second-in-command, Gazelle. Instead of a razor-brimmed hat or metal teeth, Gazelle sports a pair of prosthetic legs similar to those used by paraplegic runners, except that hers also function as giant Ginsu knives to cut apart her opponents. In the opening, she ambushes a Roger-Moore-circa-1973 lookalike and slices him from head to stern in an early taste of the gore to come.
A villain with switchblade legs is a terrific gimmick, one the contemporary Bond films would consider outre. Boutella in fact has both her legs (judging from the IMDb pictures from her film StreetDance 2, they are spectacular) so the movie’s deadly prosthetics are CGI.
Rather than the silent, hulking henchman of the earlier Bond films, Boutella is more of a take-charge character like Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp from GoldenEye. Gazelle is even more liberated, showing impatience when she doesn’t believe her boss is acting evil enough and nudging him toward world destruction.
Vaughn doesn’t borrow from Bond alone. So much of Kingsman comes from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. one wonders if this movie will prove closer in spirit to the old TV show than the upcoming Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie. Like U.N.C.L.E., Kingsman is an independent intelligence service with its entrance hidden inside a tailor shop.
Kingsman goes much further with the tailor angle than U.N.C.L.E. ever did. As Harry explains during one of the film’s many rounds of exposition, sometime near the end of the 1800s, Britain’s elite tailors — who were all privy to state secrets because they clothed the nation’s government and military leaders — realized the need for a private secret service and pooled their pensions to found Kingsman. They invested their money brilliantly. Kingsman apparently owns several manor homes across Britain and a visit to an underground bunker reveals a fleet of jets, helicopters and all manner of land vehicles. In Kingsman, bespoke secret agents have more flexibility and resources to save the world than government-issue models.
Like many of the spy agencies from 1960s Bond knockoffs, Kingsman has a fanciful bent. The agents are named after knights of the Round Table (Harry is Galahad) and their chief, naturally, is called Arthur. Michael Caine plays Arthur apparently because the former star of The Ipcress File is contratually obligated to appear in secret agent throwback movies. He played Austin Powers’ father in that series’ third film and voiced a spymobile in Cars 2.
Vaughn doesn’t just glean from past spies, either. In some ways Kingsman is more of an Alex Rider knockoff than a James Bond knockoff. Firth may get top billing and prime position on the poster, but the main character is Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, played by newcomer Taron Egerton. Eggsy is an aimless young man with “soccer hooligan” set down as his career path when the mysterious Harry appears and hand picks Eggsy to become the newest Kingsman agent. Seems there’s an opening for a new Lancelot after the previous one got sliced in half five minutes into the film.
When I saw the trailers for Kingsman I thought Egerton was in his mid teens like Alex Rider, but it turns out his character is a young man somewhere between 18 and 22. Even so, Eggsy’s story owes much to Anthony Horowitz and the whole trend of teenage spy novels. Perhaps a more apt comparison is Robert Muchamore’s CHERUB series, which also turns a burgeoning juvenile delinquent into a secret agent.
Every Kingsman agent sponsors his own candidate to join the organization, and Eggsy soon realizes he’s the only primary-school educated city boy among a group of public school, Oxbridge elitists. Like the Harry Potter films, Kingsman is unapologetically British and deals directly with the UK class system. It’s amusing when champion of the common man Harry accuses Caine’s spy chief of being a snob considering that Caine’s Harry Palmer was the first working-class spy to hit the screen.
Apart from the upper-class jerks, Eggsy finds one ally in his class, the pretty Roxy (Sophie Cookson). She may be posh, but she’s friendly. As the others wash out of the program, it doesn’t take much intelligence to guess which two will be the last ones vying for the job.
A flaw with the Kingsman script is that the for the first two-thirds of the film the story, like the tragic agent Lancelot, is divided in two. We have Harry tracking down Valentine and trying to figure out his devious plot, and we have Eggsy’s grueling recruitment, with flooding barracks and high-altitude parachute jumps. Eggsys’s story gets more attention and it takes a while for Vaughn to catch up with Valentine’s scheme.
Like more than one villain in the Alex Rider books, Valentine is a billionaire who claims to be a philanthropist promising to spend his wealth to save the world. He just doesn’t share the fact that saving the world requires decimating its population. Valentine’s delivery system, involving our reliance on technology, was already used in a Doctor Who episode, but never mind.
Unlike the megalomaniacs of the Bond movies, Valentine allows the powerful and the wealthy to buy their way out of the oncoming global destruction. Vaughn is playing with class warfare again, this time on a global scale. He reverses the sickening viewpoint of Roland Emmerich’s disaster film 2012, which had no problem believing only the 1 Percent deserved to survive the apocalypse.
Although he rarely cracks a smile, Firth appears to be having a tremendously good time. His debut as an action hero draws upon the debonair and erudite heritage of his film career. Harry is Mr. Darcy as a killing machine.
Jackson also is having fun, but the play-acting is apparent. He lisps and wears a Yankees baseball cap even to the highest social functions. He is the uncouth American who threatens the finest traditions of British society.
Egerton, who has primarily appeared in British television until now, is engagingly youthful through his “My Fair Lady” transformation from pub crawler to gentleman agent. Mark Hamill makes a brief, funny appearance as a British professor. He’s not easy to spot. I was saying to myself, Wait, is that Mark Hamill? when suddenly there isn’t much left of him to recognize.
What works in Kingsman is how Vaughn and his team lovingly send up classic spy movies and filter Valentine’s plot through sly social satire. Yet this material nearly gets buried under an avalanche of coarse language and coarser violence. Vaughn slips in a 007 reference that is Roger Moore smooth, then incongruously reaches for buckets upon buckets of CGI blood hoping to out-Tarantino Tarantino.
This gratuitous drive toward the hard end of a R rating must be attributed to the writer of the original comic, Mark Millar. Millar belongs to a generation of writers who came of age when Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” hit the comic book racks and swept into the industry determined to bring “realism” to superhero comics. “Realism” means deconstructing myths with harsher violence, randomly killing off important supporting characters, or — where permitted — language that would make a stevedore gasp. Millar and his compatriots are highly popular and have reshaped the modern comic book, but they are also the reason I buy far fewer comics than I did 10 years ago.
Vaughn previously adapted another Millar-penned comic, Kick-Ass, which also traded on the shock value of hard-R vulgarity and violence. Kick-Ass also was a movie with a deeply split personality: a vicious satire of the Batman mythos sharing space with an affectionate reworking of the Spider-Man story. While Vaughn and Millar clearly are playing with the spy genre in Kingsman, the same way they played with the superhero genre in Kick-Ass, the spy movies of the ‘60s were never as wholesome as the comic books of the time, so Kingsman is not nearly as cynical a film as Kick-Ass.
That doesn’t redeem its language or violence, though. Regarding the language, its sin is being flagrantly unnecessary. Kingsman is a fifth-grader trying to sound cool to eighth-graders by unleashing a torrent of f-bombs.
The extreme violence is more troubling because it is never certain what Vaughn hopes to accomplish with it. He may not know himself. Much of the violence, particularly during the climax, is so garishly overbaked it is clearly played for laughs. But there comes a point where ultra violence ceases to be funny, and Vaughn exceeds that point early and often. A look at the films of a British filmmaker from the same generation, Edgar Wright, will show how even extreme violence can be funny (short bursts vs. unrelenting barrages).
Yet there comes a sequence at the end of the second act at odds with the tone of the rest of Kingsman. It takes place in a church and it is an unflinching orgy of carnage that lasts about five minutes even though it seems to go on much longer and features nearly every conceivable way one person can kill another in close combat. This sequence is not being played for laughs and certainly is meant to disturb and even horrify, but what is Vaughn’s purpose here? This isn’t a Holocaust drama forcing us to consider the depravity that mankind can descend to. It’s a silly spy movie with bullet-proof umbrellas and knives that pop out of shoes.
What’s worse is that Vaughn stokes the movie audience’s blood lust. We are told the church is a Southern white supremacist congregation, and before the mayhem starts the minister (who wears no sort of identifying religious frock) whips up his followers with hate speech. We are primed to wish for their comeuppance, and then Vaughn unleashes more retribution than we want to see. It is like the old “cure” when a boy gets caught taking a puff off a cigar and his father forces him to smoke the whole thing until he pukes.
The idea of filmmakers punishing moviegoers’ love of violence by giving them a surfeit is tiresome, and in this case is particularly hypocritical. Look at all the work that went into this sequence. It required precision choreography with dozens of stunt professionals, a fair bit of CGI blood spurts and scores of camera setups. The sequence probably took weeks to film and added millions of dollars to the film’s budget. For what purpose? To rub the audience’s nose in it?
I saw Kingsman: The Secret Service more than a week ago, and what sticks with me is the goofy, enjoyable spy stuff. The violence has become a bad memory, and it’s a shame Vaughn had to sully an otherwise entertaining lark with the cheap psychology of sensationalism. At the risk of sounding like an old fudd, Kingsman would have been a better, more mature film with a PG-13 rating. It earns its R for childish reasons only.