Director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman adapt a Mark Millar graphic novel that riffs on an action sub genre. In 2010, this would have described the superhero riff Kick-Ass. In 2015, it describes the spy riff Kingsman: The Secret Service. But I can’t stress this enough: the most important thing about these two K-films is that while they are anarchic and subversive, they are not deconstructions or parodies of their genres; they understand what makes their genres tick, and what lies at the heart of their appeal. Elements that seem parodic are merely functions of taking certain tropes a couple steps further than other foundational genre texts ever did.
But let’s get down to the details of the film. Unbeknownst to working-class Londoner “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), his late father was a Kingsman agent, involved in top secret intelligence and espionage. When technology mogul and cartoony villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) engineers the death of another Kingsman, veteran agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) sets out to recruit Eggsy and open the young man’s eyes to a legacy he didn’t know he was a part of. The pressing goal of the day? To stop Valentine’s evil scheme of mass extermination on a global scale.
In a lot of ways Kingsman is infused with the sensibilities of a vintage Bond film, melding over-the-top and “classy” spy action with a modern setting more than any of the actual 21st Century Bond films have ever set out to. Indeed, Kingsman name-checks Ian Fleming’s spy often, and mentor figure Harry Hart has a classic type of spy name that fits on a shelf right next to such others as Emma Peel, John Steed, and of course James Bond. It’s all part of a balance that is always struck well; the film is playful in the extreme (especially when it comes to its glorious expressions of violence, aided by a wide variety of gadgets), while also playing straight what it needs to.
One such straightforwardly presented thing is the central relationship between Firth’s mentor Hart, and Egerton’s protagonist Eggsy, which shines through with both heart and good humor. Firth brings something very much of Roger Moore to his role as a smooth and assured gentleman spy, while Egerton’s rough-around-the-edges streetwise presence complements him well. About halfway through the film, Hart quotes Ernest Hemingway to Eggsy in a thesis central to the definition of a Kingsman: ‘There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self’. The point is well implemented in the screenplay, and gives the audience just enough of a solid underlying theme to give the action a foundation of legitimacy, and no more.
Kingsman is an extremely English film, full of its colorful dialects and the culture of the island. But one of its triumphs is in its continuity of “Britishness”. The various Kingsman agents have code names such as Galahad or Lancelot, bringing home the thread the film establishes as tying together everything from the uniquely British Arthurian legends, right to the modern expression of a parkouring, sarcastic working-class council estate denizen. Kingsman integrates both English archetypes, using that Hemingway quote for a precision-strike class-conscious message to bring some weight to the film.
That idea of continuity also extends to how the striking action sequences are shot. Vaughn and the editors use dynamic speeding effects, but they also get creative with cut-up sequences of frames. In other words, they remove certain frames to bring a punchy immediacy to the impact of the hits; everything hits faster and harder because the odd frame here and there has been removed. It’s a filmmaking technique that goes all the way back to the 1930s and 40s, used many a time for such manic sequences as saloon brawls. In this way Vaughn’s 2015 film takes some cues from an earlier and simpler time. Speaking of the action, I must also mention Bradley James Allen’s stunt coordination/action choreography; he also contributed to Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World’s End and others, so his talents are finding some pretty great venues.
Let’s get more into things that specifically happen in the film. So Sam Jackson’s lisping villain Valentine hatches a scheme relating to behavior-altering signals carried on mobile phone networks, which were all enticingly free to the consumer. It’s global misanthropy disguised as global philanthropy. The time at which everything hits the fan is codenamed V-Day, which is a totally subversive detail. When Valentine’s plan gets going, that’s when we get to a true dealbreaker of a scene; if you’ve seen the film, you only need to hear the words “church scene”.
What I love about this sequence is also what might be a sticking point for some. Kingsman overall is a bit subversive, a bit rude and lewd, but not to the extent that Vaughn’s previous Kick-Ass was. Kingsman‘s crazier elements are a bit more subdued and softened; while an off-the-wall opening scene does establish a contract with the audience, the anarchic element has moved more to the middle. So that’s what makes something as outrageous as the church sequence come out of nowhere. But that is a big part of what I treasure about the scene: it comes out of left field, and flips over all the tables.
Your mileage may also vary with the final joke before the credits, relating to a sexual reward for our hero Eggsy. It’s been a source of minor controversy, but I think it fits with what the film is doing: it’s another illustration of Kingsman taking something that’s omnipresent in the canon of James Bond, and taking it a step further. The joke sees the endings of The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, The World is Not Enough and others… and raises them an R rating. Just like Valentine’s perpetration is like an extension of Hugo Drax’ detached international mayhem from Moonraker, and badass henchwoman Gazelle’s prosthetic leg blades are like Rosa Klebb’s footwear blade of From Russia with Love on steroids (in fact, the Kingsman arsenal scene features exact replicas of that shoe blade, making the connection clear). The ending joke even incorporates voyeurism like in the two Roger Moore Bonds I listed, so the joke is firmly a product of Kingsman‘s fascination with expanding on spy movie tradition.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a fun ride, and a refreshing action film crafted with passion. The cast is exemplary, with Taron Egerton carrying the film as a promising newcomer, and he joins Dane De Haan as two up-and-coming actors who really remind me of a young Leonardo Di Caprio. Imagine if the three of them ever appeared in a film together… But I digress! If an R-rated spy adventure with equal streaks of refinement and smarminess, and a selection of beautifully shot violence appeals to you, don’t hesitate to check Kingsman out. A strong 8/10.