For all of its faults, inconsistencies and weird tonal issues, Matthew Vaughn's provocative 2010 feature Kick-Ass (based on the comic book series by Mark Millar) remains one of the more intriguing superhero movies of the past decade. It's simultaneously a gleefully entertaining action movie and sharp criticism of action movies in general (and comic book movies in particular). Some found it smartly satirical, some found it noxious and many others regarded it as pure surface-level fun, and one got the sense that Vaughn was hoping to inspire all three reactions. Vaughn takes a similar approach with Kingsman: The Secret Service (another Millar adaptation, albeit a very loose one), this time shifting the focus to British spy movies in general (and James Bond movies in particular). Once again, he viciously satirizes the genre he's operating in while reveling in its superficial pleasures. Some may find his work too self-satisfied or self-aware (and others might simply find it offensive), but there's no question that Vaughn has once again delivered a slick, surprisingly transgressive piece of mainstream entertainment.
The film spotlights the inner workings of Kingsman, a secretive British spy organization which gives Arthurian codenames to all of its members. The organization is headed by Arthur (Michael Caine, Batman Begins), fancy gadgets are provided by Merlin (Mark Strong, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Lancelot (Jack Davenport, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) goes on risky field missions, etc. When Lancelot is killed in action, Kingsman must find a replacement. Each agent chooses a candidate, and then all candidates are required to compete against each other for the job. Galahad (Colin Firth, The King's Speech) – whose real name is Harry Hart – chooses Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taran Egerton, The Smoke), a good-hearted street kid who does his best to protect his mother (Samantha Womack, EastEnders) from her abusive boyfriend.
Eggsy isn't like most of the other candidates for the job. Your average Kingsman candidate is well-bred, refined and snotty; the sort of person who naturally projects the kind of sophisticated elegance expect of a dashing secret agent. However, Harry is less concerned with pedigree than with basic manners – he's convinced that being a gentleman is more important than being refined, and is convinced that anyone from any background can be transformed into a true gentleman (the film is quick to drop a few appropriate movie references here: Trading Places, La Femme Nikita, Pretty Woman and My Fair Lady). Harry sees a certain basic decency in Eggsy, and determines to see how far he can inspire the lad to reach his potential.
Sporting Harry Palmer glasses and a Roger Moore demeanor, Firth is the perfect encapsulation of “the gentleman spy.” It's a fairly silly, romantic notion, and one of Kingsman's neat tricks is the way it exposes the absurdity of that particular character type by fetishizing it to the nth degree. When Firth locks the doors of a bar, calmly utters the phrase “Manners. Maketh. Man.” and then proceeds to beat the hell out of some angry hooligans using a weaponized Mary Poppins umbrella, the effect is simultaneously ridiculous and ridiculously cool. Firth seems to be having a blast in the part, and he's so immediately appealing that it might take you a while to realize that the film's take on his character is a deeply critical one (in fact, some viewers may not get to that realization at all). That's partially due to the fact that film is ultimately critical of almost all of its characters, and Harry Hart – a polite, sensible fascist - is the least of many evils.
Speaking of which, the film's villain is Richmond Valentine (the perpetually game-for-anything Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction), a lisping Silicon Valley billionaire who gladly kills people who get in his way yet can't bear the sight of blood. In a clever, button-pushing twist, Valentine doesn't kill people for something as boring as money: he does so because he cares about the environment. He's convinced that the world has reached a tipping point, and that a large portion of humanity must be exterminated in order to save the planet. Don't think environmental activists are the only folks likely to find Kingsman offensive: the movie is almost South Park-like in its desire to irritate just about everyone in one way or another. I must admit, I found myself objecting to the manner in which the movie threw a nasty bit of child endangerment into the mix during the its climax. Well played, movie.
Firth and Jackson deliver the film's most colorful, memorable performances, but the rest of the cast does solid work. Young Taran Egerton (who hasn't really done much big-screen work aside from this) handles his transformative character arc rather smoothly, and I was surprised by how confident and assured he seems by the film's final act. Michael Caine brings his customary authority to his handful of scenes, and does particularly strong work during a scene involving Eggsy and a dog. Sophie Cookson has a good time playing Valentine's right-hand woman, a double-amputee whose feet have been replaced with razor-sharp blades (hey, look, more button-pushing). Mark Strong gets to be a little more playful than usual as Merlin, and Mark Hamill has a tiny-but-fun role as an environmental expert spouting doomsday predictions.
The action scenes are incredibly frantic, but always coherent and elegantly choreographed. There's a sky-diving sequence that put a knot in my stomach, and a fight scene set within the confines of a Westboro Baptist-style church that doubles as the film's most exciting and morally troubling sequence. I won't even begin to describe the classical music-enhanced finale, other than saying there are literal fireworks galore. I laughed and laughed, and felt a little guilty for laughing.
There's a fascinating conflict at the heart of this movie, and it's something Vaughn seems particularly well-equipped to explore. Kingsman seems genuinely troubled by the things we glorify on the big screen, and it examines the real-life implications of exploitative, male-centric cinematic fantasies from a number of different angles. However, it also understands what makes most of those fantasies so appealing, and delivers a version of them so preposterously entertaining that the movie absolutely works on a surface level as a mindless action flick. Much of the movie reminded me of that scene in Kick-Ass in which the title character flies in on a jetpack and fires a rocket launcher at the bad guys while Elvis Presley's bombastic cover of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” swells on the soundtrack: it's such an obvious piece of critical symbolism, and yet so undeniably fun. Vaughn is hardly the only filmmaker to explore such cinematic conflicts (Michael Haneke's Funny Games movies spring to be mind – effective horror films that attempt to make us feel guilty for watching them), but he might be the only one bold enough to do it within the confines of a mainstream blockbuster. Watching Kingsman: The Secret Service is like being high on laughing gas while someone sticks a finger in your wound.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 129 minutes
Release Year: 2015