There’s a hilarious moment in the classic ‘80s comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles when Steve Martin has finally had enough of John Candy’s inane anecdotes. “When you’re telling these little stories,” he instructs Candy, “here’s a good idea… have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!” If only the makers of the new spy actioner Kingsman: The Secret Service had taken that advice. Despite all of its self-satisfied smugness, Kingsman neglects to give us a coherent story, consistent tone, or anything worth caring about. It’s ironic that a film trying so hard to be inventive and outrageous ends up being such a derivative bore.
The plot for Kingsman is barely adequate to connect the gags and set pieces, but let’s give it a go. Galahad (Colin Firth) is a member of the Kingsman; a secret society of spies that uses a prestigious tailor shop for their cover. These guys might not be worthy to carry James Bond’s jockstrap, but they can certainly make him a nice pair of trousers. Galahad takes an interest in a young ruffian with the unfortunate handle of Eggsy (Taron Egerton). You see, 17 years ago, Galahad’s moronic mistake got Eggsy’s father killed, so now he feels obliged to repay the debt by inviting Eggsy to join the Kingsman training program. There, he learns the Kingsman way, which includes parachuting and raising puppies, but does not include actual combat training (at least, none that we’re shown on screen).
Meanwhile, in a story far far away…
Galahad is trailing an eccentric Internet billionaire named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his prosthetic-limbed henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Valentine is a former eco-warrior who has developed a new way to curb climate change, and it sure as hell doesn’t involve leaving a smaller footprint. It’s emblematic of Kingsman’s limited vision that Valentine’s super-villain affectation is a lisp that makes him sound like a megalomaniacal Mike Tyson.
While there’s no denying the anarchic spirit of director Matthew Vaughn’s latest effort, its playful insolence is lost in a haze of uncomfortable brutality and unfocused storytelling. From the very first scene, which is a disconcerting mix of whimsy and graphic violence, it’s clear that Vaughn doesn’t care about telling a cohesive story. All he cares about is proving this ain’t your daddy’s James Bond. “This isn’t that kind of movie!” his characters condescendingly insist on several occasions. The filmmakers then proceed to cannibalize every blockbuster from the last 20 years (including some of Vaughn’s own movies).
There’s certainly no shame in borrowing elements from other successful movies. Hell, it’s a Hollywood tradition! Some of Kingsman’s individual set pieces and scenes work quite nicely, in fact. It’s a blast watching Eggsy discover his secret agent gadgets, or seeing Galahad and Valentine match wits over an extravagant dinner comprised of Big Mac’s and fries. Sadly, the parts never add up to anything interesting. It’s as if Vaughn and his co-writer, Jane Goldman, concocted some cool scenes and then pasted them together with narrative super glue. This makes for a wildly inconsistent tone that pings between deadly serious and sitcom-worthy. It’s impossible to know how you’re supposed to feel from one moment to the next, so you choose the default setting; staring blankly as a bunch of kinetic energy explodes off the screen.
Kingsman takes its spying pointers from James Bond (dry humor and gadgets), Jason Bourne (spastic chase and fight sequences), and Austin Powers (idiotic spoof elements to prove it understands spy films), apes its action set pieces from Zombieland (graphic slicing and dicing), The Matrix (bullet time!), Kill Bill (stylized kung-fu showdowns), Men In Black (training the irreverent rookie), and evokes the same tone as every superhero movie ever made. Even the score sounds like it was lifted from the next Iron Man movie! It’s ironic that Eggsy’s dog is named after Jack Bauer, since 24 is about the only franchise that Kingsman does not resemble; it’s far too realistic in tone and aesthetics. After introducing all of these tonal motifs, the filmmakers are obliged to pay-off each and every one of them, resulting in a 20-minute finale that overstays its welcome by about 19 minutes.
It would be a herculean task for any actor to distinguish themselves in this garbled nonsense, but Firth and Mark Strong (as the gadget man, Merlin) come the closest. Each imparts their character with a reassuring charm that feels grossly out of place in this smarm-fest. Taron Egerton is serviceable in the (sort of) lead role that keeps him a one-dimensional hooligan until the final reel, when he magically transforms into a debonair killing machine. Samuel L. Jackson has a blast delivering some of the film’s best lines, but his villain is simply too broad and outlandish to be taken seriously. And Michael Caine!
Want to know the theme of Kingsman? “Manners maketh man.”
Yep, that’s it. This is, quite literally, a movie that boils down to, “Suits are cool!!”
Normally, a mindless trifle like Kingsman: The Secret Service could be enjoyed on some superficial level. The action is certainly ridiculous enough to warrant a few laughs, as are the gratuitous digital blood spatters. Unfortunately, Kingsman can’t stop winking at the screen long enough to even be accidentally endearing. This is a movie that wants you to know how clever it is—how different it is from those other decrepit franchises—which makes the lack of originality particularly galling. The harder the filmmakers try to transcend the spy genre, the more derivative their film becomes. Perhaps the splash and dash will distract casual moviegoers, but more discerning viewers should avoid all of Kingsman‘s shiny gadgets.