Kingsman: The Secret Service
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
United States/United Kingdom, 2015
Matthew Vaughn’s latest zany endeavour into the world of violent and brash comic book movie adaptations begins with a strange bit of backstory transpiring somewhere in the Middle East in 1997. Amidst significant gunfire and bombings, Harry Galahad (Colin Firth) and his band of Kingsman, a very secretive agency of assassin spies that masquerade in London as a men’s tailor shop, are interrogating a hooded prisoner in their grasp. Much to their surprise, the prisoner has a grenade on him, but before the villain can take all their lives along with his own, one of the Kingsman risks his life, jumping on the explosive device, thus saving Harry and Merlin (Mark Strong). Harry, distraught at the fact that he could not better protect his team, offers the departed’s son a special neck chain, promising help if ever he needs it. Fast forward years later, and the son, Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton) is a bright, inherently kind young adult wasting away in delinquency. On the day he is arrested for stealing a car, he calls the phone number on the neck chain, thus prompting Harry to enter his life yet again, this time offering the opportunity to join the Kingsman. With a entrepreneurial maniac (Samuel L. Jackson) plotting to end global warning by killing humanity, the Kingsman need all the help they can get.
While officially the script to Kingsman: The Secret Service is credited to director Matthew Vaughn and fellow scribe Jane Goldman, the truth of the matter is that the film represents a reunification of sorts between the veteran British director and comic book author and ‘enfant terrible’ Mark Millar. Their first foray into cinematically transposing a comic book was with 2010’s Kick-Ass, a moderate hit, mostly remembered, albeit positively, for its outlandish violence as well as the depiction of a 10 year-old girl who cussed and hacked her way through armies of thugs. Kingsman is in the same vein in many respects, yet probably because it chooses to fit itself within the prism of homage to the most outlandish James Bond outings of the late 1960s and 1970s, it arguably comes off as a bit more polished and better well rounded on the whole.
Millar’s The Secret Service serves as the inspiration for Kingsman (although it was written by Millar with the movie firmly in mind), and in similar fashion to Kick-Ass, some of the books more needlessly mean-spirited, cynical jokes are taken out in order to offer the viewer ever so slightly more palatable central figures. Goldman and Vaughn’s efforts pay off handsomely, with special attention given to young star Taron Egerton and the role of Eggsy. Whereas the film’s marketing campaign shines a lot of light on the character’s devil may care shenanigans, in actuality Eggsy, while certainly influenced by familial circumstances that have let him down and a neighbourhood culture where might makes right, is a decent enough fellow. He wants to shield his baby brother from the toxic environment his step father instils, and only seems to really engage trouble if it comes looking for him, not the other way around. What’s more, the relatively unknown Taron Egerton is rather charming in the role, capable of balancing a street tough persona with one suggesting a compassionate side. In a blockbuster cinema landscape where supporting players eek out most of the memorable moments and engaging character beats, it is comforting to tag along with a protagonist that can earn the audience’s empathy and, to a degree, admiration.
Egerton, however, is not the sole personality of note in Vaughn’s playful if extremely violent super spy extravaganza. Far from it even, as the supporting roles are indeed filled by an enviable lineup of British talent, save of course for the chief antagonist, played by American Samuel L. Jackson. For one, Eggsy’s mentor during the training sequences is none other than Colin Firth. Taking his first crack at an action-adventure film of this nature, Firth handles himself admirably. On the one hand he capably represents precisely the image one might conjure up in one’s imagination when prompted to think of a typical, slightly stiff, English spy. Cool, calm, sophisticated with a hint of snobbery, few would argue that the role of Harry taxes Firth’s gravitas as an actor to its very limits, but suffice to say that he does well in his attempt to come across as an aging James Bond-like personality in a mentor’s role. Supporting him is Mark Strong as the picture’s version of Q (Quartermaster), Merlin. Not seen as much as either Firth or Egerton, Strong is nevertheless effective in all of his scenes as the technologically inclined, foul mouthed assistant. If anybody on team Kingsman is under-utilized, it is leader Michael Caine and newcomer Sophie Cooks, playing fellow trainee Roxy. Caine has little to do at all in the film (not to mention being involved in an utterly useless major plot point in the latter stages), and Cooks, whilst displaying some promising talent and charm, goes from genuinely interesting female co-lead in the first half to completely relegated, thankless supporting female agent in the second half. That, however, is far from her own fault, the blame landing predominantly on the shoulder of the writers and director.
What most people who take a chance on Kingsman come to see is its ability to play like an old 007 adventure, replete with a dastardly villain hell-bent on a global takeover and thrilling action, only with a modern twist to it. In that regard Vaughn and company deliver the goods in nearly every respect. The heroes are armed with a arsenal of fantastical gadgets to aid them in their quest to sustain civilization, including bullet proof umbrellas that also shoot stun pellets, glasses equipped with holographic technology and, directly out of the James Bond book of gadgets, shoes from which a poisonous knife emerges with a simply tap. Jackson, as antagonist Richmond Valentine, is perfectly suited as an insane person believing that his end game is legitimately beneficial for the world. His lisp becomes a bit grating after a while, yet the sincerity with which he plays the part, from his conviction in his ideals to his sheepish sensitivity towards graphic violence, makes him a fitting villain and a funny one to boot.
In fact, the overall tone of film, and by extent the manner in which the gadgets are employed and the action is handled, is one of fun. True enough, this sensation of fun is packaged in a frequently shocking level of graphic violence. Where the Bond pictures shy away from anything overtly bloody in their representation of violence, Kingsman goes the whole nine yards with dastardly, grisly demises that perform a tightrope walk between comedic and horrific. Come to think of it, that might just be its purpose. With deaths and beat downs occurring so fast and furiously, with so much vim and verve as is the case here, the filmmakers are, in some capacity, admitting that the whole endeavour is not to be taken very seriously. In order to convey this caricature of violence, Vaughn and his team take camera work, editing and the training of the actors with utter seriousness. While the manners in which Eggsy, Harry and the gang dispatch their foes in obviously over-the-top fashion with the intent of producing some laughs, all the tools utilized to bring the action to life are brilliant. Vaughn rarely cuts away from the ballet of blood on display, challenging viewers to play catch up, not like with other films in which scenes are edited to oblivion, but for how quick and shocking the hits are. Everyone comes off looking like stone cold killers, in particular Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, Valentine’s sexy henchwomen who has substituted her feet for swords. Yes, swords.
As Harry himself admits at one point in the film, the modern Bonds are definitely on the serious side of the tonal spectrum. Enter Kingsman: The Secret Service to fill the gap for those seeking a spy adventure that plays things to the hilt, unabashedly so. While a few of its characters are sadly left to the wayside, including its lone, potentially interesting female protagonist, the film is amusing in the most outré way possible.