Spoilery spoilers follow.
There’s just something about opening titles bouncing out of an exploding building to the strains of Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” that really tells you you’re in for a show.
Kingsman: The Secret Service, the latest film from director Michael Vaughn, and the film he passed on X-Men: Days of Future Past to make, is a movie that is totally, unapologetically here to have a good time, and is quite happy to make a mess doing so. Through 127 minutes, it seldom stops to take a breath, with coolness and energy oozing from every frame. The tone is set early on by the irreverent opening titles as mentioned above, and is only reinforced by the outrageous set pieces which follow. There’s no attempt to disguise the fact that this is first and foremost an enjoyable romp, and the film is all the better for it.
Indeed, this is no more evident than in our hero, Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Eggsy is a council estate no-hoper who’s wound up on the track to self destruction. With no one to guide his life – his father was killed in action in the Middle East, and his mother consequently has given up on life, turning into a not very nice person – Eggsy has wound up heading straight for the bottom. That is, until a favour from the past rears its head to help him. Liberated from the clutches of the Metropolitan Police, Eggsy finds himself under the wing of Harry Hart, a mysterious gentleman spy from the highly secret Kingsman organisation. Much is made of the dire situation Eggsy is in before being given a hand up by Hart – his stepfather Dean is a violent drug addict and alcoholic, and Dean’s offsiders are all thugs from the estate. This is about as cutting as the social commentary of Kingsman gets – it’s highly critical of stereotypical life on British council estates, and suggests that much of the squalor and dejection is a consequence of people who are willing to blame others for their circumstance and unwilling to even attempt lift themselves out of it. Hart, in conversation with Eggsy, encourages him to take control of his own life by taking opportunities offered him, and so Eggsy ends up Hart’s nominee for a position on the elite Kingsman force, and we get a bit of an origin story that plays out in parallel to Hart’s investigation of why someone’s head exploded in his face.
Taron Egerton brings a huge charm to proceedings, and can provide chav swag and gentleman smooth in equal measure. He stands up brilliantly next to the scenery-chewing bigger names, and his is probably the most cleverly nuanced performance, if there can be such a thing in a film such as this. He strolls through several scenes imbuing his character with a level of self-awareness which borders on breaking the fourth wall – Eggsy as played by Egerton is acutely aware that the situations in which he finds himself are a little crazy, and so he doesn’t just parkour his way out of a tangle with Dean’s thugs; he does it with a faint touch of irony and a smile.
As for Harry Hart, it’s a credit to Colin Firth that he doesn’t steal the show from out under Egerton’s feet. Hart is a very restrained gentleman cast straight out of the pre-1970s mould, but a gentleman with massive, furiously violent energy just ready to unleash on unsuspecting jerks in a pub after telling them that “Manners. Maketh. Man.” He reveals his true employment in an outstanding fight scene where he outclasses every single one of Dean’s thugs, ostensibly because he’s emotionally exhausted from the death of a colleague and his enjoyment of a “rather lovely pint of Guiness” has been interrupted. It’s lines like this that betray the textual influences of Hart’s character. He, and the Kingsman characters as a generic idea, are very clearly influenced by several landmark fictional spies. Colin Firth is basically playing Roger Moore’s James Bond if he was Daniel Craig’s James Bond who was trained by John Steed from The Avengers in the arts of umbrella warfare and dandyish but restrained suit wearing, and attended the same optometrist as Harry Palmer from The Ipcress File. Phew, so many layers. And, considering Harry Palmer himself, Sir Michael Caine, plays an important role in the film, nothing serves to illustrate more that this is a loving homage to and also a parody of all those classic and uniquely British spy characters and tropes.
Firth, like Egerton, is restrained as Hart, but does not show the same self-awareness that Eggsy does. This is totally appropriate – he doesn’t realise how dangerous he and the Kingsmen are, and we as the audience don’t even consider that, until his skills in physical combat are unexpectedly demonstrated on (and note I say “on”) an entire church full of rednecks in what is sure to be one of the more controversial scenes in a film this year. Like the rest of the fights in the film, this one is notable because Firth apparently did most of his own stunts. This aside, though, the charm of Hart, and Colin Firth really, is that he is a beacon of pleasantness in a world of nastiness. He places an emphasis on politeness and general courtesy in everyday life, as well as defining the modern method of gentlemanliness in a reassuring sequence where he defines a gentleman as being a noble man, but in the line of Hemingway’s suggestion that “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” So, basically, don’t be a jerk to others, and always seek to improve yourself, which is a credo we can all live by, sexy suits or not.
Elsewhere we have the reliably ridiculous and over-the-top Samuel L Jackson as villain Richmond Valentine, an internet billionaire and ostensible philanthropist who wants to provide free internet and mobile phone service to the whole world for free so he can cause mass hysteria in a quite literal sense. Jackson, of course, takes to the role with gusto, and he brings us one of those fantastic villains who are so repulsively evil but also kind of loveable. His henchwoman, the razor-legged Gazelle, is totally one-dimensional but really rather impressive, and a little scary. And Valentine’s famous buddies who have secretly sided with him are all shown as slimy, sleazy people who get their comeuppance in a big way.
If anything, it’s with Valentine the film falls down a little bit – the intended result of his plot is to cleanse the earth of the majority of humanity in order to avert climate change. This is reminiscent of the plots of the Roger Moore Bond era villains, but because it deals with such a specific issue as climate change instead of just “being land lubbers” or “not being beautiful gymnasts” (ping The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker), the water of this film’s meaning is somewhat muddied; indeed, it glances over the whole climate change debate in a brief conversation between Harry Hart and Valentine before advancing the villainous plot some more. What follows may be a redemptive reading, but I’m willing to look at this as a rather clever dig at “real world social context” spy films (of which the Bond series is particularly guilty) where a villain’s plot centres on some sort of socially relevant Macguffin in order to create a plot point instead of social commentary.
Where the film is most successful, and even more so on a second viewing, is subverting and playing audience expectations. This is best demonstrated very early on, after the opening sequence in the Middle East. The film moves to the snowy peaks of Argentina and what appears to be a safehouse containing the kidnapped Professor James Arnold, noted climate change expert (Mark Hamill, in a brilliantly meta reference to the original comic book on which the film is based). A knock at the door signifies an unexpected arrival, and who should it be but Commodore Norrington from Pirates of the Caribbean?! Actually, it’s his actor, Jack Davenport, as Lancelot the Kingsman. He proceeds to be a super badass and super cool, before the scene is abruptly cut short by Gazelle’s razor legs. This surprise and change in tone tells us that the rest of the film is not going to play by the rules, and it certainly doesn’t. Nothing is as easy as it seems, there is red herring after red herring, and there are admittedly jarring tonal shifts as a consequence. Comedy becomes tragedy becomes Kill Bill, and so if you have any preconceived notions about spy films, prepare for a rollercoaster ride.
From a technical standpoint, Kingsman does everything right. Michael Vaughn has a history of top-notch comic book adaptations – both X-Men: First Class and KickAss are his – and it’s clear that he is one of those rare directors who understands that the appeal of films and comic books is that they are inherently visual storytelling media. The comic book owes a lot to the art of film, and vice versa. Michael Vaughn’s skill is lifting the comic book style from the page to the screen, so there are obvious visual elements which are clearly emulating frames and pages from comic books while still maintaining an even flow which is so important to coherent visual narrative. This purple prose aside, basically the film looks like a comic book without being too obvious in a way that some of Zack Snyder’s (Watchmen, Sucker Punch) films can be. The musical score, by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson, borrows from the legacies of composers like John Barry to create that typical British spy film atmosphere – jazzy brass abounds, surrounded by sweeping strings and thumping percussion, which are all tempered by abstract electronica to represent Valentine’s tech heavy life. But really, the triumph of the film is its editing. Every. Single. Action. Sequence. Is utterly captivating. The scene in the church I mentioned before, as with many of the fight scenes through the film, is edited so it largely appears to be just one take. This style of editing has become fashionable recently, but I have never seen it executed so effectively.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a movie which should not disappoint. It’s not perfect, by any means, but I’ve now seen it twice and it could well be on track to be one of my favourite films! It has style, class, excitement, laughs, and is put together with competence from every angle. I would absolutely recommend this film, but do be warned, it’s pretty violent in parts. But if you can get past that, I think you’ll find it most enjoyable!