The release of Kingsman: The Secret Service is counter-programming for Fifty Shades of Grey, but it also could have been timed to correspond with Father’s Day. This is exactly the type of movie I’d see with my dad: violent, funny, and irreverent. Within the framework of a standard hero’s journey, director Matthew Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman skewer big targets with glee, and in between the well-choreographed mayhem, there’s a scathing pitch-black satire. No stone is left unturned: the film implicates large swaths of our culture, including the sort of audience who pays for mindless action, and there are jokes so daring that I’m surprised they made the final cut.
Vaughn and Goldman, working from the comic book series by Mark “Kick-Ass” Millar, slowly build toward controlled lunacy. “Kingsman” is a spy organization, one that’s unmoored by governments or bureaucracy, and their front is a tailor shop in London’s Seville Row. Our entry point is Galahad (Colin Firth), a soft-spoken gentleman who carries hidden weapons in his sharp-looking suit. The Kingsmen needs new recruits after the sudden, brutal death of one of their finest. Galahad picks Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a young punk from a blue-collar neighborhood, because Eggsy’s father once sacrificed his life for several agents.
After Galahad establishes a rapport with Eggsy, the film goes in two directions: Eggsy and other recruits undergo a brutal training regiment, headed by Merlin (Mark Strong), while Galahad investigates Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a deranged tech magnate with unorthodox plans for saving the world. It’s a forgone conclusion that these parallel stories eventually clash, and it’s to Vaughn’s credit that there are oodles of surprises, anyway.
The violence in Kingsman routinely defies the laws of physics, yet Vaughn won’t let hiccup like that get in the way of kinetic movement. Whether it’s with a knife or an umbrella, Firth and the other agents line-up their hits as if they’re going for maximum combo points. Vaughn films these scenes briskly, with varying speed, so we can see the plan of attack before it’s flawlessly executed. It’s an effective technique, albeit a simple one, and the plethora of gadgets keep it interesting.
The best action scene comes two-thirds of the way through the film. I wouldn’t dare spoil the context, except to say that Galahad kills a whole shitload of people. The sequence is the logical conclusion of stylized spy violence: the hero is an avatar of aggression, while the victims exist only to have their limbs severed. Eggsy watches this sequence too – Galahad’s glasses provide a constant video feed – and his horror is a critique of the audience’s bloodlust. Vaughn pushes this material beyond good taste and into visceral joy, and the cost is a reminder that we’re kinda crazy to find this all so amusing.
Just like the action, the commentary reaches a genuinely shocking crescendo. The first half of the film has a familiar undercurrent: Eggsy starts as a social and economic outcast, while Galahad must defend his unorthodox recruiting strategy. The most obvious similarity is Men in Black, minus the aliens, except here there is also a conservative streak. Galahad believes in gentlemanly conduct in an old-fashioned sense, one that transcends social class, and Vaughn seems to share that point of view.
But when heads start to explode and Valentine reveals the full of extent of his plan, Kingsmen might as well be a feature-length episode of Black Mirror. Beyond their embrace of traditional gentlemen, Vaughn and Goldman are deeply skeptical of modernity; with upturned noses, they critique technology and diplomacy in equal measure, and there are cynical references to American corruption. Sure, the Kingsmen traffic in fancy gadgets, but a lighter/grenade seems primitive in comparison to the bio-technology that defines the plot. It’d be foolish to embrace their worldview – as a friend noted, Millar’s comic is guilty of creating several straw men targets – yet there are actual ideas here, which can be fun to unpack.
In order for black comedy to seem this fun, the cast must seem like they’re in on the joke, and Kingsman is full of actors who cannot hide their glee. Firth, who at age 54 is probably too old to play 007, plays against type as a violent man with an overarching sense of propriety. As he stabs and shoots his way through enemies, there is none of his trademark flubbing over his words. Still, Jackson is arguably the strangest one here: he plays Valentine with a heavy lisp and no sense of decorum, and unlike most villains, he does not think his agenda is inherently evil (up until the end, Valentine thinks he’s doing the right thing). Egerton, a newcomer from British TV, more or less steals show. Vaughn has an eye for talented actors (Layer Cake arguably made Daniel Craig’s career), and Egerton’s cocksure performance may lead him down a similar path. Of course, Vaughn peppers his film with British character actors, as all spy movies must, so Mark Strong and Michael Caine have workmanlike, albeit funny supporting performances.
The biggest target for Kingsman, beyond what’s in its literal crosshairs, are the most recent James Bond films. In particular, there are jokes at the expense of Skyfall, which sacrifices entertainment for solemnity (characters here discuss the Bond universe openly). Whereas Skyfall hides absurd plot points under the guise of droll meta-commentary, Kingsman embraces absurdity with cheerful abandon. Here is a spy film full of cliches and somehow still feels fresh, whether it’s the rogue agent infiltrating the villain’s secret mountain hide-out, killing scores of faceless henchmen, or finally rescuing a princess (the admittedly adolescent script falters in its broad handling of this sexy sub-plot). By the time Eggsy orders his a specific cocktail, absent any 007-pretense of watering it down, Kingsman might as well be giving James Bond the finger.