by Matt Levine
Touted by its director as a “modern, fresh, accessible” update of the superspy genre, Kingsman: The Secret Service seemed destined to become a guilty pleasure—so it’s truly high praise to state that not all of the pleasure derived from the film is of a guilty variety. This isn’t to say that Kingsman introduces us to the next Jason Bourne, much less the next James Bond; at times, this cartoonish actioner veers closer to Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids franchise than the halcyon days of From Russia with Love. But for the umpteenth adaptation of a graphic novel in recent memory, embellished as it is with a veneer of overindulgent CGI, Kingsman is a dazzling, original, at times jaw-droppingly over-the-top fantasy that takes any batshit idea that comes to mind and sprints with it. True, the cinematic wasteland that is February-March might make Kingsman seem more masterful than it is, but one thing’s for sure: for those trying to catch up with Oscar-nominated fluff, Kingsman provides a recklessly exciting respite, the cinematic equivalent of snorting Pixy Stix.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Producers: Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar (graphic novel), David Gibbons (graphic novel)
Cinematographer: George Richmond
Editors: Eddie Hamilton, Jon Harris
Music: Henry Jackman, Matthew Margeson
Cast: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Taron Egerton, Sofia Boutella, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Geoff Bell, Edward Holcroft, Sophie Cookson, Nicholas Banks
US Theatrical Release: February 13, 2015
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
It’s also refreshingly unpretentious, balancing a fondness for ultra-elegant suits and gentlemanly demeanors with unbridled carnage and winking self-deprecation. The very definition of postmodernism, Kingsman not only updates the conventions of James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; it features a lower-class protagonist who breaks into the upper stratosphere of wealth, not to mention a billionaire villain who has McDonald’s served to him on a literal silver platter. Rather than a state-endorsed Mi6, our super-secret spy organization this time is the Kingsmen—a corps of wealthy aristocrats who, after World War I depleted England’s able-bodied men, saw fit to protect the future by equipping highly trained daredevil-soldiers with ultra hi-tech gadgetry. Outfitted with code names like Lancelot and Galahad, Kingsmen hammers home that these dashing superheroes are the modern world's knights in shining armor, even if notions of sovereign allegiance hardly apply anymore.
We’re introduced to a few of these Kingsmen in “The Middle East, 1997,” where a crudely computer-generated shot ushers us into a crumbling temple. It’s an ugly opening that sadly seems to presage some broad xenophobia, but thankfully the movie picks up once we fast-forward to present-day London. Teenage Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) lives in a row of drab housing projects with his single mother, who refused a hefty compensation package after her first husband—a member of the Kingsmen—was killed protecting his comrades from a grenade blast. Now surrounded by an ensemble of filthy crooks who would be at home in a Guy Ritchie movie, Eggsy seems destined for a life of nihilistic crime; early on, he winds up in jail when he rams a stolen sports car into a police vehicle, clearly relishing the thrill.
Thankfully, Eggsy has a guardian angel decked out in a two-thousand dollar suit and an umbrella that functions as a one-man arsenal. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is balanced on that postmodern crux between old-world civility and new-school liberalism; while his Kingsmen cohorts enlist their protégés from Oxford and Cambridge, Harry finds his successor on the grimy streets of London. (It doesn’t hurt that it was Eggsy’s father who saved Harry’s life in that unfortunate prologue.) Initially dubious, Eggsy is astounded (as is the audience) when Harry—middle-aged, bespectacled, dapper—takes out an entire pub of Cockney criminals, glasses shattering against flesh and bones breaking with complete indifference to a PG13 rating. (“Manners maketh man,” Harry preaches before beating the shit out of these unfortunate ne’er-do-wells.) Kingsman is so insanely fast-paced that it never really takes time to flesh out its characters, but its casting is impeccable: Colin Firth lends a dash of credibility and newcomer Taron Egerton is innately likable, effortlessly blending brawn and smartass charisma in the manner of the best action stars.
A broad plot outline may not make Kingsman sound especially unique: Eggsy and a squad of up-and-coming superspies suffer through a rigorous training process (harkening back to X-Men: First Class as well as Vaughn’s Kick-Ass), ultimately fighting to take down billionaire supervillain Valentine Richmond (Samuel L. Jackson), a media mogul with a fiendish plan to control the world’s population with free SIM cards installed into cell phones and tablets. But the movie hyperbolically proves that plot isn’t always of utmost importance: it’s not what a movie is about that matters (as Roger Ebert used to say), but how it is about it. The aspiring Kingsmen (and Kingswomen) are tasked with choosing a puppy at the beginning of their training and caring for it throughout their education—a way of demonstrating loyalty and compassion, sure, but also an ingratiatingly silly gimmick that leads to some genuine laughs. Fleeting touches of characterization, like the covers of the British tabloid The Sun that cover the walls of Harry’s office, connect the film to a semi-recognizable reality, turning our world fantastic and strange. One skydiving sequence, obviously done with a minimum of CGI, slows down the movie’s rapid pace to simply observe a squad of black-clad parachutists plummeting against a bright-blue sky—maybe the most beautiful action sequence in years. A split-second “cameo” by Barack Obama and the absurd lisp that Samuel L. Jackson utilizes as Valentine Richmond wind up as some of the least outlandish concepts the movie offers. There’s something admirable about a big-budget mainstream movie that uses its unlimited resources to indulge whatever larger-than-life ideas come to mind.
These bizarre left-field touches ultimately lead to some of Kingsman’s more astounding (if occasionally tasteless) sequences. Valentine Richmond’s nefarious plot stems from the belief that humans are quickly destroying this planet, primarily through global warming, and that the human race requires “culling”—a sort of accelerated extinction in order to rescue earth from our own selfish existence. Surprisingly, Kingsman turns into the second mainstream movie in two years (after Darren Aronofsky’s Noah) to posit that the universe would be much better off if the majority of humanity was sacrificed, and although both movies ultimately come down on the side of optimistic humanism, it’s nonetheless refreshing to see prominent releases that revolve around ambitious concepts like self-destruction, human extinction, and the catastrophic pitfalls of human evolution.
Such cynicism is unforgettably portrayed in two scenes that make Kingsman worth the price of admission alone. I hate to give too much away, but suffice to say that an apocalyptic bloodbath in a Kentucky hate church (shot in one take, no less) and a scene in which hundreds of heads explode simultaneously worldwide are both stylish and giddily entertaining. Sure, such moments might be crude and (to more sensitive viewers) offensive, but they’re also exhilarating and audacious in ways most big-budget action movies don’t even care to attempt; at the screening I attended, you could practically hear the sound of jaws dropping throughout the auditorium. We go to Hollywood blockbusters not for tasteful restraint but balls-to-the-wall entertainment, and there’s no question Kingsman provides that with the force of an umbrella-propelled stun gun.
Less satisfying, perhaps, are the inevitable self-reflexive jokes that practically any genre movie feels compelled to provide these days: the fact that Eggsy names his pet pug J.B. (not after James Bond or Jason Bourne, he explains, but Jack Bauer), or a moment in which Eggsy, after dispatching one villain, refuses to provide a juvenile quip because “this isn’t that kind of movie.” Kingsman heightens its artifice in some refreshingly exciting ways, but it also leans on the postmodern crutch of avoiding cliché by stating it outright—a gambit that is only sometimes effective, and which is familiar from practically any mainstream comedy as of late (22 Jump Street especially). Such a double-edged embrace of genre is even evident in Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson’s musical score, which varies between a clever parody of John Barry’s music from the James Bond series and, more simply, a bland wall of blaring horns and booming percussion that expose Kingsman’s more generic foundation like a raw nerve.
It’s also undeniable that Kingsman occasionally succumbs to the sophomoric fratboy humor familiar from action megahits like The Fast and the Furious and the Transformers franchises (though Kingsman is infinitely superior to anything Michael Bay has ever done). This is especially obvious in the movie’s treatment of women; although Eggsy’s female counterpart Roxy (Sophie Cookson) is inducted into the Kingsmen before he is, any pretense of gender equality is undermined by an anal sex joke that’s awkwardly included at the end, not to mention a gratuitous shot of a woman’s bare ass that’s nearly the last thing we see. Kingsman might be one of the most exciting and delirious action blockbusters in years, but at times the simplistic DNA of such action blockbusters is still readily apparent, as though the movie were trying to remind less adventurous audiences what kind of template it inherently fits into.
That being said, if Kingsman can indeed be categorized, it often scrapes and claws against the confines of such categories as brazenly as possible. I wouldn’t be wrong in labeling the film an action spy comedy, but its action is exhilarating and its comedy is often subversive and likeably conversational—as when Eggsy completely misses references to Trading Places and Pretty Woman, only to liken his own situation to My Fair Lady. Even better, the film’s mayhem and its sense of humor are often inseparable, as in that scene in the Kentucky hate church, which must be seen to be believed. (You have to give credit to a British-funded, Hollywood-released blockbuster that prominently features a marquee reading “America Is Doomed” not once but twice.) Call it a guilty pleasure if you want, but what really matters is that Kingsman is consistently pleasurable—and in the midst of awards-season prognostications, a dash of guilt along with your head-spinning entertainment might be exactly what you need.