Sometimes it’s best to just sit back and enjoy a movie. Not in a “check your brain at the door” way though. I’m not fond of that phrase. If I have to leave my brain behind that means I’m willing to become a vapid idiot for two hours and I don’t ever feel like doing that. What I am willing to do is switch my brain to a different frequency. I don’t watch a movie like Kingsman: The Secret Service the same way I watch American Sniper. They’re on different wavelengths. I’m going to be more critical of an Oscar contender than I am of a movie that simply wants to be an old fashioned spy romp with way more violence, humor, pathos, and energy. I could sit here and nitpick many aspects of Kingsman. I could talk about how some plot developments make little to no sense at all or are wholly unnecessary. I could whine that there are too many elements at play and they don’t always mesh. I could complain about the fact that the female lead is criminally underused during the final act. I could point out that some of the self-aware jokes don’t quite work. But I don’t want to do any of those things. Kingsman is such a breath of fresh air, such an exuberant, joyous, thrilling, funny movie that after a certain point, I simply didn’t care about any of my own criticisms. I was just having too much fun. You will too.
Last week I saw a movie called Jupiter Ascending. I went to see it with the intention of reviewing it for this site. But after sitting through it, I was too depressed to write about it. I didn’t have anything to say beyond “it wasn’t good”. It was the very essence of mediocrity and that’s the worst kind of movie to talk about or watch. These are the kinds of flicks we get in January and February. But there’s always one movie that rises above the pack. This year, that movie is Kingsman. It was perhaps a wise move to release it during the dead zone that is the winter movie season. If it came out in the summer, it would struggle to find a place amongst all the superhero flicks. And if it came out in the fall, it would be dismissed immediately for not wanting to win any awards. Releasing it in the winter makes it clear that it has no agenda other than to entertain. And boy oh boy, entertain it does.
Loosely adapted from a Mark Millar comic by director Matthew Vaughn, Kingsman presents us with a group of British spies who are more concerned with manners and gadgets than with espionage and grit. They are The Kingsman and they fancy themselves the modern version of the Knights of the Round Table. Even their code names reflect this. Their leader is called Arthur and he is played by Michael Caine because of course he is. Their training and weapons expert is called Merlin (Mark Strong) and their veteran agent is Galahad (Colin Firth). The movie opens with a sequence in the Middle East where explosions literally transform into credits. We watch Galahad (whose real name is Harry Hart) lose a new agent during an interrogation. He then makes a promise to that agent’s son. We jump forward eighteen years and watch as Lancelot (Jack Davenport) is slaughtered during a rescue mission. Then the Kingsman meet and declare it’s time to find a new Lancelot. Their candidates will go thorough a rigorous training regime and only the best man will win. Harry Hart chooses his fallen comrade’s teenage son as his protege. Trouble is, the Kingsman are first and foremost gentleman and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is from the wrong side of the tracks.
This is a traditional ‘fish out of water’ set up. Eggsy will be dissed by his fellow trainees but prove himself to be more capable than any of them. We know this is what will happen. But the movie does too and even takes the time to point this out. When Harry first recruits Eggsy, he asks him if he’s ever seen Trading Places or Pretty Woman. Eggsy shrugs and says no. Harry then explains that a gentleman is not born but made and Eggsy suddenly gets it. “Like My Fair Lady”, he says as Harry marvels at the boy’s taste in cinema. It’s one of many self-referential moments in the film but the first one to let you know that Kingsman is in on the joke. That might be the wrong way to phrase it though. It’s not a joke so much as an acknowledgement of what has come before. Matthew Vaughn previously gave us Kick-Ass, a successful spoof of the superhero genre until it became what it was supposed to be lampooning. Kingsman doesn’t have that problem because it’s not a spoof. It’s more of a celebration of the spy film. It puts all the traditional elements in place and then pushes them to the next level. It doesn’t want to ridicule the genre; it wants to revel in it.
It’s firmly aware of the type of spy movie it wants to be though. Midway through the film, Firth disses the current James Bond movies as ‘too serious and self-important’. You see, these are characters who have seen all the James Bond films, the Jason Bourne films, the Jack Ryan films, and who have watched Jack Bauer murder the shit out of terrorists on 24. They are all aware of these archetypes but prefer the Roger Moore films to the Daniel Craig ones. I must confess I was never much of a Bond fan until Craig came on the scene. I’ve seen them all but never really got into them. I don’t think I fully understood why I never got into them until I saw Kingsman. Flicks like Moonraker and A View to a Kill suggested a level of insanity and excess that they never delivered on. You watch those movies and you keep waiting for them to up the ante, to go ‘full walrus’ with their bat-shit insane premises but they never do. Kingsman does though. It provides everything you never knew you wanted from an eighties Bond film: an absurd level of violence, a wicked sense of humor, and a megalomaniacal villain you can actually relate to.
The villain is played by Samuel L. Jackson. He’s a multi-billionare in a baseball cap not far removed from Russell Simmons. I won’t spoil his plans except to say they’re topical and understandable. He’s not absurdly evil like Christopher Walken was in View to a Kill. He’s a man who believes he is saving the world. This makes him more interesting to watch than the typical bad guy who just wants to kill everybody because reasons. Vaughn and his co-screenwriter, Jane Goldman, even add in the nice quirk that he can’t stand the sight of blood. This means that his hench-woman–a deadly assassin with swords for legs in the tradition of Odd Job and Jaws–has to cover up her victim’s bodies before he enters the room. Jackson enjoys the hell out of the role. You get the sense that he’s tired of playing Nick Fury and relished the opportunity to cut loose. He even gives the character a lisp. It’s not necessary at all but goddamn if I didn’t laugh every time he opened his mouth.
While Jackson makes his nefarious plans, Eggsy is stuck in training. Vaughn gave us a terrific training sequence in X-Men: First Class but outdoes himself here. Most modern action movies have three to four big set pieces. Kingsman has eight. The first involves Colin Firth utterly decimating a group of thugs in bar and the second involves Eggsy and his fellow trainees. They wake up in the middle of the night to find their barracks filling with water. They need to break out before they all drown. Vaughn milks this sequence for all that it’s worth and it’s as ridiculously suspenseful as it is absurd. In any other movie, a test like that would seem dumb and out of place but Vaughn manages to make it exciting and irreverent. He’s helped by Egerton as Eggsy. Egerton is a newcomer to film but he has natural charm and charisma. We like him because we relate to the underdog. This gives the drowning sequence and a later, better sequence involving jumping out of a plane without a parachute, added weight.
Amidst all this insanity is Firth as Harry Hart/Galahad. I’ve always enjoyed Firth as an actor but never knew he was capable of what he does here. One wonders if he looked at Liam Neeson’s success in the Taken films and said, “hey, I can do that.” He’s all class and charm but when push comes to shove, he’s the ultimate badass. Many reviews of the film have made reference to what I’ll call ‘The Church Scene’. It’s an utterly mad action sequence that lets Firth unleash hell on a bunch of self-rightgeous monsters. To say more would be to give the whole game away. I’ll just say that the fact it was shot in one take is as incredible as it is unbelievable. Vaughn has always been a fine action director but Jesus Christ it almost feels like he’s been building to this sequence his whole career. It’s so gloriously violent and over the top that you’ll think the film has reached it’s peak. But then we get to the final act.
Many reviews of Kingsman are justifiably hailing Firth as the best thing in the movie. They are correct. But credit must also be given to Mark Strong as Merlin. He’s understated and quiet but just as nutty as the rest of the Kingsman. Watch him closely and you’ll see that he provides some of the film’s biggest laughs, particularly during the last act. I wish I could tell you how gleefully insane the last twenty minutes of the movie are. Let me put it this way: if you’re a fan of Scanners, Kill Bill, and The Matrix, you’ll probably come in your pants. It’s here that Kingsman fully declares itself as its own distinct thing. It wants to celebrate the spy genre while pushing it in directions it’s never gone before. It succeeds in spades.
Matthew Vaughn is one hell of an interesting filmmaker. He can make a nuanced crime drama like Layer Cake, a silly superhero spoof like Kick-Ass, a touching fantasy like Stardust, and an intelligent superhero flick like X-Men: First Class. This feels like his most personal film though. He clearly grew up on the Roger Moore Bond films and used them to take the genre to the next level. There’s something fascinating going on in action movies right now. All the kids who grew up on crazy 80’s action flicks are grown up and providing their own spin on things. We saw this in 2014 with The Guest, Cold in July, Snowpiercer, and Blue Ruin. Some of those films are better than Kingsman: The Secret Service but none are quite as fun. It’s as if Vaughn was given the keys to the spy movie store and decided that he wanted to play all night. For Christ’s sake, he was able to make a mainstream movie that is ridiculously violent and still end it with a pop song by a British band called ‘Take It’. That’s like ending Pulp Fiction with a Justin Bieber tune. And yet somehow, he makes it work.
There’s things about Kingsman that I haven’t even had time to talk about. I didn’t mention the dogs or how cute they are and I failed to dedicate a paragraph to Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, the knife footed hench-woman. She’s terrific. And so are the dogs. But there’s so much in Kingsman to like it’s hard to single out one element. I loved it for it’s irreverence, for it’s excess, for it’s comedy, for it’s inspired actions scenes, but most of all, I loved it for it’s over the top take on the spy genre. It’s the Roger Moore film you always wanted. And it’s better than any of his films. Go see it as soon as possible. Just make sure to tune your brain to the right frequency.