Movie review: Kingsman – The Secret Service

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

Depending on how you look at it, we live either in a cynical age stripped bare of boundless unquestioning faith in pretty much anything, or one in which everything is gloriously fair game, a postmodern scrambling of all that has gone before in which nothing can be viewed except through the lens of tongue in cheek benign scepticism.

Director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men First Class) is clearly in the latter camp, bringing to his cinematic offering all the affectionate mockery he can muster for the spy genre that Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on the 2012 comic series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, most certainly occupies, while simultaneously appropriating many of the beloved Bond-like tropes and having his own fun way with them.

It’s an interesting, and potentially risky, balancing of homage and gentle spoof that largely works.

With a knowing nod to all the classic elements we have come to expect from spy movies – the diabolical, well-equipped yet ultimately overreaching villain Richmind Valentine (played with lisping childlike glee by Samuel L. Jackson), the veteran spy with a tragic backstory, Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth in optimal spiffing mode) and the protege with a chip on his shoulder the size of Russia, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (a captivating blend of cheekiness and dashing good looks thanks to Taron Egerton) and a host of other besides – Vaughn then sets about giddily rearranging in all sorts of unexpectedly anarchic and yet reasonably, straightforward ways.

Sidestepping the usual traps of too much expositional preamble, the film does a lithe and nimble job of introducing us to the privately-run Kingsman spy agency, set up in the early 20th century after the horrors of World War 1 and staffed by dapper, bespoke-suited gentleman who know their way around exploding cigarette lighters and brogues fitted with neurotoxin injectors, by throwing us straight into the action, which is both insanely violent and comically over the top all at once.

 

 

This opening scene sets the pattern for the rest of Kingsman: The Secret Service which dances between hilariously over the top set pieces and graphically violent ones, the two not always necessarily setting comfortably one with the other.

It’s the only real drawback to this colourfully bombastic and yet oddly also stripped back film, which can’t decide if it wants to be the satirist glancing artfully from the sidelines, gentle ridicule escaping its lips, or a solid, upstanding member of a genre that had, prior to the Bourne franchise, and the Bond films’ re-invention as darker, darker explorations of the human condition (leaving their camp ’70s antecedents glittering far behind them), become enmeshed in its oft-used tropes.

That the movie manages to mostly stand confidently astride the two extremes says much about Vaughn’s skilled direction, and the screenplay he penned with frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, as well as confident performances by Firth and Egerton who manage to invest the tired veteran/protege dynamic with real humanity and poignancy.

Both “Eggsy” and Galahad – each member of the Kingsman is ascribed the name of one of the knights of the round table with the head of the organisation being, naturally enough, Arthur (Michael Caine) and the all-capable advisor/mentor, Merlin (Mark Strong, in an atypically sympathetic role) – emerge as fully-formed characters you come to care about, quite a feat when you consider that Kingsman is enamoured with action and much of it.

One of Vaughn’s strengths has always been his ability to mix action with well-wrought characters and a substantial-enough narrative, a talent which has raised his movies above the usual run of the mill action or superhero thrillers.

 

 

It’s this gift that ably steers “Eggsy”, on a well-paced, believable arc (well as believable as spy films get anyway)  from disaffected young man on the troubled streets of London, troubled by the loss of his father, a one time Kingsman agent, at a young age, to bespoke-suit wearing, bad-guy-stopping agent at the end of the film. able groomed and helped along by his mentor Galahad.

The villain they face, Valentine, a man convinced that the world will be far better off without mankind, the “virus” that infects it so he believes, somehow also manages to come across, but only just, as something more than the usual villainous caricature, complete with an evil female sidekick with blade-like prosthetic legs, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella).

Together these characters, who engage in meta conversations throughout about what should or shouldn’t happen in a typical spy movie, inhabit a world in which the commonplace and the fantastical sit side-by-side, where violence, for all the Kingsman refined aesthetic is ever present.

It is this violence, which owes much to its comic book origins, which comes close to upsetting the tonal balance which Vaughn clearly has strived so hard to construct.

At times it is brilliantly bigger-than-lifesized epic and almost grandly hilarious – the scene where a large number of Valentine’s associates are despatched with fireworks-worthy sparkle and colour to the accompanying tricked-up version of “Land of Hope and Glory” is impressively cartoonish – while at others such as a mother, inflicted with a rage enabling impulse Valentine unleashes on the world, trying to hurt her safely-locked away child to cause them bodily charm is nothing but grimly disturbing.

It’s this disconnect between the kind of violence Vaughn wants in the movie – he seems to want his comically Looney Tunes-esque violence to sit neatly alongside its more darkly sinister cousin – that takes away somewhat from the otherwise fun-filled yet suffused with meaning sensibility that powers much of the film.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is largely a success, proof that you can have your traditional spy drama and spoof it too, even if achieving it sometimes seems as fraught with risk as the lives of the spies it depicts with happily-violent, fervent enthusiasm.

 

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