Director Matthew Vaughn has been shamelessly outspoken about his boredom with the current trend of serious and self-important blockbusters ushered in by Christopher Nolan. With that in mind, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from with Kingsman: The Secret Service. It is at once a bombastic and entertaining spy romp reminiscent of golden-era Bond as well as a stubbornly self-aware takedown of all things tasteful and straight-faced. But at times Vaughn can be his own worst enemy. Like all over-confident children desperate to outshine or evoke their forefathers, Kingsman is frequently a casualty of it’s own cockiness.
Based on the Mark Millar graphic novel of the same name, Kingsman: The Secret Service follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a cocky street kid constantly finding himself on the wrong side of the law until he is recruited by suave super-spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) to join a legendary spy organisation known as the Kingsmen. Eggsy’s ascent in the service unfolds just as a quirky tech-genius called Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) hatches a grand scheme for world domination.
It’s easy to be swept away by Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s an entertaining film with a rebellious streak that’s appealing in a “bad boy” sort of way. The plot swaggers forward in constant motion. We leap from the kitchen-sink interiors of Eggsy’s home to the tech-porn sheen of Kingsman HQ with little fuss. Much of the film’s initial success is down to the pairing of Egerton and Firth. The two are clearly in their element as a sparring odd couple; Firth the epitome of spotless British gent and Egerton the mouthy punk with a chip on his shoulder. It’s a star-making turn from Egerton. Maybe not a performance that will instantly cement him as, say, the next Jack O’Connell but it certainly puts him on the map as a name to watch. Firth too excels in a role that feels tailor fitted for his regal image. Too often has he been presented as the uptight and proper Brit cavalier, here he finally gets the chance to loosen up and kick some serious ass. Vaughn knows a good thing when he sees it and wisely keeps the Eggsy and Hart’s relationship at the front of centre. It doesn’t take a genius to predict where this classic “mentor” and “pupil” dynamic will end up, but as respect between the two of them grows you can’t help but smile at what is surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It gives Kingsman a solid spine for the rest of the film’s mayhem to hang onto.
As much as elements of Kingsman appear to be lampooning the Bond franchise, it could also be seen as a celebration of it. As previously foreshadowed by the 60s Bond flavour of X-Men: First Class, Vaughn seems to be a massive 007 fan, especially the Connery and Roger Moore years. Firth’s Harry Hart is an intentional throwback to the British spy boom of the 1960s, not just Bond but also the blazer-and-tie cool embodied by Michael Caine in his prime. It’s no coincidence then that Caine himself shows up as the Kingsman head honcho to give the film an extra touch of class and authenticity. These flourishes fill Kingsman with retro pleasures and a camp charm that works as a welcome contrast to the brooding nature of current spy movies. As strong as the Daniel Craig era of Bond may be, Vaughn does a good job of making us feel nostalgic for the fun and silliness that was jettisoned when Casino Royale hit the reset button. The love of Bond is not something exclusive to the filmmakers either. At one point, Firth’s Hart actually discusses the Bond franchise with the film’s Big Bad – a lispy Samuel L. Jackson – in a scene that pushes the film’s self-awareness one wink too far. It may have been intended as a meta piece of cleverness on the filmmaker’s part but ends up feeling smug and contrived. It’s an unfortunate instance of the writer’s voice taking over that of the character’s and letting the fourth wall awkwardly tremble in the process. Still, in a film so full of excessive button-pushing it’s one of Kingsman’s minor problems.
Chaos seems to be Matthew Vaughn’s middle name. One of his defining characteristics as a director is his penchant for outlandish action and rumble that would make any teenage boy (or girl) jump up and down in their seat. Think of the hurtling-to-Earth set-pieces of X-Men: First Class or the endless barrage of bullets and blades that defined Kick-Ass. Vaughn, who also acts as co-writer with frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, seems to determined to top the lot in Kingsman which boasts countless blow-outs of mad carnage. From the opening Bond caper in the Middle East through to the multiple training episodes of escalating danger, one thing you can’t accuse Kingsman of being is static and disappointing in the action department. As entertaining as these early set-pieces are, Vaughn takes things to an unnecessary extreme in the second half with a jaw-dropping church massacre presented as one take set to the sounds of Lynard Skynard’s immortal “Free Bird“. The sequence has already become the film’s key talking point but, while definitely bold, the scene feels like a gratuitous celebration of mindless violence. The scene churned my stomach, not because of the violence itself but because of the gleeful way it was presented. It’s an example of a filmmaker trying to say one thing but doing the complete opposite with the execution. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth which severely tainted my enjoyment of the film’s final stretch.
Indulging in repugnance and bad taste is very typical of Vaughn and even more typical of Mark Millar who has built a career from it, especially when depicting sex and violence. The same problems were present in Vaughn’s previous Millar adaptation Kick-Ass but they are more damaging here. The violence is one thing but when the entire film builds to a moment which degrades a female character to the promise of a sexual favour then you know you’re on uneasy waters. While Vaughn’s film does deliver plenty of laughs and exuberant badassery, it’s frequently offset and undermined by the presence of chauvinistic “lad” humour. There are plenty of strong female characters but they feel sketched in and are often off in the sidelines and being observed with a leery eye. These issues don’t quite derail the whole film but they are unshakable flaws that prevent it from being a completely satisfying experience. Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of the bolder and more outrageous action comedies to come along in recent years and will likely be a solid crowd pleaser but it all too often succumbs to juvenile tendencies to be a genuine success.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn; written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman; adapted from the graphic novel by Mark Millar, starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Mark Hamill, Sophie Cookson, Samantha Womack, Fiona Hampton; 129 minutes.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is now in theaters.