Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Dave Gibbons, Jane Goldman, Mark Millar, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 128 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The Kingsmen are super spies who work for an international espionage organisation. In the late ’90s, Kingsman Harry Hart is on an assignment in The Middle East where a fellow Kingsman throws himself onto a grenade to save Harry’s life. Harry presents the dead man’s infant son Eggsy with a pendant, informing his widowed mother that the number engraved on its rear can be called if ever they find themselves in trouble. 17 years later, Eggsy is now a delinquent teen who calls the number when he’s arrested for stealing a gang member’s car. Harry takes the young man under his wing and sets him on the rigorous road to becoming a Kingsman, it being a good time to do so because a global threat by a tech genius called Valentine is looming….
Despite directing the best X-Men film, I think most of us were waiting for Matthew Vaughn to make another film in the vein of his gloriously anarchic Kick-Ass, and he has now certainly done so with Kingsman: The Secret Service, which does for spy movies what the previous picture did for superhero pictures, and does it just as well if not better [I don’t consider myself an overly sensitive sort – I wouldn’t be writing for this website if I did – and maybe it’s just because I’m just getting old, but I can’t stop myself from feeling uncomfortable about an eleven year old girl swearing and killing people, and that is the main thing that lets Kick-Ass down for me]. Kingsman is nowhere near perfect, but in a time when this jaded old fuddy-duddy of a film watcher is increasingly let down by the big blockbusters and is especially tiring of all these Marvel films and their ilk, it’s great to have a film that actually feels rather fresh and is just as fun as I hoped for, though some of that is probably due to it not being a Hollywood production. Kevin Feige would never have passed some of the stuff that goes on in this movie, that’s for sure.
Kingsman manages the difficult task of feeling both nostalgic about past movies and feeling cutting-edge. It seems to especially show a distinct fondness for when Bond movies were lighter and sillier. It’s full of references to films both unsurprising [From Russia With Love], and surprising [My Fair Lady]. Vaughn, his usual co-writer Jane Goldman and, of course, Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons the writers of the original graphic novel on which Kingsman is based, clearly love spy movies, and there’s no clearer example of that than in Colin Firth’s superspy Harry Hart, who is a combination of Roger Moore’s 007, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed from the TV series The Avengers [though his umbrella was nowhere as lethal as Hart’s] and Michael Caine’s [who appears in Kingsman] Harry Palmer from The Ipcress File and its sequels. Firth plays the part with such smooth style that, for the first time, I actually wondered if he would have made a decent Bond twenty or even ten years ago, though of course 007 never dispatched loads of people with such glee or uttered lines that: “I’m a Catholic whore who needs to visit my black, Jewish boyfriend who works in an abortion clinic”. Seeing Firth break out of his comfort zone while still retaining and even subverting much of his usual screen persona is one of the greatest joys of Kingsman, though that’s not to denigrate, for example, Samuel L. Jackson’s highly entertaining performance as the lisping chief villain of the piece, a villain who can’t stand the sight of blood and doesn’t enjoy shooting people.
Another improvement over Kick-Ass is Kingsman’s pacing. It actually doesn’t feature as many action scenes as you might expect for a film like this which runs over two hours, and its first half consists largely of a group of would-be Kingsmen undergoing the rigorous and often surprising training necessary, but the film is very tight with no slowing in momentum. Said first half is perhaps the most conventional half of the film, alternating Eggsy and his companions trying to be Kingsmen with the evil Valentine setting his dastardly villainous plot in motion, but Vaughn never lets the pace slacken while holding back on the ultra-violence one may expect until around half way through when we get a bonkers set piece where Hart slays loads and loads of people in a church. It’s so over the top that one can’t help but laugh, though it’s weakened a great deal by the shakycam, which means that we don’t dwell on the gory details [which is probably what was intended] but also can’t see much of what is going on. Moaning about shakycam is increasingly pointless when it’s almost become the normal way action scenes are done these days, but it can’t be right that the person I was seeing the film with had to actually turn away during some bits. Oddly enough, an early scene where Eggsy displays some parkour has no shakycam at all and is all the better for it.
The best action scene is earlier on, a thrilling sky-diving sequence which gives the ones in Moonraker and Point Break a run for their money. The camera wobbles a bit but not in a gratuitous manner and the staging and technical work are superb. Elsewhere not all the effects are great, though I’ve seen worse CGI explosions, for instance, in big Hollywood blockbusters where the far larger budgets give them less of an excuse to be poor. There’s an outrageous sequence near the end when lots and lots of people literally lose their heads, and it’s hardly convincing, but it doesn’t really matter because by now Kingsman is so insanely over the top and ridiculous [and in a good way]. The final quarter really moves like a bullet and has some very edge of seat moments, while you can’t really take the violence seriously. Saying that, watching Kingsman actually made me wish that Quentin Tarantino had finished that Casino Royale script and Eon had had the balls to make it [even though the Casino Royale we now have is, to me, by far the best of the last few Bond movies]. It’s worth noting that Kingsman has had nearly a minute’s worth of gory stuff cut at the request of the BBFC so it could attain a ‘15’ certificate, though apart from two awkward edits which you’d still have to be a real film obsessive to notice, it’s very hard to tell what’s been removed. That ‘18’rated Blu-ray [please Matthew] can’t come quick enough though for this critic.
As with Kick-Ass, Kingsman manages some shifts in tone very well. There are moments of grim realism, like Eggsy and his mother being threatened by her loutish boyfriend, and even an element of class conflict between the privileged toffs who make up most of the kingsmen trainees and probably most of the staff too, and the working class, even chavvy, environment which Eggsy hails from. The humour is often very crude, most notably a gag near the end playing on the: “He’s attempting re-entry sir” type ending common to most 70’s and 80’s Bond movies. Most of the laughs are fairly well timed and played. Kingsman has a hell of a lot of disparate elements, but they really are mixed together very well, and you even get a bit of heart, mostly stemming from the teacher/pupil relationship of Hart and Eggsy, though I actually wanted to see even more of the two together. Meanwhile the plot, while riffing on the expected sources [Valentine’s plan is the most awesome plot that Blofeld never tried to carry out], does have a couple of surprises [one really surprised me, making me really happy that films like this can still sometimes startle even you think you’ve seen it all and can predict what’s going to happen].
Taron Egerton manages his character’s transformation well and I feel he could prove to be one of the best young actors around. The music score from Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson relies too much on the Hans Zimmer-like ‘chugga chugga’ note patterns prevalent in nearly every Remote Control score, but does help ramp up the excitement towards the end while, as in Kick-Ass, pop songs are well used and even cleverly blend in and out of the score during one sequence. Kingsman is a hell of a lot of fun and, while it may not quite the best film so far of the year, it could be the most unashamedly entertaining. The upcoming would-be blockbusters have their work cut out for them in trying to top it. Let’s hope though that this time the movie isn’t tarnished by a mediocre sequel made principally by other hands.