Matthew Vaughn has delivered another very enjoyable action-comedy that never quite reconciles certain tonal dissidences, but makes up for it with energy, style and confidence in abundance.
Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has a tough life. His dad died when he was young, he lives on a tough council estate under the same rood as his mother’s (Samantha Womack) abusive boyfriend (Geoff Bell) and he is sorely lacking a purpose in life. That is until super-spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) appears and puts Eggsy forward for the grueling training programme to become an elite international secret agent, or “Kingsman”. Eggsy’s training becomes the least of his worries when tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) emerges with a sinister plan to make the world a better place.
Firth is fabulous as Harry Hart, a deadpan Bond-meets-Palmer-meets-Bourne, skillfully balancing charm, warmth and chilliness as a professional killer living with deep regrets. He looks great in his fancy threads, holds himself like a royal and also equips himself very impressively in the action sequences, where he seemingly becomes detached from reality, his movements blur and he dispatches opponents in very cool, but quite frankly horrible ways. Newcomer Taron Egerton is a real talent, bringing movie star charisma beyond his years and effortlessly providing Eggsy with determination, a mischievous quality and an inherently caring nature. A Scottish-accented Mark Strong provides a lot of the laughs as the wisecracking Q-esque recruit trainer Merlin, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine makes for a creepily credible lisping villain (like Al Gore if he was a terrorist), albeit one who is backed up by a cartoony henchwoman wearing bladed prostheses (Sofia Boutella). Michael Caine gets a look in by the virtue of being Harry Palmer.
The film is very sure of itself, and knows exactly what it wants to be in stylistic and aesthetic terms. It’s like Vaughn has been finding out what kind of filmmaker he wants to be up to press, and Kingsman represents him finally happy in his own skin. The structure of the plot feels very X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the feel and the pace of the action is very similar to KICK-ASS. A crack editing team also helps to make the action dynamic and striking throughout the film, even when it becomes more conventional fare towards the end.
The comedy in the film veers from the gentle, for instance Eggsy mistaking his chosen companion pug for a bulldog puppy, or Harry insisting on finishing his “lovely pint of Guinness” before he sets to trouncing some pub thugs, to the far rowdier spectacle of Harry making one hell of an impression on a Christian fanatic.
We haven’t had a major British film sink its teeth into the thorny and complex subject of class for a while. To Vaughn’s credit (interestingly, an aristocrat by inheritance himself) he doesn’t demonise either level of society , he merely acknowledges that both toffs and plebs are people, and there are good and bad examples of both. At one point, Harry wisely advises Eggsy that being a gentleman isn’t anything to do with your accent, but how you conduct yourself, a good lesson for all to live by.
The reference points in the film are pretty blatant – Moore-era Bond (gadgets, gags), THE IPCRESS FILE (big paranoid plot, Harry Palmer himself), TV’s THE AVENGERS (er…umbrellas?) – so why did the filmmakers feel the need to point out how clever they’re being in deconstructing this iconography? There’s even a scene where Harry and Valentine discuss over dinner how Spy movies are too serious now, and another where Michael Caine’s Arthur reels off a list of fictional spies who all funnily enough have the initials JB. It’s just a little too on the nose.
I can’t say the spy training scenes are particularly exciting or entertaining, or not easy to predict the outcome of, nor do they mesh well with the slick thriller elements that make up much of the rest of the film. I was also a little disappointed that we never got to see Roxy (Sophie Cookson) in action. The film dedicates so much time to establishing our female lead is a match for any of her male counterparts, but when the chips are down all the real fighting is still left to the boys. At least they didn’t resort to a cat-fight between her and Gazelle.
There’s a key sequence at the end of the second act of the film which I, personally, found really challenging to deal with on a moral level. Despite this, I understand why the scene had to be there and the important purpose it serves for the story. Avoiding spoilers, it involves Harry gruesomely building quite a body count of nasty individuals (nasty, but still people) in a iconographically offensive setting. Again, it’s an important scene for the story as a whole, for Harry’s development and the expression of the film’s key themes, but I find the choices made in the execution of these ideas deeply uncomfortable. Maybe that’s the point.
Kick-Ass is still the closest thing Matthew Vaughn has to a masterpiece, but Kingsman: The Secret Service comes a close second in this slightly anarchic genre-twister’s filmography. The fact that it’s clearly very comfortable in its blood-stained Oxfords and it actually has something to say about the world in addition to being a really fun ride allows you to overlook the odd misstep or shortcoming. SSP