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Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

kingsmanDIRECTOR: Matthew Vaughn

CAST: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sophia Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Edward Holcroft, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport

REVIEW: 

With Kingsman, Matthew Vaughn has done for the ‘60s British spy genre what he previously did for the comic book superhero genre with Kick-Ass: part tongue-in-cheek, part affectionate homage.  Like Kick-Ass, Kingsman won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but fans of the over-the-top action and cheeky humor of Roger Moore’s 007 outings might find much to appreciate here, even as it pokes fun at the conventions of the genre without going so far as to completely mock its obvious inspirations.

In 1997 Iraq, British secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) made a small mistake that cost the life of one of his fellow agents.  Now, eighteen years later, Harry comes to the aid of his late colleague’s twenty-something son Eggsy (Taron Egerton) when his hellraising lands him in a police cell.  Growing up with his mother and abusive stepfather (Geoff Bell), Eggsy has talents, but dropped out of college and the Royal Marines and commits petty crimes, but Harry, codenamed “Galahad”, thinks the boy has potential.  To that end, and as a favor to his late father, Harry recruits Eggsy into the ranks of prospective Kingsmen, members of an elite, off-the-record organization of secret agents who regard themselves as gentlemen spies and modern day knights (hence their code names based on the Knights of the Round Table), but before he can don the immaculate—and bullet proof—bespoke suits of the Kingsmen, Eggsy will have to pass a series of extreme, potentially life-and-death trials.  Most of his fellow wannabes, such as snooty Charlie (Edward Holcroft), look down their noses on the blue collar, uncouth Eggsy, but he makes a friend in Roxy (Sophie Cookson), the only girl competing for the recently fatally vacated seat of “Lancelot”.  Meanwhile, the Kingsmen are investigating the mysterious activities of a billionaire tech genius named Mr. Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is preparing a megalomaniacal scheme that would make a Bond villain proud.

With his X-Men prequel X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn was required to play more straight, but here he gets to return to his Kick-Ass trademarks of stylized and occasionally cartoonishly ultra-violent action and a morbid sense of humor.  Kingsman has its tongue in its cheek, but Vaughn doesn’t take things so over-the-top (apart from a couple occasions) that it can’t be enjoyed as a fairly straightforward riff on a Roger Moore era James Bond adventure (which, it’s worth pointing out, often ran right up to the verge of self-parody themselves).  Much about Valentine’s scheme would seem right at home as something 007 would come up against, and his henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who has razor-sharp blades for feet, is an only slightly more over-the-top example of the kind of henchwoman we might expect to find in a Bond movie.  There are times, especially in the climactic third, when we wouldn’t be entirely surprised to hear the Bond score kick in.  At the same time, there are also unsubtle references to the ‘60s TV series The Avengers (not to be confused with the Marvel Comics superhero team), especially in Harry’s high-tech umbrella, which like his suit is bullet-proof and full of tricks that would make Q jealous, and Colin Firth plays Harry something like a cross between John Steed and a non-sexual James Bond.

Kingsman moves along at a steady, well-paced clip, with Vaughn again showing the assurance he brought to his X-Men prequel (Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson’s score frequently recycles that of X-Men: First Class).  There are several memorable action sequences, including a brawl in a pub where Harry shows his abilities to an amazed Eggsy, and a climactic one-on-one hand-to-hand (or hand-to-feet) duel between Eggsy and the blade-footed Gazelle.  Vaughn even throws in a random thinly-veiled jab at the Westboro Baptist Church, represented here by a Kentucky congregation of mouth-foaming bigots who end up getting savagely slaughtered in the bloodiest scene of the movie.
kingsman2Relative newcomer Taron Egerton, a Welsh actor whose previous roles have been mostly on television series in the UK, has enough brashness and charisma to make Eggsy a likable and engaging protagonist even if the character is a generic cliché: the talented but aimless delinquent who just needs a purpose.  The real show-stealer, though, is Colin Firth, who may be a respected, Oscar-winning thespian but would have seemed unlikely action hero material, and dives in here with panache, kicking ass and taking names without rumpling his suit or cracking his stoic deadpan.  Firth reportedly went through extensive fight training and performed most of his own stunts himself, meaning we actually get to see dour, debonair Firth taking down bad guys up close and personal rather than use obscuring shots or cutaways to mask a fight double.  Seeing Firth take down five bad guys in a pub is more novel than seeing someone like Matt Damon do it, and the novelty factor of Colin Firth in bad-ass mode definitely makes Kingsman a little more interesting.  Of the others, Mark Strong, usually cast as villains and shady types, gets to make a rare appearance on the good guy team as the deliciously deadpan “Merlin”, overseer of Eggsy’s training, and Michael Caine is always welcome, even if his role as “Arthur”, the leader of the Kingsmen, is fairly small.  In small parts, Jack Davenport parodies James Bond perfectly in a delightful one-scene bit as an unflappable, ultra-suave Kingsman agent, and Mark Hamill, rumpled and sporting a British accent, is a professor who figures somehow into Valentine’s plans.  The only off-note struck by the cast is Samuel L. Jackson, who has spent a long time now spending 99% of his roles cruising through on autopilot in “Samuel L. Jackson” mode, only here annoyingly affecting a lisp.  Valentine could have been an interesting villain; his goals, to eradicate a majority of the human population to reduce overpopulation and global warming and both save the world and save mankind from itself, make him more a twisted idealist than an evil megalomaniac, and he’s given the idiosyncrasy of being a genocidal mass murderer who gets nauseous at the sight of blood, but Jackson just plays him with the same shtick that started to get a little old a while ago.  In fairness, Jackson is capable of toning himself down and playing a role straight, but it feels like a long time since he’s done it.  An uneasy dinner conversation between Harry and Valentine where they share their love of ‘60s Bond movies has Harry ironically express his opinion that a Bond movie is only as good as its villain; Kingsman is better when it’s not focusing on Valentine.

While parodying something itself as campy and over-the-top as the ‘60s Bond movies gives Vaughn plenty of room to move around, Vaughn occasionally overdoes it a little.  There are occasions (most notably with our Westboro Baptist stand-ins getting massacred) when the ultra-violence gets a little excessive, and the climax (with a lot of heads exploding into mushroom clouds), while amusing in a morbid, Dr. Strangelove kind of way, is also just a little too silly.  The ending also tosses aside the seeming budding connection between Eggsy and Roxy in favor of a left-field sophomoric sex joke.  This and the above instances of over-the-top cartoonish violence feel like Kingsman slips from its homage/parody of ‘60s British spy movies and into pandering to teenage boys.  But none of these minor flaws stop Kingsman from being an enjoyable experience.  Like the movies it nods to, Kingsman is a little ridiculous, but it’s also a lot of fun.

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