'Kingsman' has its charms, but it's an unmistakable imitation rather than the real thing
Kingsman: The Secret Service 20th Century Fox
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book The Secret Service, by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons
Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Sophie Cookson, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Sofia Boutella, Edward Holcroft and Michael Caine
Rated R / 2 hours, 9 minutes
February 13, 2015
(out of four)
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a movie reflective of its main character - appealingly charismatic and foolhardy, impulsively but impertinently violent, charmingly edgy in a superficial way, and not nearly as hip or smart as it thinks it is. It is, in other words, quintessentially adolescent; and like Eggsy - the 20-ish wannabe tough who gets recruited into a top-secret spy agency - it displays a cocksureness that reveals more about what it isn't than what it is.
It's a cheeky British spy thriller that somehow thinks it's subverting, or poking fun at, the every-bit-as-cheeky-and-self-aware British spy thrillers that came before it. The film has precious little to say about the genre, as evidenced by its feeble attempts at meta commentary (i.e. the hero and the villain facing off and talking about the hero/villain dynamics in Bond movies). Or, simply taken as a continuation of its genre traditions, it certainly doesn't add much to it, beyond perhaps an uncharacteristically high on-screen body count. Which brings us to the action and violence, which is ... well, actiony and violent, but also (more often than not) frightfully uninteresting, not to mention aggravatingly enhanced with bad CGI.
Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn comes across like a child mindlessly clapping and pointing and cheering at the relentless ultraviolence without any idea of what he wants to say about it (answer: nothing), nor the curiosity to try and extract any meaning or function for it beyond the most simplistic. The film's signature scene - a church massacre involving Colin Firth and a whole congregation of hate-filled parishioners - involves an orgy of violence in which the participants have literally no control over the violent acts they're committing. Which is only too fitting, because Vaughn displays virtually no interest in exploring violence as the powerfully visceral thing that it is. Here it's basically just set dressing. He directs the action as if he were playing a video game. I once described the experience of watching Michael Bay movies as equivalent to watching someone else play a video game, and I found that same sense of detachment here, only without Bay's visual acuity.
Vaughn seems interested only in making his movie "cool," rather than engaging. Cool for the sake of acting cool, rather than as a personal expression from Vaughn as an artist. He directs with the soul of a producer and always has. (And yes, he began his career as a producer.) He is the geek-movie equivalent of middlebrow. Whereas some movies (i.e. The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game) seem like they're manufactured just to win Oscars, Kingsman seems like it's manufactured to win MTV Movie Awards.
Which, I should clarify, is not to suggest that the movie is all bad. Far from it. But what it does marginally well is slick, surface-level entertainment that never really gets down to what makes its genre, or its characters, tick. It's fully convinced it has a fresh take on old material, and behaves with the attitude of a film that does. But it's a passable imitation at best.
The church scene is mostly good, if only for the sight of seeing distinguished gentleman Colin Firth in a three-piece suit kicking ass for a solid five minutes, and for the ruthless timing and precision of his ass-kicking. The sheer ingenuity and variety of the kills is impressive too, and it all makes for a good bit of fun. It also marks one of the only instances I can remember of a Vaughn-directed scene standing out visually. Generally speaking, his directing is as vanilla and unimaginative as possible. But here, his camera slithers and darts like a snake, in and around and over the pews as if desperate to keep up with all the surrounding chaos.
But even that sequence is dampened by moments that expose a certain cheapness, or laziness, or lack of ability (or all three) - namely the very obvious application of CGI* used to patch up the scene's edits and compositing, or add in fake props and blood. (Whenever the shakycam moves in tight on something, you know you're about to see a really shoddy edit.) It still makes for an amusing scene - add in the fact that the film's villain, tech billionaire-turned-philanthropist-turned-mind-control-terrorist Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), is the man responsible for the carnage, but can't stomach the sight of blood - but one that also reminds us of the filmmaker's limitations.
* The special effects throughout the film are pretty terrible.
As I watched the scene unfold, half of me enjoyed it, and half of me couldn't help think of similarly choreographed but far better-directed scenes from Edgar Wright's The World's End and Chad Stahelski and David Leitch's John Wick. I found myself wishing that one of them had been behind the camera instead of Vaughn.
But I know - throwing Wright's name into the mix is an unfair standard on my part. To be fair, Kingsman is still a lot better than much of what we get from studio action movies. Vaughn is exceedingly competent, I'll give him that, and there's a lot of energy and charm in the performances. Jackson's villainous lisp may be little more than an affectation, but I love the way he basically just ignores it and talks through it - why should a powerful Internet billionaire care if he talks funny? - instead of trying to constantly milk it and overdo the inherent humor of it. Another highlight is Valentine's ruthless assistant, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who, in place of legs, has flexible metal blades that are as dangerous as they are practical. In her line of work, anyway.
I was unfamiliar with Egerton, but he has a roguish presence that serves the film nicely. As Harry Hart, the secret agent who recruits Eggsy in the first place, Firth is able to leverage his classic, old-fashioned British charm against the increasingly violent requirements of the character, and it's a beautiful fit. The agency as a whole puts a premium on fine taste and gentlemanly behavior. Its home base is underneath a high-end tailor shop, and its agents are named after the Knights of the Round Table, as if Harry and Co. are in line with a noble, ancient order.
No doubt the film itself - from writer Mark Millar's comic book, The Secret Service - feels a kinship with that mindset. It's very conscious of its place in a long tradition of British spy movies, and it seems to want to both pay its respect and forge its own path. The second part proves trickier, as Vaughn and Millar simply don't have enough up their sleeve. This is a movie that only appreciates and understands violence insofar as how cool it looks, and only understands sex as a prize for saving the world. In other words, Kingsman comes across like a boy trying to pretend he's a man.