In a movie miles away from the controlled cool of Layer Cake, Kingsman: The Secret Service sends writer-director Matthew Vaughn back to secondary school. Crass, loud, obscene, and irreverent, Kingsman is a 15-year-old’s idea of cool, a picture that gravely mistakes offensive for edgy. Putting the wrong foot forward, we start with shouting adolescents stealing a car, driving it haphazardly through traffic, only to then aim it angrily, aggressively, and recklessly square-straight into a police car. Crash. Instead of playing it with an ounce of irony or judgement, Vaughn layers on the glee with a blaring hip hop track to add to the fun. Two strikes to begin with. Having been almost killed in a car accident as a result of a madcap driver and having a police officer as a father, if I wasn’t offended, I certainly sat unamused. Kingsman: The Secret Service is the first film I can think of where I felt a palpable gap between what young me might’ve thought versus what current me does think, but in all honesty, 15-year-old me found shit like that just as putrid.
If I’m starting to sound like an old grump, it’s only because heroes acting like villains is a wholly unsavory affair and serves no good purpose. I find no fun in it. The by-the-books plot of Kingsman, which is half young adult book and movie satire and half James Bond remix, has played out in many other movies, but sequences like the one described above often carry a different tone. The formula of finding a malcontent young thug and reshaping him into a heroic figure is a well-used one, but early-film antics of acting out aren’t usually embraced with such a smirk. They may be viscerally engaging sure, but we’re not asked to become complicit. Worst of all is the film’s ultimate theme — if it can be said to have a theme — is something along the lines of act like just as much of a dick, but to people who deserve it. It’s an unbecoming message for a movie to have, especially one built around kids.
Luckily, the kids themselves earn their shoulder to shoulder screentime with the likes of giants like Colin Firth, who plays a head of the Kingsman organization, a sort of private MI6. Taron Egerton impresses as lead Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a small-time thug with the untapped potential to become a 007 figure. He’s got timing, charisma, and some flexibility. Send him something good, Hollywood. Mark Strong, who’s become the british Morgan Freeman by being in everything, plays a sort of “Q” character. Skyfall wore its proud British heart by quoting Tennyson and subtextually alluding to the Knights of the Roundtable. Kingsman, ever the enemy of subtlety, announces the reference by labeling various characters “Lancelot” or “Merlin.” I must mention Mark Hamill in a near cameo, who gives a goofy but terrific tiny performance.
Two halves make up the screenplay, an Ender’s Game and Divergent style story about a team of contesting kids that must complete various tasks to win a spot in the Kingsman, and an evil supervillain plot, led by a lisping Samuel L. Jackson, who clearly had more fun making the movie than I had watching it. Since this is a Bond pastiche, he, of course, has a lair (two lairs, actually), and a henchmen with an obscene but deadly physical ailment in the form of Sofia Boutella with sword-feet (honestly). There’s some vague commentary on social media reminiscent of the killer BBC series Black Mirror and much talk about being a gentleman. But the film is not classy, gentlemanly, or can make much of a point about anything.
It’s incredibly impressive then that for all my negative talk, and I recognize there’s been a lot, I did, in fact, enjoy Kingsman a great deal. Vaughn is a wicked showman, and he knows how to accelerate action into exciting set pieces that have little trouble getting your heart pounding. There’s an action sequence that’s an instant classic, shot with an exploding kinetic energy that left me dazzled, and it has the film’s only instance of clever commentary to boot. Vaughn loves movies and hopes the audience loves movies too, and it’s safe to say the more you’re a fan of action, and of movies, the more likely it is that Kingsman will delight you. As morally problematic a film this is, the third act is a fireworks show of heart pounding comic fun, one that left me at odds whether to clap or grimace. It’s a scarily easy movie to recommend as a two-hour piece of entertainment.
As a life-long lover of all things Bond, Vaughn missed the essentials of what made the character, and his movies, work. They weren’t ever subversive or mean-spirited, instead finding ingenious ways to involve a cultural zeitgeist into the plot. Disco music as Roger Moore skis down mighty slopes? Why not? What Vaughn does instead is make an angsty mockery of everything from world leaders, Bond, and ultimately, the audience itself. The final joke is on us. The film satirizes a world a few clicks away from chaos, but Kingsman: The Secret Service pushes us to get there a little faster.
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