Kingsman: The Secret Service
(SPOILERS) Kingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn's latest attempt to go his own way, has flashes of greatness. As a director, he has honed his technique to the point where his action set pieces are peerless. Unfortunately, his continued affiliation with comic book writer Mark Millar (of Kick-Ass, and Vaughn’s superior adaptation) appeals to his worst instincts. Kingsman, the comic, which Vaughn suggested to Millar, has been bashed out of recognition by Vaughn and regular collaborator Mrs Jonathan Ross Jane Goldman, but it remains essentially puerile.
As such, Kingsman is fitfully quite superlative entertainment, the kind of moviemaking that puts the viewer on the edge of their seat, or drops their jaw on the floor at the sheer audacity. It is also coarse, crude, and adolescent, a gleefully gaudy and morally untroubled comic book splatterfest. The only thing preventing Vaughn from taking a seat alongside those he worships (Spielberg and his early ’80s peak, for example) is his continual recourse to laddish bravado. Kingsman: The Secret Service (a dreadful, must-miss title, however you cut it), with its fusing of the worlds of privilege and benefits, may be Vaughn’s secret shameful confession that, no matter how much he tries to bury it, he will always be a public schoolboy underneath.
I had high hopes for the movie, as Vaughn has generally delivered the goods. He forsook his producer hat confidently with his debut Layer Cake (a movie indebted to the milieu of former filmmaking partner Guy Ritchie). Stardust may have been a little on the lackadaisical side, but both Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class were first rate (to the extent that the latter might be my favourite superhero movie). Vaughn cites his love for the Bond of the ‘60s, and Kingsman nods to that, The Avengers, and various TV and movie incarnations of fantasy spy fare.
I wasn’t too confident in the premise, admittedly. Perhaps Vaughn wasn’t either, as he gets all meta- about how derivative it is, citing Trading Places, Pretty Woman and My Fair Lady. Frankly, this kind of referentiality thing has become a bit passé, and the cuteness of J.B (Bond, Bourne or Bauer?) and other gags doesn’t so much grow thin as was thin already 15 years ago. Occasionally it works; the pot-shots at how Bond is no longer so debonair, or the “This isn’t that kind of movie!” at crucial moments (pointing out how much this movie relies on that kind of movie for its cues, of course).
So there is a strong whiff of mid-90s-ness here. As if this is a Tarantino-inspired (“How many movies can I overtly reference?”, but this more From Dusk Till Dawn Tarantino than Pulp Fiction Tarantino), Britpop throwback, complete with a liberal dousing of blokey beerishness. If there aren’t Union Jacks affectionately draped everywhere, as a Cool Britannia appropriation, they’re about the only thing missing. The refinement of Colin Firth’s Harry Hart is just a mask; he isn’t really John Steed, as Vaughn uses his poshness as a device for “amusing” vulgarisms the way Seth MacFarlane gets laughs out of a plush toy telling dick jokes. Either that or Firth is called on to deliver feeble ripostes, such as to the ultra-prejudiced true believer during the church scene (which sounds exactly like a 15 year-old’s idea of a witty comeback, or one from Kevin Smith).
Harry’s position that it isn’t breeding or class that maketh man, its manners, is a solid enough hook to peg the picture on – embracing the paraphernalia of BBC announcer Englishness while claiming the essential virtue behind it is simply etiquette – but Vaughn’s in troubled waters when his depiction of the working class runs a baseline of rude, lawless yobs. When it comes down to it, his movie has the thematic maturity of a teenager in his bedroom fantasising to a poster of You Only Live Twice and a favourite mix tape.
The ‘90s is, of course, where Vaughn started out, with fellow ex-public school mucker Guy Ritchie. They made movies about cock-ernee geezers getting up to all sorts of dodgy larks and scrapes involving gangster types (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch). They were overtly influenced by Tarantino, and burdened malingering lad culture that has pervaded much of their later work, even Ritchie’s better efforts (his Sherlock Holmes; God knows what his Knights of the Round Table will be like). I thought, perhaps, that after Vaughn’s second stab at the X-Men (the only one of three he got made) he would move on to more intricate things, but it seems not.
So the premise; Gary “Eggsy” Unwin is invited to become a Kingsman, the elite of the elite of British secret services, like his father before him. His dad saved Kingsman Harry Hart, and Harry carries a debt of responsibility for Eggsy. Eggsy must compete against other would-bes for the sole vacant slot (these include Sophie Cookson’s Roxy and Edward Holcroft’s rotter-bully posh boy Charlie). Meanwhile, Harry is investigating the activities of Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), a tech tycoon turned environmentalist turned uber-villain (who can’t stand the sight of blood). Valentine’s master plan involves wiping out a vast section of the population, those who have, or are in the vicinity of, the free SIM cards he has dished out (presumably this will leave a good few Third Worlders fine and dandy). These SIM cards, when triggered, induce the subjects to enter a state of spontaneous violence, attemptin to kill anyone in sight.
This isn’t sophisticated. Kingsman doesn’t have the class of First Class, unfortunately. Quite the contrary, it’s the kind of juvenilia where the villain, the who can’t stand the sight of blood, pukes all over himself on receiving a spear through the chest. Or where the “Bond girl” (Hanna Alström’s Scandinavian Princess) offers the hero the opportunity to take her up the arse once he has saved the world. The overall effect is something akin to Roger Moore taking a big shit in the middle of Scaramanga’s private beach.
If the class obsession added up to anything, Vaughn’s guilty harping on might have a point, but it’s there for sheer play and surface gloss. Firth’s first set piece is so enthralling (aside from the verve with which Vaughn stages it), because it’s a bloodier version of the kind of thing John Steed used to do. Except Steed battled diabolical masterminds’ henchmen, not tossers down the pub. Firth confronts the unsavoury working class uglies who are planning to beat on Eggsy, and gives them a jolly good thrashing. The speech is about manners, but really Harry’s refinement is about a toff seeing himself as better than others, whatever he may say to the contrary.
It’s enormous fun to see the avatar of decorum mop the floor with a bunch of louts (it’s a wonder no one gave Hugh Grant this kind of part during his ‘90s peak). But attempting to tackle establishment and class snobbery leaves Vaughn and Goldman all at sea. Everything about the paraphernalia is great; the accents, the clothes, the stately homes. But not the rahs themselves. That’s why all the chaps are stinkers, except the posh girl (Roxy). There might be a commentary in here about privilege being a worse sin than breeding. But I can’t help thinking Michael Caine’s dismissive Arthur (Vaughn gets in there before Ritchie; the Kingsmen are all named after characters from Arthurian legend, just another addition to the self-conscious melange of influences) slips into cockney at the end because he’s Michael Caine, rather than out of serious-minded design.
Eggsy is miraculously reborn at the climax as an agent who can even deliver a cut-glass accent on demand (Vaughn must have skipped showing us those lessons), return to his old haunt, beat up his former oppressors, and whisk away his MILF-ish mom (another example of Vaughn’s inveterate crudity; she’s played by Samantha Janus/Womak, underlining the ‘90s FHM lads mag influence) to a better life. But has Eggsy done good, beaten the silver spoons at their own game, and emerged as one who will lead the Kingsmen to a classless tomorrow? Or is he merely upholding the old order, emphasising the essential conservatism of rule, finally bettering his lot by pulling himself up by his bootstraps (rather than complaining about his lot) to become the kind of elitist Thatcher would have wanted? (The movie tries to have its cake and eat it by noting Eggsy’s high IQ – so we’re told straight away he is special, not like his dim-watt fellow working class non-heroes – and getting a critique of Thatch out the way by referencing Harry saving her life as not necessarily a good thing).
I’m not sure there is a one-size fits all answer, certainly not one The Guardian would like. The top-to-bottom mismatches are a result of Vaughn doing what he thinks is cool, and that involves accentuating stereotypes. The Pygmalion premise isn’t all that strong anyway – not for a present-day set movie, given that Kingsman is steeped in ‘60s iconography – so its more a case of what he brings to the mix as a director, which is, mostly, outstanding. The training/initiative programme includes a couple of expertly executed set pieces; a flooded room with no escape, a skydiving challenge in which one of the participants has no chute. The only problem with the latter is that, when Roxy later has to ascend to the outer atmosphere to destroy Valentine’s satellite, it feels a little like rehashing what we’ve already seen (hers is by some distance the weakest part of Vaughn’s parallel subplots).
Vaughn choreographs the action in dazzling fashion; long, smooth, clear shots when the scene requires it (an attack on an alpine chalet, an early car chase), or down-in-the-melee handheld at others. Handheld is the order of the day for the central set piece, an extraordinarily gratuitous battle to the death in a church where Harry, under the influence of Valentine’s SIM signal, proceeds to massacre its occupants (who are trying to massacre each other). The result is a wash of horrendously giddy mayhem as Harry shoots, stabs, bashes, smashes, punches, snaps and cuts his way through the congregation. It’s a breath-taking, deliriously inappropriate spectacle, the kind of thing that guarantees the picture a place in movie history books, but it rather overshadows everything else. So much so, it serves to emphasise how very much “that kind of movie” the rest of Kingsman actually is. After all, Mark Strong’s Merlin takes pain to explain that they didn’t allow any of Eggsy’s co-competitors to die, nor did they kill any cute ickle dogs; a play on the trope that SS/SAS/Spartans were required to do this (presumably this brought in sometime after Harry’s training).
Indeed, as shocking as Valentine blowing away Harry is, the killing of the mentor isn’t exactly new. It’s a customary trope, from Ben Kenobi in Star Wars to King Schultz in Django Unchained. It’s a move to be applauded in this case, since killing your darlings (there are no real names left by the end credits, unless you count Mark Strong) isn’t exactly sequel-proofing yourself. Particularly so, as Colin Firth is so much fun, and having so much fun (despite the physical exertion), in the role. We want to see more of him. Better still, it would be nice to see the real deal. Someone who actually understands how to make an Avengers movie (not Joss Whedon, and certainly not Jeremiah Chechik). The possibility presented itself that Firth might buy the farm when it became clear there would be two new Kingsmen rather than one, but it’s no less powerful a moment for that forearming.
Not everything here is quite so bracing in a good way. A bit like a patchwork quilt, Kingsman succeeds thanks to Vaughn’s immaculate stitching rather than the quality of the fabric. The climax, with its inevitable countdown (but its not that kind of movie so the villain at least gets his plan in motion) mixes the ecstasy of violence with a mother trying to murder her wee bibby. It’s The Shining meets 28 Days Later. It’s also as tonally jarring (despite a surfeit of tonal jarring hitherto) as that sounds. There’s also the slight problem of scale; sweeping CGI mayhem overheads of London and Rio violence cut with a few medium shots of people splashing about on a beach or outside a pub.
That just about passes, all told. What decidedly doesn’t is the bizarre decision to show Valentine’s triggered cranial implants, orchestrated exploding heads, as ropey CGI fairy dust confetti. It’s meant to be funny but falls completely flat. The picture generally is hit and miss like that, because Vaughn has set his sights on excess (it’s right there in the rating, making it as sweary and bloody as he can but not really for great reason). Mon the hits side, most of the material involving dogs is very funny (Eggsy believing his pug was a bulldog, Harry’s shrine to Mr Pickles). On the other hand, one couldn’t argue Vaughn didn’t intimate how it would be from the first scene; a helicopter stages a raid on an Afghan fort to the strains of Money For Nothing (it still sounds great) and explosions knock titles onto the screen. Vaughn’s telling us this is going to be wholly irreverent and irrelevant.
Still, it’s a dangerous game editing action to pop hits. If you’re Edgar Wright, you’re liable to pull it off every time. If you’re McG, less so. Vaughn is occasionally in danger of veering toward the latter, and I say this as a sucker for a well-staged piece of OTT action furnished with a soundtrack that amps up the absurdity. There’s no telling Vaughn, though. Here Vaughn thinks more is more, and it isn’t always (with First Class, in contrast, he initiated a stirring, insistent theme that became a character in the picture; in Kick-Ass there was an embarrassment of riches, several composers and several themes that could have been THE theme).
I’ve mentioned how good Grant is, but the real doffing of the bowler hat must go to Taron Egerton. All the talk is currently of how great an actor Jack O’Connell is, but Egerton has made himself an instant star with Kingsman, no matter how it fares at the box office. He essays a streetwise innocence that is immensely winning in spite of his loaded dice character. In lesser hands Eggsy would simply be annoying, Danny Dyer annoying, but Egerton wins us over, such that he more than carries the picture once Firth exits.
I really wasn’t too sure about Jackson’s villain lisping away in day-glo colours and baseball cap. What with the McDonalds take-outs he’s tantamount to the kind of character we might see in The Incredibles. Maybe that’s a good thing? Mainly, I’d had Samuel L Burnout with all his hollering in movies of variable quality over the past 20 years. So it’s nice to see him goofing off as shamelessly as this. You don’t for a moment believe Valentine is a threat, but that’s why Sofia Boutella, with her razor-sharp feet, is there. Fun too to see Mark Hamill, who reminds us he has fine comic chops. It’s an appetiser in a good way (I think I’ve commented before that I’m far more eager to see him back as Luke Skywalker than Han-in-a-leg-cast Ford).
Throwing everything into the mix as Kingsman does, one wonders the extent to which some of the thematic elements are intentional or coincidental. The Eggsy dog test may be more crucial in terms of his character than breaking the class barrier. Following orders without question makes for a traditional pillar of the system (soldier or spy); Eggsy, unlike both Harry and Roxy, isn’t willing to kill his adorable dog just because he’s told he must. Therefore, he won’t allow others to dictate his moral compass. Vaughn knows, of course, that dealing to death to a dog on screen would be unforgivable, so it might as much be for his 30 years previous killing of Mr Pickles as his massacre of the devout that Harry must be die.
Vaughn and Goldman also get on board with techno fear (the murderous SIM cards is as close as this gets to commentary on Big Brother and the perils of invasive technology) and climate change (while a villainous climate change guy might be a convenient coincidence – certainly attractive to a Murdoch owned company – I found it more noteworthy that Harry states environmentalism is a dead end because it is already known that we are past the point of no return.
The villain and his crazy ark for the elite are hallmarks of Moore-era Bond at his most riotous (both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker), but, of late, it’s become a noticeably more popular theme. The debate about the ever-expanding global population (Valentine’s reference to humanity as a virus is already much over-used) and what to do about it found an outlet in the recent (one season too many) Channel 4 series Utopia. It’s also been engaged in the real world, with the addition and then subtraction of a cube to the Georgia Guidestones last year (first erected in 1979; perhaps they were commissioned by someone mightily impressed by Drax, rather than an emissary of the New World Order). Conspiracists see the Guidestones as a portent of prescribed doom due to their sponsor’s espousal of an ideal world population no greater than 500 million.
Maybe Vaughn is taking the piss out of such ideas of the elite, or those of the great and not so good who would buy a ticket to ride out the end of the world (by the looks of it, he figures on Snoop Dogg being there; I didn’t spot Claudia Schiffer). After all, his mate Guy’s ex-missus is currently singing odes to the Illuminati. Being ever present, Vaughn even has Valentine name check Noah, asking why, if it’s good enough for God, the power elite shouldn’t do likewise.
Will Kingsman be a hit? It wasn’t cheap, and I’m doubtful it can justify its price tag in box office. Its tonal idiosyncrasies may be an unpleasant pill for a wider audience to swallow. I don’t doubt that it will quickly hallowed status among film geeks, but that didn’t translate into big bucks for Kick-Ass.
Kingsman: The Secret Service takes the vacuum cleaner approach of modern pop culture. Vaughn’s has sucked up all the espionage movies and TV from the ‘60s he watched as ‘70s and ‘80s repeats along with a hefty slice of Lock, Stock Britannia. The result is a vibrant mish-mash that manages to repeat significant chunks of the plots of his previous two films but fails to live up to either of them (well, except during that set piece). Vaughn has an auteurish sensibility but lacks the story skills – or the maturity – to make good. He needs to find a new songbook to sing from, or he’ll still be appealing to the Loaded-reader audience when he’s in his 60s.