What director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn did for superhero movies in “Kick-Ass”, he’s done twofold for the spy genre with “Kingsman: The Secret Service”.
The film strikes just the right chord: As a tongue-in-cheek homage to old Bond flicks, replete with a looming global catastrophe, a snow-covered mountain lair, a plethora of gadgets, at least one character tailored to resemble a ’60s George Lazenby and a refined score befitting the genre’s heyday, it never goes too long without reminding the audience of precisely how self-aware it is while rarely, if ever, appearing spoofy.
To that point, one scene finds a dapper secret agent Harry Hart, code-named Galahad (played by Colin Firth), having a lengthy discussion with the film’s villain (Samuel L. Jackson) about the elaborate scenarios that characters in these movies tend to create for one another. As they both agree (and so you will see), “This isn’t that kind of movie”.
To say the least. Vaughn’s hard R-rated flick, which he co-wrote with his “X-Men: First Class” collaborator Jane Goldman from the comic book by Mark Millar (“Wanted”) and Dave Gibbons (“Watchmen”), extends well beyond the realm of old-school espionage thrillers and into the modern canon of gory, frenetic action movies. A particularly lengthy melee that unfolds in a rural Kentucky church is so bloody that you’ll feel like you’ve momentarily stepped out of a spy picture and into some sort of nightmarish fever dream, with dismemberment and skull smashing galore.
And somehow, Vaughn manages a clever, quick-witted comedy out of it all.
The organization of the title, a modern-day Knights of the Round Table, operates out of an underground bunker from which its elite few members (among them Mark Strong and Michael Caine) plan secret missions to save humanity; since their existence must be kept under wraps, their successes in thwarting evil are shrouded in ridiculous tabloid stories that have been manufactured for public consumption. Pay attention, some of the headlines are hilarious.
They sport the finest suits and accessorize like aristocrats, as their centuries-old super-secret saying “oxfords not brogues” suggests that they’re either the last bastion of chivalry or just complete snobs. Perks of the job include Zippo-grenades and dart-firing watches, among other gadgets of old, as well as technology of the new. Because what would a spy movie be if it didn’t ultimately come down to hacking into someone’s computer network?
The latest big threat, a billionaire named Valentine (Jackson), is a comically squeamish psychopath who speaks with a lisp, dresses like a hip-hop producer and acts like a philanthropist, but who is actually plotting to dramatically downsize the Earth’s population in order to abate the inevitable destruction of the environment. We might agree with him that recycling and low-emissions vehicles simply aren’t going to cut it at this point, but mass-murder? Not so much.
After dispensing more fatal close-range gun shot wounds than John Wick in an attempt to rescue an environmental professor (Mark Hamill) from a remote location, Kingsman agent Lancelot (Jack Davenport) meets a nasty demise by Valentine’s right-hand gal (Sofia Boutella), an acrobatic assassin who bifurcates him with her razor-sharp prosthetic legs.
Valentine’s search for the slain operative’s identity quickly puts him on a collision course with Firth’s Hart, who attempts to infiltrate the group by posing as a wealthy and financier. And, oh boy, things don’t go quite the way you’d expect.
But the pivotal character is a young ne’er-do-well named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who could’ve walked straight out of Joe Cornish’s crafty low-budget sci-fi/comedy “Attack the Block” for all of his moxie and resourcefulness in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Eggsy is the son of an agent who’d saved Hart’s life some seventeen years prior in a botched operation, and Harry takes the kid under his wing, believing him to be Kingsman material and potential replacement for Lancelot.
It all comes down to a ticking clock, of course. But the film is so gloriously insane that you can’t help but eat it all up, just as Vaughn and Co. prepare us for when Hart expresses his affinity for far-fetched plots. And you can’t go wrong with Mark Strong, who plays Eggsy’s rigid drill instructor, Merlin. Despite the impressive ensemble, it’s on Egerton to carry much of the picture, and his scrappy character proves to be funny and full of surprises (when Hart tries to relate to Eggsy by comparing his situation to “Trading Places” and “Pretty Woman”, the kid responds with a reference to “My Fair Lady”). And who wouldn’t want to see Colin Firth instill the creed “Manners maketh man” in a bar full of mouthy hooligans by force? Not since Mary Poppins has an umbrella been put to such good use.
As far as pure escapist action flicks go, “Kingsman” is hard to beat, and not until the final twenty minutes does Vaughn’s genre-juggling act start to lose its cohesion. Even then, it remains entertaining, going for broke as it lampoons an era when Broccoli’s spy franchise had effectively “jumped the shark” with films like “Moonraker”, right down to a hilariously perverse spin on how the hero always gets the girl.