“Do you like spy movies, Mr. DeVille?”
“Nowadays they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones? Marvelous. Give me a far-fetched, theatrical plot any day…”
“The old Bond movies! Oh man. When I was a kid, that was my dream job: gentleman spy.”
“I always felt that the old Bond films were only as good as the villain. As a child, I rather fancied the futuristic, colorful megalomaniac.”
“What a shame we both had to grow up.”
As long as the genre of “gentleman spy” movies has existed, there seemingly has run a parallel offshoot dedicated to spoofing it. James Bond has always been a moving target, and, having presented a subtle element of camp even in his earliest days, something of a tricky one. It’s worth questioning whether his original parodists plied their trades more out of a sense of affectionate homage or from pure mercenary proximity attraction to big box office…or it would be if the answer wasn’t obvious. As Bond has evolved throughout the years – from Sean Connery’s flinty sex appeal to Roger Moore’s suave drollery, from Timothy Dalton’s aloof workmanship to Pierce Brosnan’s refined amusement, and finally to the grit and athleticism of 21st Century Bond Daniel Craig – his sendups have often seemed terminally lost in their own worlds. Perhaps the time is finally right for a new breed of high class imitation to stake its claim. To the long and semi-distinguished line of Bond-aping films like O.S.S., In Like Flint, Woody Allen’s Casino Royale, and the Austin Powers trilogy, not to mention decades’ worth of second-rate spy capers played depressingly straight, we can now add Kingsman: The Secret Service, a hyper-kinetic superball of aged brandy, cheeky violence, and self-awareness that compensates for its recurrent issues with surefootedness by never failing to at least step confidently – be that into a bar fight, into one of several full scale street riots, into a sealed water tank (sans breathing apparatus), or out of a plane at 50,000 feet (sans parachute).
The movie begins in rollicking high style with a 1997 guerilla incursion into an Afghani Qalla. Two sentries, playing cards over the boomboxed strains of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, grab their rifles and scatter as an attack helicopter roars overhead and toward the compound, two armed silhouettes dangling from rope ladders to either side of the cockpit. A missile strike shakes the building and spills debris onto the ground, which, improbably, continues tumbling toward the front of the screen and then reconstitutes into the first line of the opening credits. By this point the helicopter has landed and the next explosion comes from within, spitting flame out of a high window accompanied by another round of title card debris. After a third fireball/credit combination, the action shifts on a dime to a dingy interior room occupied by three black-clad paratroopers in the act of interrogating an Afghani prisoner. This transition foreshadows the film’s slick but erratic tone, which will see it dovetailing out of goofy fun or overly adrenalized moments and into patently dark ones throughout, consistently dancing on a knife’s edge. Taking advantage of a split-second lull, the prisoner manages to pull the pin on a hand grenade strapped to his body. One of the agents throws himself on top of the blast, killing himself but saving his comrades. These are Merlin (Mark Strong), the helicopter pilot, and Galahad (Colin Firth), the operation leader who blames his poor reflexes for his colleague’s death and later visits his distraught widow and young son to deliver the solemn news. Before leaving, he bestows upon the son a pendant bearing what we will find out is the mark of a secretive English spy ring called the Kingsmen. Their business together is far from over.
From here, the film flashes forward seventeen years and begins unfolding in slightly more predictable ways, although only ever to a point. A kidnapping victim (whose identity will likely delight sci-fi geeks) stews with his captors in a chalet atop the snowiest peak in the history of rugged, Argentinian winters, is freed singlehandedly by a debonair and lethal Kingsman agent, then watches in horror as an unexpected third party fatally intercedes. Cut to Westminster, London, where we meet the bereaved Eggsy (Taron Egerton, looking like a posturing, b-boy version of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne), now grown from his 1997-edition standard issue ineffectual moppet into an English street punk with a heart of gold. The mischievous Eggsy runs afoul of his blockheaded, irredeemably awful stepfather, a low-level local hood, and the gang of roustabouts that does his dirty work. When he finds himself facing jail time after tweaking them a little too hard, Eggsy uses his one phone call to contact the “Customer Complaint” number serviced by the Kingsmen, who arrange for his free and clear release. Galahad, sensing potential and ever burdened by lingering memories of Afghanistan, takes the promising young hooligan under his wing, eventually sponsoring him for consideration to become a Kingsman himself. The eight-way competition to fill this in-house vacancy has the feel of Hogwarts meets MI6, as the young candidates spar, slink, grow, and grudgingly work together, seeking to prove themselves worthy in the face of ever-increasing stakes, odds and challenges. In the meantime, Galahad investigates shady tech baron Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a unscrupulous billionaire climate change activist sporting endless personal eccentricities, a legless executive assistant whose prosthetics are actual blades, and sinister, highly specific, upsettingly logical plans for the future of Earth.
The ads and trailers for Kingsman make it seem like a high energy, only mildly edgy romp, a ballet of crowd-pleasing fight choreography, clipped Cockney accents and crumpets. This is, let’s say, 90% true. I saw the trailer a handful of times prior to taking the plunge, and thought I had a decent grip on what to expect. In no way was I surprised to see Colin Firth (last widely glimpsed taking home the Oscar for The King’s Speech) playing against buttoned-down, stuffed-shirt type, commandeering the screen and kicking copious ass. A new one of these “stodgy leading man turned walking katana” reclamation projects now hits screens at least quarterly, after all. And who else would Galahad’s imperious superior (named Arthur, naturally) be, given the circumstances, but the great Michael Caine? Obviously, the Secret Service moniker was a cloaked reference to the movie’s source material: an obscure British comic book of the same name. Most prospective action franchises boast similar breeding anymore. Sam Jackson has proven he can breathe life into all manner of weird variations on his typical philosophical but loud-mouthed heavy role. His villain at first seems like a video game character created out of spare parts Jackson hadn’t yet gotten around to using – a dapper, flamboyant, hip hop mogul-type (a conspicuous cross-pollination of Russell Simmons and Jay-Z), jovial but insanely driven, homicidal yet sickened by the mere suggestion of blood – and Valentine’s pervasive, distracting lisp surely qualifies as an affectation exception for “Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names”*, but Jackson still sells the hell out of it, and the ridiculousness generally works. Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) exploits his unspoken mandate to make an unforgettable impression but still maintains an impressively steady visual hand, working hard but rarely disorienting the audience, whether mid-fight or mid-flight.
*”No names are funny unless used by W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx. Funny names, in general, are a sign of desperation at the screenplay level.” I find I often instinctively feel the same about funny cars (“Hollywood cars” in Ebert parlance) or funny accents/speech impediments, though it took the crowd I saw “Kingsman” with – which, for the record, included me – a solid hour or more to stop laughing whenever Jackson opened his mouth, so nothing is absolute.
All that said, Kingsman boasts a fairly astonishing violence quotient, one that even a desensitized reprobate like me wasn’t fully prepared for. Valentine’s Ginsu knife-like assistant turns every blazing karate kick into something potentially mortal, and the film displays a great facility for unexpected twists and winning visual gags during its many eye-popping and gravity-defying fight sequences. However, there will likely come a point at about the two-thirds mark, when the depths and mechanics of Valentine’s master plan suddenly snap into place with thudding finality in rural Kentucky, that any audience member’s tolerance level will be sorely tried. A focus-tested confection like, say, Man of Steel, is content to bury what must be countless thousands of anonymous dead beneath the smoldering ruins of Metropolis, but Kingsman sticks death right in your face, on an abbreviated but nevertheless seemingly endless loop, and for a moment we share Valentine’s queasiness. I think the filmed conceit comes in part as a byproduct of Kingsman‘s thorough and essential English-ness, which allows for both cheeky vagaries and serious commentary on what makes a true gentleman. Even as we share so many transatlantic similarities, English humor and sensibilities remain a bracing, often welcome change of pace that any American moviegoer should experience from time to time. On the whole, Kingsman is great fun. Galahad, Merlin, Eggsy, and fellow candidate – though, amazingly, not a tailor-made love interest – Roxy (Sophie Cookson) are all easy to root for, and the filmmakers take pains to spin scenarios and embellishments that push their established limits. The movie is a solid fifteen minutes overlong. Eggsy seems to spend at least that much time during the film’s climax just running up and down corridors that look lifted wholesale from the first Austin Powers movie, mowing down an inexhaustible supply of white-clad henchmen until, finally, he concedes he’s trapped. How Kingsman springs Eggsy from that predicament is, while delightfully dark, still one of the heartiest laughs I’ve had at a movie in ages. And I sat through all of Dumb and Dumber To.
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014) 3/4 stars