Willfully unrestrained and gloriously confident, Kingsman: The Secret Service gets 2015’s dose of Hollywood spectacle off to a great start. It’s a crowd-pleasing spy movie that is both fast-paced and quick-witted. And while it wants first and foremost to entertain and to push the envelope, the filmmakers seem keenly aware that an action movie with no substance more often than not makes for a soulless, disposable affair. As a result, the movie backs its insane violence and gleeful crassness with just enough emotional resonance to add some meaning to its mindlessness. That said, the mindlessness is still the best part.
Kingsman feels very much like a cross between director Matthew Vaughn’s last two projects. Like his 2010 superhero movie Kick-Ass, Vaughn takes a popular genre, in this case old-school Bond and Bond-like espionage movies, and attempts to both deconstruct or mock its tropes while still serving as a bonafide entry in said genre. I would argue that Kingsman is even more successful in this respect, as Kick-Ass was too eager to simply become a wackier version of a boilerplate version of every other superhero movie. Kingsman is simply a smarter movie; it always has its pulse firmly on the spy genre, never failing to question cliches even as it shamelessly utilizes them.
Also like Kick-Ass, Kingsman adds a firm layer of hilariously bold explicitness to what is commonly PG-13 territory. In both movies, violence is depicted in such absurd, out-of-control ways that they become funny in their excess. Again, Kingsman has the distinct advantage by upping the insanity of its fight sequences, handily out-goring Kick-Ass and at times even matching the bloody brawls that define Tarantino’s work in terms of scope and comedic effect.
Yet, if thematically Kingsman feels very much like a spiritual successor to Kick-Ass in terms of tone and violence, it shares just as much in common with Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. That movie had the same lovingly crafted James Bond espionage influences, and it also contained a similar concept of a ‘class’ of kids training for some sort of world-saving organization (be it the mutant X-Men, or a secret spy organization). In First Class, too, there were some incredibly bad-ass moments that are Vaughn’s calling card. If you liked that scene where Michael Fassbender rammed a coin through a Nazi’s head or stabbed one in the hand with his feaking mind, you can expect a lot of similar moments of beautiful, painful chaos here.
Even though I’ve spent all of this time comparing Kingsman to other films, the film paradoxically still feels far fresher than the average modern blockbuster. This can be chalked up partially to the British-ness of the whole thing, which is very unusual for a Hollywood spectacle this side of Skyfall. But it’s also a testament to Vaughn’s refusal to play into cliches for too long, unless of course it’s to make fun of them. The movie provides perfectly askew versions of all the spy elements we’re familiar with: the gadgets, the femme fatale, the rich evil genius with a catastrophic scheme. It’s all there, but always with new and interesting twists. There’s a strong sense of unpredictability to the way the movie plays with all of these tropes, and this assures that you can never really guess what will happen, because anything can. I mean, a person gets cut clean in half by a woman with sharp blades for legs… in the first twenty minutes.
The cast is also fantastic and it’s one of those productions where every actor looks like they’re having a great time doing it. Newcomer Taron Egerton plays Eggsy, a young delinquent who is taken off the streets and put into the high-class, glossy world of espionage. Egerton is basically another generic white dude, to be sure, but the transformation of his character from beginning to end proves that the guy’s got tons of acting range and we should be seeing much more from him soon. His character also lends some surprising dramatic heft to the film, as we see him deal first with his feelings of isolation within his lower-class hoodrat, and then as a fish-out-of-water among the well-to-do peers he meets within the organization.
Meanwhile, Colin Firth is the film’s main draw as Eggsy’s James Bond-like mentor. It’s fun to see the guy who many know exclusively from The King’s Speech take on a role so marvelously campy. Then there are heavyweights Mark Hamill and Michael Caine, who have relatively thankless roles but provide a sense of prestige that is appropriate for the film’s ‘high-society’ organization.
Perhaps the most interesting performance comes from Samuel L. Jackson as Vaughn’s take on the Bond villain, Richmond Valentine. With a goofy lisp and an unnerving casualness to his demeanor, Jackson has a ball chewing scenery as always. More hilariously, for someone with such a dastardly plan under his sleeve, Valentine is repulsed by violence… so basically, he’s in the wrong movie. His character serves as a microcosm for the film’s overall nature, playing into expectations and then turning them on their heads.
Unfortunately, this villain and his plan that serves as the film’s weakest link. Valentine is portrayed as a billionaire media mogul, which is obviously the kind of form a villain would take in this Zuckerberg-ian day and age. But he never seems all that smart, and in fact he is played 100% for laughs, never demonstrating an inch of actual intimidation. That may be in line with the unpredictability of the film, but there’s a reason movie villains are usually at least a bit intimidating — they give the heroes palpable stakes. But with Valentine, it never feels like he’s capable of his scheme, nor does it ever feel like it should take our heroes much effort to stop him. This becomes especially clear in the final act, when Vaughn tries to distract us from how not-evil Valentine is by focusing instead on an army of dudes with guns and that chick with the blade legs.
Also distracting is the film’s production values, which sometimes look great but often reveal how relatively low Vaughn’s budget was for an action movie on this scale. Some of the technology seen in the film, especially that related to Valentine’s vague tech company, look less than convincing. This isn’t as much a problem when it comes to the film’s extravagant, bombastic set pieces, which I could easily see being some of my favorite scenes of the year despite it only being February.
Specifically, there’s a skydiving sequence with all of the Kingsmen-in-training that not only serves as a masterful example of cinematic suspense, but it also wordlessly reveals much about the characters. There’s also a fight scene that, though a little bit rough around the edges, is about as effective and entertaining as the Crazy 88 fight in Kill Bill Volume 1, or the hammer fight in Oldboy. If you’ve seen either of those movies, you know exactly how high of a compliment that is. And still, there are even more insane scenes waiting thereafter.
Overall, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an imperfect but breathlessly entertaining spy movie which lovingly sends up the goofier, pre-Daniel Craig Bond adventures while pushing the envelope of what the genre can offer. It’s unfortunate that some of the action scenes are hamstrung by lackluster production values, or that the main villain ends up being too much of a joke for the film’s own good. Regardless of these flaws, this is an expert example of an action comedy with just enough substance to keep it grounded, even as its levels of insanity shoot through the stratosphere.
Score: 3.5 out of 5