Friday, 24 March 2017

SCI-FI: The Faculty (1998)

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The Faculty (USA, 1998)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Starring Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Josh Hartnett

People who love classic works of literature often take a very puritanical view towards adaptations which update the setting, change the language, or otherwise make them more teen-friendly. They hold that the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen hold up without having to make concessions for more modern forms of speech and custom, and that repositioning them for adolescents doesn't so much pull in a new audience as provide them with an easy excuse for never reading the books in the first place.
While many people will watch a period drama without ever reading the book on which it may be based, the opposite view holds just as much water. When done properly, modern, teen-friendly takes on classic stories can demonstrate just how hardy and universally appreciated these tales can be - and in the late-1990s and early-2000s, there were plenty of examples from which to choose. Jane Austen fans had Clueless (based on Emma), Shakespeare fans had Get Over It (A Midsummer Night's Dream), and fans of sex and vengeance had Cruel Intentions (Dangerous Liaisons). And then there's The Faculty which, while far from perfect, demonstrates the lingering influence on our culture of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
There's certainly an argument for making a late-1990s version of 'Body Snatchers, given the large number of adaptations which have preceded it. The original film, directed by Don Siegel, was a classic 1950s B-movie which reflected McCarthy-era fears in America of communist infiltration, with the pod people standing in for 'reds under the bed'. In the late-1970s, Philip Kaufman's terrifying remake satirised the 'me' generation and post-Watergate paranoia, with an ending which is still one of the scariest and bleakest in 1970s cinema.
The 1980s and 1990s saw two different, sideways takes on the story, namely John Carpenter's They Live and Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers. While primarily based on the short story Eight O'Clock in the Morning, They Live has 'Body Snatchers running right through it, using it to send up consumerism, advertising and the kind of anti-intellectualism that the likes of Neil Postman and Aldous Huxley had warned about. Ferrara's 'Body Snatchers, which came hot on the heels of Bad Lieutenant, pared the story down and confined its setting to an army base to make a point about social conformity and a loss of purpose for America after the Cold War had ended. 
The Faculty has a lot of John Carpenter running through it, reflecting the premise in They Live of ordinary people finding out that the powers-that-be have been supplanted, but substituting construction workers for high school students. It attempts, and largely succeeds, in using the different cliques in high school as a vector for paranoia; people who would never normally socialise are forced to work together, with each one being asked to trust people who would naturally withhold information from everyone who isn't in their friendship circles.
The main point of reference, however, is Carpenter's remake of The Thing, with the pens filled with drugs standing in rather creatively for the petri dishes full of blood. The Faculty doesn't have the same unrelenting claustophobia that The Thing possessed - high school is, despite what some may feel, less oppressive than the Antarctic. Its ending is also more predictably upbeat - but that's not hard, given how cold and nihlistic The Thing's final scene was. But the film follows all the main beats of Carpenter's film quite nicely, keeping as much suspense as it can while still being more of a crowd-pleaser than a fully-fledged shocker.
Taken as an adaptation of 'Body Snatchers - with bits of The Stepford Wives thrown in here and there - The Faculty works rather well, transliterating all the major plot developments and character arcs within a conventional but believable setting. The CGI is less overtly scary than Rob Bottin's groundbreaking effects from The Thing, but until the final showdown with the queen the effects are well-rendered and have a logical physicality to them. Some of the twists are well-executed and surprising, others make sense but are telegraphed to the audience; you won't shrink into your seat in terror like in the Kaufman version, but there's plenty of little jumps here and there.
Where the film starts to falter is in its desire to be somewhat self-aware. While the script had been kicking around Hollywood since 1990, it wasn't put into production until the success of Scream, with Bob and Harvey Weinstein bringing in Ghostface creator Kevin Williamson to do rewrites. The film does have a post-modern quality to it, with characters making quips about touchstones of the genre, and this desire to be snarky and slightly above the material often works against the need to create a creepy, unrelenting atmosphere.
The film is also firmly in the shadow of The X Files, which was hitting its peak around this time - it even shares the same typeface as the show's title sequence. Despite the rich heritage of 'Body Snatchers, the film occasionally has the scale and feel of a TV episode; you almost expect Mulder and Scully to turn up any minute and take over the investigation (like the FBI so often does in stories like this). Robert Rodriguez - who was very much a gun for hire on this film - wrings the most he can out of the set-up and the potential for splatter, but it's still a modest, little offering.
 
Because it's so rooted in the high school sub-genre, The Faculty is also guilty of making too many concessions to generic convention. A pre-Lord of the Rings Elijah Wood puts in a good performance here, but since he survives up to the halfway point, it quickly becomes certain that he will still be alive at the end - the legacy of Revenge of the Nerds as much as 'final girl' horror scenarios. Equally, the whole sexy teacher routine that Famke Janssen puts on is made just about credible by her knowingly ripe performance, but it's also a lazy bit of writing designed to pander to the target audience (albeit less lazy than Liz Hurley's similar get-up in the Bedazzled remake).
Aside from Wood and Janssen, the other performances in The Faculty are a complete mixed bag. Josh Hartnett is a convincing and likeable screen presence, which makes it all the more perplexing why his career didn't continue on its upward path after 40 Days and 40 Nights. Laura Harris - who had a small part in the It TV miniseries - is also enjoyable as Marybeth, managing to maintain her dignity in the locker room scene even with the gratuitous nudity. Otherwise, Robert Patrick and Selma Hayak are playing completely to type, and there's a needless but thankfully brief cameo from Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News.
The Faculty is an enjoyable and entertaining take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers which makes up for its many faults through some good performances and largely decent special effects. It's hardly the most original or best executed take on the story, and its efforts to cash in on the success of Scream are seldom to its advantage. But taken on its own, as either a bunch of horror references or a high school drama with a difference, it's hard to pass up.

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For more on cult films like The Stepford Wives, The Thing and They Live, check out The Movie Hour podcasts from Lionheart Radio.

NEXT REVIEW: Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Saturday, 18 March 2017

INDEPENDENT FILM: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (USA, 2015)
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman

In my review of Still Alice, I complained about the way that Hollywood films often depict life-threatening illness, seeking to preserve the glamour of the actor or actress in question rather than trying to capture a believable portrayal of whatever disease they may have. Invoking the example of Gus van Sant's Restless, I said that "if the film is about, say, a cancer patient, the patient will look as healthy and as well-fed as any member of the cast before suddenly declining in the final reel and popping their clogs."
I am by no means the first reviewer to have carped about this tendency of Hollywood, which has led many a cinema patron to abandon the mainstream and seek out how the independent film scene deals with death. Here, though, there is another, often more irritating problem: many independent films go out of their way to make death as quirky or pretentious as possible, and we come to hate the ailing characters so much that it takes all our moral courage to not shout "hurry up and die!". Fortunately, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not one of these films; instead it overcomes its early snarkiness to end up as surprisingly tender.
When I reviewed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I complained that the film's characters were "frustratingly smug", with writer-director Stephen Chbosky going to great (and clunky) lengths to prove how well-versed he was about music and teenagers. The post-modern technique of drawing attention to Hollywood cliché to make a point about how un-Hollywood your story is has long started to grate, whether it's in a visual motif or a line delivered by the characters. This overbearing desire to be different (whether it's un-Hollywood or un-anything else) is present in spades in the opening ten minutes of Me and Earl; its turned-up-nose voiceover is almost enough to make you shut the whole thing off.
Fortunately, the film very quickly abandons this approach and settles into a pleasant rhythm which is offbeat without drawing attention to itself. Once it's proved its indie credentials - trying too hard to be Wes Anderson in the process - it emerges more confidently as its own story, particularly once the central triangle of friendships has been laid out. There are still familiar touches in both the narrative decisions and their presentation to the audience, but the film is more settled and mature with regard to them, calmly acknowledging and almost embracing its lineage rather than spitting in their face like a hypocritical, snot-nosed punk.
One of the main reference points for the film is Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry's film from nine years ago in which Jack Black and Mos Def have to re-enact old Hollywood films after accidentally wiping all the tapes in a rental shop. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon cut his teeth directing episodes of Glee and American Horror Story; while his character construction is a welcome departure from Ryan Murphy and his ilk, he shares with Murphy a deep love for cinema and an intrinsic understanding of how genre works. The enthusiasm between Greg and Earl as they create their little bits of cinema feels genuine because it reflects the director's own passion, without any of the artificiality that J. J. Abrams displayed on Super 8.
By making filmmaking such a focal point of the story - or at least, such a prominent means of moving the plot forward - Gomez-Rejon makes a point about just how emotionally powerful storytelling and narrative memory can be. He may essentially be paraphrasing or pastiching Cinema Paradiso in this regard; the sequence before Rachel falls into a coma uncannily follows the beats in the final twenty minutes of Giuseppe Tornatore's work. But he does it very well, bringing emotional warmth and believability to what in other hands could be an exercise in total indulgence.
One of the criticisms of Me and Earl has been that the film uses the illness of its female character to tell a very male story. Max Weiss, writing in Baltimore Magazine, summed up her review by saying: "Rachel's dying isn't really about Rachel at all. It's about Greg. In fact, everything that happens in the film is about Greg." You would certainly find its hard to argue that Greg isn't the central protagonist, or that his arc is the one which develops the most over the course of the film - the clue, after all, is in the title. But Rachel doesn't get completely short-changed in the way that Zooey Deschanel did in (500 Days of) Summer; she's still a well-written character whose actions are more than mere plot machinations.
What you get with Me and Earl is a handful of teenage relationships which are driven by an inability to communicate in a meaningful way. Greg and Earl work on their films because it is the only means they have of expressing their feelings towards each other; it is an adolescent form of engagement, which Earl grows out of by the end of the film, with their friendship endings as their means of communication is removed. Their confrontation towards the end of the film is a tearing down of emotional walls, releasing anger and compassion that neither character entirely knew that they were capable of feeling.
Equally, Greg's distance from Rachel is not just temporal, it is emotional; he cannot comprehend the right thing to say with confronted by something so serious, because pretending and being flippant is all he knows. Rachel has agency here too, having to deal with her illness in a way which is stoical while still true to who she really is. Their companionship, which blends sympathy and a sense of distance, is very touching, and the more time we spend with them the more we find ourselves enjoying their company, even amongst the odd line or action which causes us to roll our eyes in derision.
This awkwardness, reluctance and inability to either reach out or break through emotionally has been a feature of coming-of-age and counter-cultural filmmaking for decades. Me and Earl may not be the most groundbreaking film in its treatment of this condition of modern youth, but it is among the more honest and naturalistic offerings in this field. Its teenagers feel like real teenagers, and the moments in which they irritate older viewers (like myself) is in a way testament to the strength of their characterisation. This is not a film full of sanitised, model teenagers played by people in their 30s - it's a film made to resonate with people the age of its protagonists, at least in its approach to their interaction.
Where Me and Earl begins to score points in a more universal fashion is in its treatment of Rachel's illness. It isn't a Hollywood treatment of illness, with all the edges taken off, but neither does it try to be edgy or radical by shoving her symptoms down our throats in a desperate bid to induce empathy through shock. Like Julianne Moore's character in Still Alice, Rachel deteriorates gradually and at her own pace, so that all the down turns feel authentically sad and the brief moments of hope and life are all the more radiant. The make-up work is excellent given the film's relatively low budget of $8m, and the lighting is sensitive without telegraphing anything to the audience.
The other nice touch to the film is the role of the adults, who are just as emotionally inept as their offspring if not sometimes slightly worse. The spectre of Wes Anderson loom large over this portion of the film too; it's a similar pre-conception to that which he employed with some success in Moonrise Kingdom. But while Anderson used it as the basis for an off-puttingly clinical study of his characters, Gomez-Rejon uses it to promote what good qualities his young leads have. The way that all the adults seem either apathetic towards the kids' plight or dealing with it in all the wrong ways pushes us towards Greg, Earl and Rachel, if nothing else to give us comfort that we may deal with a similar situation in a better fashion.
There are a couple of issues with the film, besides its snarky opening, which prevent from being a total success. While the central three characters are believable, many of the high school scenes feel like the director settling for convention; they don't play an enormous role in the film, and you get the impression that Gomez-Rejon was happy filling them with stereotypes if it meant he could get them done and dusted more quickly. The subplot regarding Greg's college application also feels a little redundant; it adds a secondary character objective where it is unneeded and unwanted, and its resolution is far too neat.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a tender and charming independent effort which overcomes its irritating opening to leave us genuinely moved. Gomez-Rejon directs assuredly, balancing his life of his chosen art form with a desire to keep the characters at the centre, and he is ably complimented by a trio of good performances from his three leads. It isn't as good as Still Alice, and much of it is rooted in very familiar territory, but as an antidote to Hollywood's continuing attitude to illness, it is a very welcome offering.

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NEXT REVIEW: The Faculty (1998)

Saturday, 4 March 2017

OVERRATED: The Untouchables (1987)

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The Untouchables (USA, 1987)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia

Hollywood has always loved outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Bonnie and Clyde, and the outlaws that it has most consistently loved are gangsters. Gangsters tick all the boxes for classic Hollywood antagonists: they're stylish, dangerous, well-spoken, they combine history and nostalgia for the 'good old days' in the old country with weapons and schemes that are quintessentially modern. Quentin Tarantino was right when he called gangster films "parodies of the American dream": they hold up a mirror to American society and its ideals, letting it either question its very foundations or revel in its dark underbelly.
 
It's ironic, therefore, that despite decades of trying, Hollywood has never really done justice to Al Capone. Numerous directors have tried, including trash maestro Roger Corman, but Capone has always worked best as an incidental character in other people's stories. The Untouchables may enjoy a better reputation that Corman's work, thanks in part to Sean Connery's preposterous Oscar win. But it's still an immensely flawed beast which is watchable and empty in equal measure.
 
Part of the reason for the lack of a definitive on-screen Capone may because he has become the cliché of the Hollywood gangster. When Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat were creating Sherlock, they deliberately steered away from making their version of Moriarty identical to those in the original stories; they reasoned that, since he was the first supervillain, to whom every subsequent supervillain owes a debt, he had become the cliché and wouldn't scare audiences as he originally had done. Capone, the argument goes, has become a caricature, a parody of what American gangsterism means, so that any attempt to present him seriously could be unintentionally risible.
 
If we buy this line of reasoning, one of the greatest failings of The Untouchables is that it fails to deal with this problem. Casting Robert de Niro may have seemed like a no-brainer, given his brilliance in The Godfather Part II as the younger Don Corleone. But the part came at a time when de Niro was tired of playing gangsters, and had sought to diversify his portfolio through roles in Brazil and The Mission. What we get feels like a bizarre self-parody of de Niro's past roles, complete with his trademark repetition of lines - the 'I wan' 'im dead!" rant after the border raid stands in for the famous "are you talkin' to me?" speech in Taxi Driver.
 
De Niro's creative decisions aside, this is also partially down to David Mamet's screenplay, which is muddled and conflicted. The film cannot decide whether it wants to be a style-over-substance, silly gangster film, with all the stock characters and plenty of shoot-outs, or a serious drama about having to go above and beyond the law to bring someone to justice. De Niro is indulged during his scenes and comes across as more comical than threatening, with the score telegraphing to the audience how to feel in the baseball bat scene. When he's not on screen, Mamet tries to make things more macho, but here he is undone by another bad performance: Kevin Costner.
 
While de Niro is coasting (and Connery is largely playing himself), Costner is the dictionary definition of trying too hard. His critics like to assume that he became overly serious as a result of the Oscar success of Dances with Wolves, but the truth is that he's always been a wooden and limited actor. His performance as Eliot Ness is drab and dreary, having neither the presence nor the moral ambiguity of, say, Gene Hackman in The French Connection, which is what the role calls for. He spends the whole film with one facial expression (somewhere between bored and "but my Dad thinks I'm good"), and his line readings are flat and unconvincing. In the words of Sheila Benson, writing in The Los Angeles Times, "to Mamet and De Palma, goodness and dullness seem inseparable."
 
Admittedly, however, not all of The Untouchables' failings can be pinned on Mamet, Costner or de Niro. Some of the blame must lie with Brian De Palma, whose work from Scarface onwards is an emphatic case of style over substance. Where Martin Scorsese or William Friedkin would have properly marshalled their actors, building an intensity with the characters first and foremost, De Palma always seems more concerned with constructing incredibly stylish death scenes or paying homage to his favourite directors. Tipping one's hat to Battleship Potemkin does not in itself make the train station showdown exciting, and the use of slow-motion is less effective at building tension than the quiet minutes leading up to it.
 
Throughout his career, De Palma has always been fascinated by death; he likes putting his characters through the mill, as his idol Alfred Hitchcock did before him, and staging beautiful demises for them complete with razor blades, guns and plenty of stage blood. The train station offers a lot in this regard, with carefully positioned squibs, broken glass and blood practically oozing from henchman's mouths.
 
But the ne plus ultra of this is the gunning down of Malone, which is every bit as drawn out and ridiculous as Alan Rickman's pantomime death scene in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves four years later. We start with a protracted nod to Hallowe'en in the use of first-person steadicam, and end with one of the most contrived farewells of two characters in Hollywood history; no man, riddled with that many machine gun bullets, could have survived that long, let alone been in a position to relay such a vital detail.
In amongst all this indulgence and over-abundance of style, there are a number of qualities which make The Untouchables watchable. The first and biggest of these is the historical quirk of how Capone was caught, through tax evasion. The film does lose focus from time to time, particularly in the scenes with a high body count, but we do keep coming back to the theme of how the smallest error or indiscretion can lead to a person's downfall - something that's as true of Capone as it is of the police officers who allowed Frank Nitti to infiltrate their ranks.
 
The most interesting characters in The Untouchables are the minor players on both sides of the divide. Charles Martin Smith (who was very good in Starman) deftly conveys someone who is out of his depth but driven by the need to do good, turning his own skills to the advantage of the team. Andy Garcia's character is a little underwritten, but he takes what chances he can to portray a hot-head trying to turn his life around - ample preparation for his later role in The Godfather Part III. And Billy Drago, as a heavily fictionalised Frank Nitti, is one of the coolest, most underrated villains of the 1980s. Not only does he look tremendous, but his icy demeanour and playful sense of humour make his evildoing for Capone resonate all the more (his death, on the other hand, is riddled with disappointing wire work).
 
The Untouchables is a watchable but ultimately empty experience which has neither the substance nor the discipline of De Palma at his best. Lumbered by a problematic script and unintentionally silly performances by its main leads, it provides just enough drama to keep an audience interested while never getting to grips with its subject matter in a sufficiently deep manner. There are many Oscar-winning films which are far, far worse, but there's very little about this film which is truly untouchable.

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NEXT REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Friday, 3 March 2017

COMEDY: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

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Kingsman: The Secret Service (UK/ USA, 2015)
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton 

When reviewing Burn After Reading in 2008, Mark Kermode theorised that the Coen Brothers had a bizarre dichotomy in their filmography between their genuinely great works (like Blood Simple, Barton Fink and No Country for Old Men) and their overly quirky misfires (such as The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou? and their remake of The Ladykillers). He opined during his appearance on BBC Radio 5Live that “throughout their career, whenever they do something great, they kind of have to go on the back foot and do something fairly lame in order to loosen up afterwards.”
 
It isn’t hard to see a similar see-saw effect at play in the career of Matthew Vaughn, who has emerged from the shadows of being Guy Ritchie’s producer-of-choice to become a well-regarded filmmaker in his own right. His career post-Ritchie is a veritable oscillation between the outré, bad taste-driven comic book escapades of Layer Cake and Kick-Ass and his somewhat more well-behaved dramatic work on Stardust and X-Men: First Class. Kingsman: The Secret Service sees him trying to recapture the energy and innovation that Kick-Ass had in such rich volumes, and while not all of it works, it is a genuinely entertaining spectacle.
 
Reuniting Vaughn with comic book creator Mark Millar was a smart move, since both men have essentially built their careers on not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. Both share a love of over-the-top screen violence and a desire to properly interpret comics and graphic novels on screen in the most kinetic way possible. Whatever else may be true of Kingsman (as it shall hereafter be called), it never feels like a product of compromise, or lumbered by needless Hollywood convention in the way that Wanted was. You may not like the finished results in their entirety, but you have to give the filmmakers credit for sticking to their guns in what can be a very unforgiving industry.
For fans of Kick-Ass, Kingsman’s visual sensibility will seem very familiar. It takes the juxtaposition of high-end comic book action and the often underwhelming reality of modern life and puts them in a distinctly British environment. Colin Firth’s cut-glass accent and immaculate dress sense are the privileged, secretive and gentlemanly elite, tasked with training up Eggsy, the chavvy, carefree and largely directionless embodiment of the working class. Their relationship, like My Fair Lady with knuckle dusters, treads a fine line between parodying the class war dynamic and simply putting it in a fancy suit, but the script is just about strong enough to make it feel believable despite the familiar territory.
There are dozens of films which revolve around the concept of secret spy organisations or conspiratorial networks which are tasked with protecting humanity or enacting some sinister plan. These range greatly in quality, from the light-hearted, family friendly action of Spy Kids to the tedium of The Da Vinci Code or the utter contempt of The Ninth Gate. Kingsman’s main argument for wading through this familiar water again seems to be two-fold; it has visual flair to spare, and it has the confidence to take the piss out of anything it likes regardless of whether it will get away with it.
 
If you try and read into the King Arthur symbolism in the character names and relationships, as you might with A Royal Affair, then you will very quickly draw a blank. Vaughn and Millar did not call Mark Strong’s character Merlin to argue that the Bond series can trace its character dynamics back to Thomas Malory, any more than the Kingsmen’s origins in the aftermath of the First World War is meant to be seen as something portentous or historic. Such decisions are a combination of plot convenience (e.g. having rich founders explains why you can afford all this equipment) and to add an air of respectability to proceedings. This is a very British film, after all; being a private investigator or private military company would just be vulgar, darling.
 
The main reference point in Kingsman, unsurprisingly, is the Bond series. Given the direction in which the franchise has proceeded since Casino Royale, it’s both convenient and coherent to believe that Vaughn’s intention here was to make an old-school Bond film with modern technology and shooting styles. He borrows all the bits of Bond that he likes – the explosions, the talkative villains, the gadgets and the hero getting the girl at the end – but doesn’t follow the visual grammar of the series as it stands now. Instead of grimly focussing on his hero’s face and trying to weave in subtext, as both Martin Campbell and Sam Mendes have attempted, Vaughn gives us kinetic battle scenes which are impeccably choreographed, bookended by dialogue which is both postmodern and shamelessly old-fashioned.
 
It’s not just the aesthetic of Kingsman which betrays that effective, if decidedly teenage, Bond fantasy. Valentine’s plan to cull the human race, leaving alive only those whom he deems worthy, is only a hop, skip and a jump from Drax’s plans for a new Ayran race in Moonraker. The climactic battle borrows heavily from You Only Live Twice and A View to a Kill, while the training with the parachutes nods clearly back to The Spy Who Loved Me. Other references are more sci-fi orientated, with the exploding heads being Scanners with jokes, and the SIM cards plot device being similar to the reinvented Cybermen from Doctor Who, in the two-parter ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ and ‘The Age of Steel’.
 
These two examples point to both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of Kingsman as a film. Its biggest strength, which it sustains all the way through, is the sheer brio with which it goes about its business and the striking quality of its set-pieces. The massacre in the church, in which Firth polishes off an entire, rage-driven congregation to the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird, is an absolute riot. It manages to sustain its substance – the idea that even the best people could be turned into monsters by the tiniest change in their brain – while giving us more inventive deaths than Quentin Tarantino has managed in a decade, and with a pace and sense of humour that only the climax of Hot Fuzz could hope to match.
 
Its biggest weakness, however, lies in that phrase “with jokes”. At its most basic, the film is essentially taking a lot of plot points, character arcs and visual decisions from other, more straight-laced films and playing them for laughs. That would be fine if the film was an out-and-out parody like Airplane!, where even the most likeable characters are a self-acknowledged joke; we rooted for Ted Striker in that film while never being asked to take him seriously. But the more the film wears on and the more it wallows in its adolescent spectacle, the most frustrating and insufferable it becomes.
 
It may seem churlish, even absurd, to criticise a film which is billed at least in part as a comedy for not being serious enough. But constantly desiring to make a joke about something does not mean that one can abandon all internal logic. The best comedies, whether about spying or anything more grounded, always maintain a balance between the integrity of their structure and the content at which they are poking fun. Kingsman is a funny film, but it increasingly becomes a film which indulges its desire to make you laugh at the expense of desiring to make sense. It even goes after soft targets, just like Borat did: would Vaughn have dared to show Firth massacring a mosque full of Muslims, or a temple full of Jews?
 
Even in the most ridiculous Bond films – think the later Roger Moore efforts, or the worst points of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure – there was always tried-and-tested convention to fall back on, a series of narrative beats which the audience could recognise. Die Another Day may still be a terrible film, but at least it is structured in a manner which makes it predictably terrible. Kingsman begins solidly and gradually flails around until it decides to end by blowing everything up (and an utterly pointless anal sex joke, which was cut from some versions).
 
The other fly in the ointment with Kingsman is its sexual politics. Since we are in Bond territory we do not expect equality on a plate, but given how Vaughn and Millar worked hard to give Hit-Girl agency in Kick-Ass, this is definitely a climb-down from their best work. Aside from Roxy, all of the female characters in this film are either helpless and pitiful (Eggsy’s mum), cannon fodder (the congregation and Gazelle) or sex objects (Princess Tilde). You almost get the sense, given her Mary Sue-like qualities, that Vaughn was reluctant to include Roxy in too many scenes, lest she spoil this boys-own adventure. 
 
Kingsman: The Secret Service is an enjoyable and visually spectacular film which is at once a throwback to a less-PC time and a thoroughly contemporary confection. It isn’t by any means Vaughn’s finest hour, lacking the narrative structure and discipline of his best work, and its character decisions and politics are likely to test the patience of anyone other than a teenage boy. But as a refreshing burst of bad taste in a genre that these days is often far too well-behaved, it’s hard not to be entertained by it, at least for a short while.
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NEXT REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)