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.”
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.
NEXT REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)