Feb 13, 2015

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

NOTE: This review contains some SPOILERS.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a nasty, hateful poison pill of a movie wrapped in delicious candy coating. That candy coating includes not only cool, colorful, slick, budget-stretching production design, but also knowing nods to an encyclopedia’s worth of past spy movies and TV. For these reasons, it’s safe to assume that it might appeal greatly to readers of this blog and spy fans in general… but ultimately that appeal will depend on the spy fan’s individual tolerance for truly excessive violence, gleeful and graphic slaughter of innocent people, on-screen murder of world leaders played for laughs, and pervasive misanthropy. While I was genuinely torn, for me, sadly, the latter ultimately kept me from enjoying the former. As a self-confessed aficionado of the teen spy subgenre to which this movie belongs and someone who enjoys James Bond imitators almost as much as James Bond movies, and as an avowed fan of director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: FirstClass), I really, really wanted to love Kingsman. I was greatly looking forward to it. But I’m afraid it comes off as my first major letdown of 2015.

Based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman tells the story of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a working class teenage London street punk whose life is transformed when he’s recruited by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a British spy of impeccable breeding and John Steed-like class and sophistication, and trained to be a gentleman and a spy. It’s a My Fair Lady story (acknowledged in one of the movie’s funniest exchanges), a teen agent in training story, and a paranoid global conspiracy story all in one. Eggsy’s father was a Kingsman candidate killed while saving Harry’s life in the movie’s opening moments. For that, Harry feels a sense of debt, and promises the late agent’s widow and young son one favor in their moment of need. Eggsy’s moment of need comes years later, when he’s in jail for stealing a car and needs a way out. Harry not only offers him that way out, but offers him a new future following in his father’s footsteps.

During the first half of the movie we follow Eggsy’s Alex Rider-style training as part of a group of cadets competing for the single spot on the Kingsman roster, while Harry pursues a mysterious threat that leads to celebrity kidnappings, sudden outbursts of extreme violence from ordinarily peaceful people and exploding heads. (There are a lot of exploding heads in this movie. If that’s not your thing, stay away.) And ultimately, probably, the annihilation of all life on earth outside of the proverbial Ivory Tower. The man behind this threat is social media mogul Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson in full over-the-top mode). In the second half of the movie Eggsy ends up with a mission of his own, and of course finds himself using his training to take on Valentine.

The candy coating I mentioned really is delicious stuff. It’s lots of fun to spot the spy references. I won’t itemize them all here because that would be a bigger spoiler than anything I could say about the plot, but they range from broad tropes of the genre (which the film attempts to both celebrate and subvert at once) to specific details from Bond movies or classic TV shows like The Avengers or Get Smart. The best ones manage clever new twists upon the tried and true. It was a brilliant idea, for example, to relocate The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s tailor shop entrance to the secret spy headquarters to Savile Row. What could be more classically spy than entering the office through a Savile Row tailor?

Even better than the references are the performances. There is a lot of strong acting talent in Kingsman. Egerton is all charm and makes an easy to root for protagonist; I look forward to seeing where his career goes from here. I find Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) infinitely more enjoyable as a good guy than a bad guy, so it’s nice to see the former ubiquitous villain following up his scene-stealing turn in The Imitation Game with another savory spy role. Edward Holcroft (London Spy) makes a good impression as a sneering fellow cadet. Jack Davenport and Mark Hamill have entertaining cameos. And Michael Caine is Michael Caine! But the performance of this movie is Colin Firth’s. The role of Harry Hart (changed in a stroke of genius from the comic’s Bond-inspired “Jack London” to a more original Steed-inspired part) is Kingsman’s best creation, and Firth inhabits it brilliantly. Good as Egerton is, I couldn’t help but wish that the whole movie was about Harry Hart, and that there would be a long series of others to follow! Firth combines Patrick Macnee’s refined wit and sophistication with Daniel Craig’s brutality in what really might be the ultimate British gentleman spy role. Sadly, there is ultimately too little of Firth in the movie, and Kingsman suffers for it.

Then there are the trappings. Kingsman gets the trappings just right for the most part. There’s gadgetry galore, and Vaughn demonstrates how to handle spy gadgetry in the modern age. Some Bond screenwriters have gone on record saying that there’s not much you can do with gadgets in an era when we all have amazing smartphones in our pockets, but Kingsman makes a good joke out of that. When Harry first shows Eggsy the room full of meticulously organized Kingsman gadgetry, the teen takes in the pens and shoes and gold cigarette lighters—all with secret lethal functions—and then his eyes land on a wall of cell phones. “What do those do?” he asks. “Nothing,” says Harry. “That technology has caught up with the spy world.” So it has, but that doesn’t diminish the coolness of a good old fashioned poison pen!

There’s impressive production design, including the immaculate tailor shop and Kingsman headquarters, a secret subway from London to the countryside, and an airplane hangar and landing strip built inside a mountain. There’s even more impressive clothing, thanks to costume designer Adrianne Phillips (Knight and Day). Men’s fashions haven’t looked this good on screen since the Sixties. And there’s a great spy score full of Barry-esque horns and a strong theme courtesy of composers Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson.

All that candy coating crumbles away upon closer inspection though. The sets, though initially impressive, show at the seams. The score is great, but too often it’s ignored for key sequences in favor of uninspired pop songs. The giant spaces are too obviously digital, lacking the grandeur of those cavernous Ken Adam physical sets. Even Eggsy’s epic third act shootout in the villain’s lair loses some of its luster when you realize he’s just running through the same white hallway set again and again. Maybe that, too, is a reference—a nod to the Eurospy movies and PovertyRow spy pictures of the Sixties that somehow maintained a shabby dignity in their attempts to achieve Bondian spectacle when they had to use curtains to stand in for walls—but I doubt it.

Like the sets, when you see past the spectacle, the movie itself loses a significant amount of its luster. Vaughn again and again promised in interviews a return to the sense of fun that modern spy movies have lost since the Sixties. But he doesn’t deliver. Kingsman doesn’t convey the sense of fun of a Sixties Bond movie. It’s far too misanthropic for that.

Rather than tantalizing us with the horrifying prospect of sadistic violence, as Goldfinger did when Bond came within inches of being sliced in half by a laser, Kingsman indulges that violence. Valentine’s henchwoman, Gazelle (dancer Sofia Boutella) has razor-sharp prosthetics for legs. That’s kind of a cool deformity/weapon, like we might have seen in Bonds of old, but Vaughn can’t resist wallowing in the violence of the weapons. Kingsman doesn’t stop at the prospect of a person being sliced in half; it gleefully slices them before our eyes, delighting in the shoddy digital effect of two halves of a severed body splitting.

With Kick-Ass, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman cut out a lot of Millar’s mean-spirited violence, creating a movie that was far more fun than its unpleasant source material, but in Kingsman they wallow in Millar’s misanthropic excesses. This is a movie where a character with a vomit-inducing aversion to bloodletting is destined to be brutally impaled and then vomit at the sight of his or her own blood while expiring. Perhaps you find such an image as funny as Vaughn seems to, but it’s not something that screams “the fun of Sixties Bond movies!” to me. And lest I come off as squeamish, let me state that I am no prude when it comes to screen violence. I’m an ardent Tarantino admirer, and I like my horror movies as gory as possible. But gore has a place in horror that I don’t think it has in a Bond-type movie. I find Milton Krest’s exploding head in Licence to Kill to be a step too far for 007 (or even Imitation 007), and Kingsman is full of exploding heads. Like The Interview, it even explodes the heads of sitting world leaders, including President Obama and the Royal Family. I found this rather tasteless in The Interview (even with a dictator!), and I find it tasteless again in Kingsman.

The deaths of world leaders comes in keeping with Kingsman’s confused anarchic politics. There’s a reason that the Kingsman organization, despite being so obviously British in every way (right down to its name), is not tied to any one government. (In the comic it was MI6.) That’s because Vaughn and Goldman want to tap into a prevailing mistrust of governments in general… though they don’t seem to know why. (Or at least they don’t share that with the audience on screen.) Where Bond is for Queen and Country, Eggsy ends up fighting that system—and even facilitating the death of that Queen 007 would lay down his life for.

Like all the best British spy stories (and, well, pretty much all British fiction in general), Kingsman is obsessed with class and the British class system. Unlike the works of masters like John le Carré, Len Deighton and Graham Greene (whose The Human Factor may contain the best class commentary in all spy fiction), Kingsman doesn’t seem to know what it’s saying about class though. Eggsy finds himself competing with a bunch of snobby Etonian types for a spot on the roster of the ultra-secret, non-governmental spy agency, and we certainly side with him against their class-based bullying. His own trajectory is to become a sophisticated gentleman and prove that a man can defy his origins and achieve class status without the prerequisite birthright, yet the head of the snobbish Kingsmen opposed to his progress is played by Michael Caine, spydom’s leading working class hero, who seems to betray similar origins to Eggsy in a crucial cockney slip.

Like John Steed, Firth’s Harry Hart is the epitome of class and breeding, yet he is the one who believes steadfastly in Eggsy. In its macro plot, Kingsman espouses full-on class warfare, essentially advocating the slaughter of the One Percent (lest they slaughter the masses), yet in its micro arc Eggsy’s personal growth is demonstrated by his rejection of his roots and adoption of Harry’s exquisitely tailored upper-class ways. The politics of Kingsman are more The Spook Who Sat By the Door than The Spy Who Loved Me, but unlike that revolutionary classic, Kingsman doesn’t convincingly portray social ills in need of such drastic countermeasures. The upshot is offensive to liberal and conservative alike, but not in a biting satirical way. In fact, despite seeming to want to be political, it’s really just crass. Because the enemy to Vaughn isn’t so much the upper class as humanity itself. And when Harry, the movie’s most likeable character, is written into a situation where he must use his previously cool fighting prowess to brutally slaughter a church full of unarmed civilians (racist, hateful civilians, in a slight attempt to make the scene more palatable than in the comic, but civilians nonetheless), that’s when the movie loses me.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a contradiction. Part of it is pure, reference-loaded spy fun, and part of it is hopelessly misguided and terminally half-baked social commentary soaked in far too much blood and viscera for me to find enjoyable. Harry Hart is perhaps the best new spy hero since Steed himself, but stuck in a movie that misuses him. But I will enjoy those trappings. I will buy the soundtrack and revisit its terrific spy score frequently. I will even download the surprisingly hummable Take That theme song, “Get Ready for It.” And if I could afford them, I would also buy the Kingsman suits and cravats from the Mr. Porter menswear tie-in. But I probably won’t find myself revisiting the film itself too frequently. It’s just not as fun as the sum of its parts. 


Anonymous said...

"snobby Etonian types" - should I take offence?

Mark said...

Doesn't surprise me that Vaughn and Goldman have once again soured things with an excess of violence. I wish they'd grow up. The X Men film is the only one of theirs I've actually enjoyed.

Tanner said...

Ha! Well, I think the movie may intend offence, Anonymous Etonian, but I certainly didn't! (Then again, it tries to have it both ways and I would peg Harry Hart for an Eton man, so maybe it doesn't.)

I actually enjoyed their Kick-Ass movie, Mark, largely because the excesses were so toned down from the comic... but when Millar is your basis of comparison, that sort of warps one's point of view. X-Men: First Class is definitely my favorite Vaughn film to date. And THAT has some really nice Sixties spy homages!

Bob said...

Saw the movie this afternoon and I have to say a film I really was hoping to enjoy, disappointed me in so many ways. What I did like was the performances of Colin Firth and Mark Strong. If anybody today could play John Steed today it would be Firth.

After a tedious first hour, you are subjected to a violent scene in a church that is long, vile and just ugly. I agree with Matthew in that they try to justify the scene but fail. The film ends with our new 'gentleman spy' involved with a misogynistic ugly sex scene that is just juvenile.

Recently, there have been successful film versions of LeCarre and the Craig Bond films have been, I think, well made an exciting. But a film spoof or satire of spy movies, I guess I will stay with Flint and Helm.

Tanner said...

Yes, Firth certainly makes an excellent case for himself as Steed in this movie! Although I have to say, one thing I DO like about KINGSMAN is the character of Harry Hart, who has an existence of his own outside of Steed or Bond or Palmer. I really wish I could just pluck Firth as Hart, complete with wardrobe, out of this movie and insert the character in a completely different series all his own!

Well, we do have one excellent modern spy spoof series: the Jean Dujardin OSS 117 movies. Supposedly there's a third one in the works!

Unknown said...

It was a great action and slight comedy movie of this year. I love the action scene that show at the trailer of this movie Kingsman The Secret Service. I want to watch this movie later. The reviewed was informative about this movie. The blog was really informative of the movie reviews.

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There's no need to write a terribly in-depth review of this amazing movie; by now, everyone has heard of it. It's an over-the-top homage to the spy movies of the 1960's and the television series The Avengers. (Tell me that's not John Steed fighting with his umbrella in that pub!) Rather than a detailed review, I'll just say do yourself a favour and buy it. No need to thank me, but you're welcome. Enjoy.

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