Remember when spy movies blended melodramatic international intrigue with wacky gadgetry, high adventure, and the good breeding of the gentlemen class? Remember when they weren’t po-faced efforts pressured, perhaps by unreasonable audience demands, into being grounded and gritty, plus any number of tepid industry buzzwords? Matthew Vaughn does, and for that matter so does comic book writer Mark Millar. For the second time in Vaughn’s filmmaking career, he’s adapted one of Millar’s comics for the screen with bloody brio; if 2011’s Kick-Ass left you wide-eyed over its staccato bursts of efficient graphic violence, then Kingsman: The Secret Service may do you one better.
Unlike its modern and far more restrained genre kin, Kingsman: The Secret Service submits itself to preposterousness. There’s a megalomaniacal villain with a brilliantly ludicrous plan for world domination. He comes paired with a one-dimensional henchlady defined by all the cool stylization that can be bought with sword-legs. (This is not an attempt at clever wordplay. Sofia Boutella walks on weaponized prosthetics capable of slicing a man in twain, à la Ichi the Killer. It’s awesome.) There are umbrellas outfitted with bullet proof canopies that spit heavy ordnance from their ferrules. In one of the film’s many callbacks to the heyday of James Bond, there’s even a shoe with a poison-tipped blade in its toe. Maybe this reads like a laundry list of ridiculous clichés to you. Maybe you’re boring.
Kingsman: The Secret Service has no interest in reality, because “reality” and “globe-trotting espionage” don’t deserve each other. Instead, it embraces fully all of the most iconic tropes of spy cinema and comes out ahead of its contemporaries. The film is about the agency of the title, a clandestine outfit that’s privately operated and dedicated to protecting the world from threats to the mankind’s safety. Our anchor to the service is Harry Hart (Colin Firth), codename “Galahad,” a nattily attired man of refined manners who will gladly beat you up over a pint if you give him an excuse. He’s on a mission to uncover the person responsible for a handful of isolated and inexplicable massacres across the planet. In tandem with that assignment, he also juggles his duties as a mentor to a new recruit, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a streetwise kid with coarse edges but immense potential in snooping and kicking ass.
There’s an emotional link between them, too, as Harry owes a debt to Eggsy’s dead dad, himself a Kingsman and at one time one of Harry’s trainees. Vaughn mostly uses that connective tissue as a metric for tracking Eggsy’s growth as a hero; Kingsman: The Secret Service is more or less designed to get us from one action scene to the next, and apart from an occasionally saggy second act, it does the job with gusto. The lives of millions are at stake here! There’s no time for feelings or hugs! Shut up and kill bad guys!
When not engaged in a fight, Kingsman: The Secret Service has loads of fun through performance. Watching Firth beat down thugs is such a surprising delight that it’s a wonder Hollywood didn’t get him on the “latter day action star” train sooner. His best moments, though, come from his interactions with Egerton; he’s good, real good, and if you think that Firth’s position on the marquee makes him the star, think twice. As a dollop of whipped cream ladled upon the film’s terrific leading performances, there’s Samuel L. Jackson donning a lisp and doing his best Bill Gates/Mark Zuckerberg mash-up as Richmond Valentine, a tech genius scheming to do some truly villainous things with SIM cards and neurosignals. Jackson goes so far over the top that he almost tips overboard, but like Firth and Egerton, he’s invested in the material that calls for ostentatiousness, which Jackson delivers in spades. (The film’s latent scene-stealer may be Mark Strong, who basically fulfills the “Q” role here as the Kingsmans’ hacker extraordinaire. He’s a quiet hoot every second he’s on screen.)
Describing the full extent of Kingsman: The Secret Service’s joys succinctly is a challenge. Pacing is a problem,; the film has an endgame it’s keen on reaching, though it’s hampered somewhat by a need to show Eggsy’s Kingsman training in full. (Couldn’t we have just gone the Barry Sonnenfeld/Men in Black route here? Eggsy’s obviously the best of the best of the best from the word “go.”) But Vaughn smooths out any bumps in the road with his knack for smartly disbursed action, and oh what an endgame he has in mind, replete with a bawdy closing shot and an absolutely phenomenal extended sight gag. (And for spy geeks, Vaughn includes layered meta commentary of questionable necessity, because yes, it’s that kind of movie.) Kingsman: The Secret Service may lack the sophistication of its peers, but damned if it doesn’t know how to have a good time.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writer: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman
Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella, Sophie Cookson
Release Date: Feb. 13, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently he has given up on shaving.