Tuesday, January 20, 2015

'Kingsman: The Secret Service' (2015) directed by Matthew Vaughn

Mid-way through Kingsman Colin Firth and Samuel L Jackson mutually bemoan the death of the "gentleman spy movie". In 2015 the three JBs, James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, staked out a common ground of po-faced lunkery, where hard-nosed, gritted-teeth realism rules the roost. Gone is the camp-cool of cigarette lighters/hand grenades, literal poison pens and stun gun umbrellas. Or at least they were gone until Kingsman, adapted from Mark Millar's comic of the same name

This is film has all of the above, plus a eccentric baddie with a scheme for world domination (and a proper mountain lair), plus a sexy henchwoman with a weird gimmick,  plus an unexpected trip into outer space. With all those arrows in its quiver how could Kingsman possibly screw up?


The titular Kingsmen are super-secret super-British spies. Driven by a fetishisation of Savile Row class, they're neatly coiffed, highly trained, practically superheroic special agents who go where others cannot. The organisation is the epitome of class and style; using their anachronistic behaviour as cover for their lethality. Our guide through this world is veteran Kingsman Galahad (Colin Firth), who's on the look-out for new agent material.

He finds what he's looking for in Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin (Taron Egerton). Eggsy is an angry young Londoner trapped on a council estate with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. Dressed in sports gear, knockoff Burberry and deploying barrages of Sarf Lahndan slang at whoever gets in his path he's more Alex DeLarge than James Bond. But soon he's at Kingsman Training Camp, competing with a load of snot-nosed Etonians for the one vacancy

As Eggsy he learns the ropes, bristles against this plummy-voiced classmates and learns lethal new skills, Galahad investigates the sinister Valentine (a lisping Samuel L Jackson), head of a mysterious conspiracy that's sucking in the rich, famous and talented from around the world. Soon the two plot strands dovetail and our young hero has to step up and save the world from certain doom.

Much of Kingsman focuses on satirising/dismantling class and wealth privilege. Politicians, musicians, celebrities and tech geniuses are exposed as self-serving hypocrites who wouldn't hesitate to throw the rest of us to the dogs. Given that the film gets its aesthetic thrills from aristocratic iconography you can easily level the accusation that Vaughn is having his cake and eating it. How can you satirise the rich while idolising their trappings?

Fortunately the brash working class punk hero just about saves the tone. Eggsy instinctively pricks holes in pomposity, gives as good as gets when classist jibes are tossed his way and, most importantly, treats the whole 'Kingsman' persona as a role to play. Even when he's besuited and gadget-laden he's still that rough kid from the streets. So while the message is a bit wobbly at times it all just about hangs together; though there's a slight sour note in the implications that the world's problems can be laid at the feet of "new money".

That a modern action film sets out to grapple with British class conflict is laudable even if it does so slightly ineptly. Bigger problems lie in the film's unevenness: the first half of the film is cheap n' nasty, as if the production budget were curtailed midway through production. There are big steaming heaps of low-budget CGI all over the shop and some extremely tacky looking set-dressing. Weirdly this is all at its worst in the opening scenes and gradually improves throughout the film; the impression being that Vaughn allocated the lion's share of his budget to the finale and costuming and skimped elsewhere.

The easy high point is a church-based action sequence that's as disturbing as it is kinetic. This is essentially Colin Firth vs the Westboro Baptist Church; Vaughn taking a sadistic glee in sending a Firth's highly trained killer into a crowd of fat, racist homophobes and turning him loose. It's a symphony of slashed open necks, shattered spines, impalings and true-believer's brains being splattered over stained glass windows. And it's all set to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird. The sheer bloodlust raises an eyebrow, but it's hard to deny the Ichy and Scratchy gore-glee.

Thamuel L Jackthon
Low points are the deeply dull training sequences - basically Men in Black minus the imagination. When you're watching sequences you seen done better a hundred times before the film becomes rote, the dialogue sliding into predictable stereotype. Similarly much of the climax involves the lead running down endless identical corridors shooting identical jumpsuited henchmen, it's repetitive, feeling like something to pad out the run time.

With its teenage hero, cartoonish tone and sense of adventure, the film fits neatly into the young adult market. Stock developments like a naive kid being sucked into a fantastical world and becoming the master of it are the meat in which these stories are made of (and textbook Campbell). In fact, trim the copious gore and swearing and you'd wind up with an effective kid's film. But with all the impalings, exploding heads and anal sex gags it instead lands firmly around adolescence - a movie tailor-made to appeal to 15 year old boys.

Kingsman is not a very good film. But hidden within the budget SFX dreariness are flickers of imagination and audacity. I can't deny the sheer fun of watching a neon jellyfish, head-popping extravaganza soundtracked by Pomp and Circumstance, or a sexy amputee breakdancing with literal blades, but there's just too much mediocrity weighing this down to make it truly worthwhile.


Kingsman: The Secret Service is released 29th January

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