Matthew Vaughn and I are on the same pop movie wavelength. What he finds thrilling and funny and darkly wonderful are, by and large, the same things I find thrilling and funny and darkly wonderful, and he knows how to balance a film right on the precarious line between grit and camp in a way that pumps me up. I get excited watching a good Matthew Vaughn movie, and most of them so far have been really good.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is the best yet. Growing up I couldn’t get into the Bond movies; their reality never matched the candy-colored, biff pow images I had in my head when looking at posters or stills or trailers. Kingsman is that Bond movie I imagined, the gloriously out there, endlessly exciting, knowingly nasty film I always wanted to see. And there’s more: Kingsman is also a sly commentary on class and civilization that speaks volumes to me as the kind of moviegoer who likes a little thematic steak just under his pop movie sizzle.
The film is based on a wretched Mark Millar comic, but as they did with Kick-Ass Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman have removed most of the endlessly objectionable misanthropy and juvenile shittiness, while leaving intact the spine of a cracking good yarn (which Millar always has - his comics are like someone had a great idea and then ODed on Adderall and glue while writing them). The Kingsmen are a private spy organization dedicated to the ideal of the British gentleman and to the security of the state. They’re outfitted in hand-tailored bulletproof suits and wield weaponized umbrellas, watches and pens. They’re polite, they’re gallant, they’re deadly, they’re guardians of a colonial understanding of the world.
When one of the Kingsmen dies the surviving Kingsmen bring in potential recruits to replace him. Galahad (they’re all code named after Knights of the Round Table) taps Eggsy, the low class son of a previous Kingsman recruit, as a nominee. The other posh recruits mock the rough-edged kid, but as the deadly training continues it becomes clear he has more of what it takes than all of the old boys from Eton combined. Meanwhile, the mega-rich villain who offed a Kingsman in the first place puts into play his plan to reshape the world into his own image. Can Eggsy get through training and stop the bad guy before he wipes out most of humanity?
Of course. But it’s the getting there that’s the point, and the journey in Kingsman is an absolute blast. Taron Egerton is Eggsy, the latest in Mark Millar’s pantheon of ‘regular streetwise kids who get inducted into secret societies’ characters, although this is the perfection of that type. Egerton is crass enough to be believable as a minor hood but smart and confident enough that his transformation into a Kingsman is believable - and desirable. You don’t feel like he’s ever sacrificing the reality of who is, but rather fulfilling it. That’s a big part of the thematic message of the movie - manners maketh the man, or your birth station matters less than your actions. That’s not revelatory, but the British need an occasional reminder of this.
Colin Firth is Galahad/Harry Hart, and he’s simply fucking amazing. All these years and I didn’t know that I needed to see Firth engaging in highly stylized, wonderfully brutal, neck-snappingly hyperkinetic action scenes, but Kingsman has opened my eyes. Firth is a hoot, playing Harry as a man who uses his politeness as a weapon, and as a man who is rethinking many of his beliefs about people in general. While Kingsman is ostensibly about Eggsy and his transformation, Galahad is the character I loved the most, and if this film somehow spawned a whole series of his adventures I, for one, would not complain.
Opposite them is Samuel L Jackson as a lisping tech billionaire who has a pretty good reason to wipe out most of humanity: we’re destroying the planet. In fact, he argues, we’re past the point of no return and without drastic action humanity will have worn out life on Earth within a hundred years. Jackson is hit or miss these days, sometimes simply showing up for the paycheck and hoping to be off set before tee time. Not in Kingsman - he’s digging into Valentine, a genocidal maniac who can’t stand the sight of blood, and having a great time.
But the real breakout star of Kingsman is Sofia Boutella as Gazelle. All good villains need distinctive henchmen, and as a progressive it makes sense that Valentine’s is a woman. Gazelle has had her legs removed, replaced with running blades that are actual blades - sharp as hell and used in spinning maelstroms of steel to slice, dice and decapitate anyone who gets in the way. She's silent, but that only makes her ten times the badass.
Deep at the heart of Kingsman is the question of what civilization even is. The Kingsmen themselves see the world as one where the high and low classes cannot mingle, and where the upper crust must protect the plebes from themselves. Valentine’s plan involves destruction of civilization through cell phones - that most de-civilizing, isolating method of communication. Eggsy has to find some sort of middle ground, redefining what it means to be a gentleman.
Along the way he has to kill lots of motherfuckers. While the final battle in Valentine’s mountain lair is the kind of Roger Moore antics cinema has been missing, it’s a mid-film fight in a church that makes Kingsman: The Secret Service more than a fun movie. It becomes an action classic there, thanks in large part to inventive adding (it’s made to seem like one long, continuous Birdman-esque shot) and the stunt coordination of Bradley James Allen, one of cinema’s secret weapons. Allen’s work in Kingsman follows in step with his work in Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass - action that seems grounded but is actually absolutely over-the-top, stylized and most of all, fun. The church sequence in Kingsman… it’s so full of gleeful violence and blasphemous fun that it’s guaranteed to raise some hackles and make some year end lists.
Vaughn throws down the gauntlet to James Bond in Kingsman - can you be this fun, this inventive, this silly, this smart, this current? Kingsman grabs the reins of the spy genre and drags it out of the post-Casino Royale, post-Bourne tyranny of realism and reminds us that this stuff should be fun.
In fact I’d say it’s a perfect pop movie… until the very end. There’s a joke at the end that is such a sour note is threatens to overwhelm all that went before. I understand what Vaughn is doing with this joke, but it doesn’t work, and it will leave a bad taste in most audience’s mouths, especially as it’s indistinguishable from some of the Neanderthal sexual politics of the Bond films which it seems to be spoofing. Remove that joke and you’d have a movie that works flawlessly from beginning to end.