Expect satire mixed with homage in this slick, unsubtle - but largely enjoyable - spy film for a new century.
“Do you like spy movies?” lisping technology mogul Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) asks suave secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth, Before I Go to Sleep) over dinner, to which the latter replies, “Nowadays, they’re all a little serious for my tastes.” Yes, you can see the winking, smirking and nudging in Kingsman: The Secret Service, as audiences are supposed to. Satire and homage combine in an espionage adventure made for a new decade and even century, and smashed together at a fast pace to offer slick, unsubtle yet enjoyable entertainment.
That’s the bulk of writer/director Matthew Vaughn’s feature, his latest since X-Men: First Class, and one he adapted with frequent co-scribe Jane Goldman (Stardust) from Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar’s 2012 comic book series The Secret Service. A great time is had by many in a good versus evil battle for the fate of the world, as filtered through the experiences of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks thought ill-suited to the titular organisation – a clandestine, well-to-do, impeccably attired, independent international spy syndicate.
The troubled teen turned potential new recruit is Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin (Taron Egerton, Testament of Youth), saved from a life of petty crime or worse by Hart – codename: Galahad – courtesy of a debt owed to his father. Kingsman head Arthur (Michael Caine, Interstellar) is wary, but more pressing matters are at hand. Interspersed with Eggsy’s attempts to prove his worth against blue-blood peers are the exploits of the violence-eschewing Valentine, intent on using his technical nous – and modern’s society’s reliance upon such – to take over the planet for the rich and famous.
Everything bustles along predictable yet gratifying path in the My Fair Lady meets James Bond hybrid that eventuates, tragic backstories, bristling class clashes, and inventive training sequences included. A resident gadget whiz (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) and ample tongue-in-cheek trickery also pepper a film that mixes tradition with trailblazing, and combines references to iconic fictional agents with a nod to Point Break. With an air of affectionate familiarity, even when subverting type, the characters, story, and style adhere to recognisable conventions of the laddish and ribald, irreverent and energetic variety. Little may be new in gags based on spy tropes, skewering the divide between the wealthy and the masses, or the visual penchant for hyperactivity, but it all comes together with flair, amusement and extreme confidence.
That’s not to say that surprises don’t lurk within the film’s midst, just that they stem from a willingness to push the limits rather than from the basics of the espionage oeuvre. Witness the spectacle of carnage that pits Galahad against a church of fanatics set to the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird as just one example, in a kinetically choreographed scene that needs to be seen to be believed. Vaughn’s second page-to-screen version of Millar’s work after 2010’s Kick-Ass is just as brash and violent, and just as in line with the extremes of its genre as that superhero fare. Kingsman’s characters may be youthful; however this is not Spy Kids or other juvenile content, with the action and jokes aimed firmly at older viewers.
Alas, for all the feature’s merits – and with a star-making turn from Egerton, note-perfect portrayals by Firth, Caine and Strong, and the hammed-up fun Jackson is evidently having, there are many – it is in its ending that Kingsman: The Secret Service comes undone. Not the narrative climax, which hits the right notes, but the final thought and image Vaughn chooses to leave viewers with. If ever there was an argument for knowing where to finish a film, it is here, immediately before an uncomfortable joke at odds with the preceding gleefulness and underscoring poor gender politics. Sex sells, as this spy movie that knows its spy movie history knows, but this crude conclusion is worrying, unnecessary and not the spoof of its predecessors it thinks it is.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Director: Matthew Vaughn
UK, 2014, 129 mins
Release date: February 5