KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE Review

I don't know much about the early James Bond films. My parents weren't much for movies and much of my watching of older films has come from my own doing through my high school years with a large chunk of help from film classes in college. Still, neither of these have included going back and catching up on the twenty or so Bond films I'd missed since the beginning of the series. Instead, Daniel Craig became my Bond of choice after only seeing Die Another Day followed by Casino Royale. For the record, one day I will purchase the complete Bond collection and make my through each of them, but until that day I will continue to enjoy its current incarnation for what it is. All this to say that though I may not understand the specifics of the kind of movie Matthew Vaughn is attempting to riff from there have been plenty of other movies in the vein of Bond for me to understand the overall reach Vaughn has envisioned and to know that he grasps it all pretty damn well. With his fifth feature film director Vaughn has created an exhilarating and hugely entertaining take on the spy movie franchise by keeping the structure and all the players intact and messing with the conventions of what each of these expectations play into. In all honesty, there isn't anything necessarily original or unique about what Vaughn and frequent collaborator/screenwriter Jane Goldman have produced here, but more than anything it is refreshing in its perspective and creative in its execution. These count for a lot in our current cinematic landscape and Vaughn knows precisely how to tap into making something old feel like something new and exciting. He did the same with Stardust eight years ago (yeah, that was eight years ago) taking a typical-seeming fantasy film and churning out a completely fulfilling adventure. The same can be said for Kingsman though, on many levels, it is even more fun in a raucous sense given one has a similar mentality to that of the characters and the guy who's brought them to the screen.

Galahad (Colin Firth) trains Eggsy (Taron Egerton) in the ways of the Kingsman.
Based on a comic book from Mark Millar (the same guy who wrote the Kick-Ass comics) Kingsman tells the story of a super-secret spy organization that essentially regards themselves as modern knights. A veteran and skilled agent of the service is Galahad (Colin Firth) who, after losing one of their members to mysterious circumstances, is tasked with recruiting a possible replacement to go through training to become the next Kingsman. Due to personal connection and a little bit of coincidence with timing Galahad comes across Eggsy (Taron Egerton), who is something of a streetwise misfit, and recommends him for the position. The head of Kingsman, Arthur (Michael Caine, of course), doesn't necessarily condone the picking of someone not of their stature as first and foremost Kingsman are supposed to be gentleman, but Eggsy is out to prove him wrong from the beginning. Eggsy, along with fellow candidates Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and Roxy (Sophie Cookson) amidst a few others, are put through the ringer by Merlin (Mark Strong). As this goes on Galahad deals with a real-world threat having to do with clearly defined evil genius Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his insane sidekick, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who sports knives as legs. Composed of these two juxtaposing plot lines we careen back and forth between whether or not Eggsy will make it through training and whether or not Galahad will be able to figure out and put a stop to Valentine's twisted plan. While there are enough interesting set pieces with plenty of inventiveness and humor to spare that keep us moving along within both scenarios the trick of the film is setting each up as if we know exactly where things are going while Vaughn does this specifically so he can upend those expectations and therefore create the illusion we are getting more than we bargained for. In reality, it may only be that Kingsman delivers the only options left for a semi-serious, but mostly comical take on the espionage thriller, but regardless it more than gets by on how much style it has while taking on these conventions.

As said earlier, what I've always enjoyed about walking into one of Vaughn's films is the knowledge that regardless of how typical the story seems there is likely something new or inventive to look forward to about what he has done with the material. This and the fact that Vaughn seems to have an inherent knowledge of what he wants before ever getting started. After not only Stardust and Kick-Ass, but especially X-Men: First Class I have come to unconditionally trust that Vaughn knows how to deliver the goods even if the audience isn't sure what they want from another fantasy, comic book or spy film. What I admire most about Kingsman though are the intricacies of the rather straightforward story it is telling. There are a whole roster of characters at play here, there are a number of different goals and objectives trying to be accomplished in individual scenes and yet it comes across clear as day to the audience. Never do we wonder what is going on or feel in the dark despite not really learning of Valentine's motivations until over halfway through the film. Even in his completely ridiculous plan that may or may not be just convoluted enough to play towards the very on the nose commentary the film blatantly sets up we know exactly what is going on. Within these scenarios we are eased into knowing these characters that otherwise could easily be archetypes of anyone from the number of movies they reference within. What makes Eggsy so appealing though, besides his inherent outcast status, is not only the charming performance of Egerton, but the roots from which his drive is set in. It is key that we see the current status of his life, his surroundings and his limited prospects when we first meet the kid. These, which include an abusive step-father, a self-conscious mother and a disregarded little sister push Eggsy to a status of not simply being another unrefined street kid looking for his next con, but someone of real despair looking for a way out of the 99%. In large, the film can somewhat serve as a commentary on how much regard those who exist in the 1% have for the rest of us and what angle Valentine has on this specifically makes it all the more interesting.

Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) and Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) are clearly up to no good.
Adding to the exhilaration of the overall pacing and the infectious fun of the tone are both the way in which Vaughn visually tells his story and how much amusement the actors are getting out of going through these motions. The kinetic action scenes are simply glorious while Jackson is a prime example of it all as he struts his stuff with all the charisma and inherent coolness you expect Jackson to have in real life as he wears clothes so stylish they almost have as much swag as his walk while sporting a lisp that makes his dialogue just a little more ridiculous and his cursing more necessary and all the more funny. What Jackson doesn't do is flesh out who this guy is, we never understand his affinity for the rich and famous and why he believes those of certain classes and of superior credentials are better human beings than those with less, but that feels like such a minor complaint considering the type of movie Vaughn and Co. were clearly trying to create here. While this kind of character development could have certainly only aided in making the film all the more great there is plenty of fine character work and superb execution to make-up for what it lacks in depth. Firth, who is generally seen as having as much class as one man can have is perfect for the role of Galahad and displays just the right amount of a showy personality as he does a nicely reserved man so that the gentleman facade needed for a Kingsman is displayed fully while having a taste for the crass flamboyance it sometimes takes to complete his job successfully. The phrase "Manners maketh man," is leaned on heavily to describe the kind of code the Kingsman live by and so it is when Firth combines these two tendencies that his character displays everything his secret society intends to uphold. Strong, Caine and Cookson are all solid in this same regard, but Boutella makes an impression all her own with what seems to have been almost nothing on the page. In the end, Kingsman is something of a satire on the spy movie that loves it as much as it loves to poke fun at it. In that sense it truly does have the same perspective of fans of such films and in that approach has itself created an amusing and interesting piece of entertainment not to be dissected or analyzed, but simply enjoyed.