There is a sense of joyous self-awareness in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a new comedic spy movie from Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass). The film works simultaneously as a straight up action movie, while also playing as a sort of spoof, not quite reaching Austin Powers territory but feeling very funny in the best ways possible. Instead of reaching that style of humor, with the corny sex jokes and constant innuendos, Kingsman is somewhat serious in tone, delivering some hard R level violence that is mostly always a joy to watch. But it never fails to realize what it actually is, and the majority of it feels like a love letter from Vaughn to the early classic spy movies.
In the film, Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, a highly skilled secret agent for a secret organization known as the Kingsman. Taron Egerton plays Eggsy, a twenty something nobody who has a lineage that links him to Hart. So, when a new position opens up after the brutal death of another agent (he gets sliced in two by a woman with blades for feet), Harry suggests that Eggsy be recruited. Proper training ensues, with Eggsy meeting other hopefuls, going through various teamwork tasks and training sessions that shape them up for the call of duty.
It isn’t all about the training though. As Harry is training Eggsy, there is a rising threat by the film’s antagonist, Richmond Valentine (so that’s why the movie is releasing on Valentine’s Day weekend?) Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is a rich philanthropist whose recent distribution of free SIM cards has attracted the attention of the Kingsman. Why? Because these SIM cards, which promise free in-body wifi and free phone calls, eliminating internet and phone plans as we currently know them, isn’t what it is racked up to be. There’s something evil lurking within them, and it all comes back to Valentine’s opinion of environmental issues and control of the overcrowded human population.
But despite the inclusion of a massive genocidal plan, Kingsman never becomes too heavy handed. One reason for this is the casting of the villain. For a character that wants to wipe out billions of people on a global scale, Richmond Valentine doesn’t feel much like Hitler and that’s all thanks to Samuel L. Jackson. As we spend time with our heroes (the Kingsman consider themselves “gentlemen”) in their suits and ties and table manners, seeing Sam Jackson in his snapback, chain necklace, and Google Glasses never fails to deliver a laugh. Oh, and that lisp just makes his character even better. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Another reason that Kingsman doesn’t become too heavy handed is because it recognizes what it is. It’s a fun throwback to earlier spy films, mimicking Bond while also having more profanity and edgier humor than a PG-13 Bond film could get away with. There’s a sex joke that references anal sex in the finale of the film that is quite hilarious, and the abruptness of it will hit you like a ton of bricks. But the humor isn’t the only thing that is edgy. The movie also has an edgy scene, almost bound to be a classic action sequence, in which Colin Firth massacres people in a church. It’s a fun sequence, filmed frenetically, and Vaughn did choose wisely in making the church members that he kills similar to Westboro Baptist members. Before the action kicks in, the preacher stands at the pulpit bashing gays and calling black people “niggers.” This is what makes the hyper-violent action sequence not sting.
But despite being fun to watch and filmed with a nonstop kick of adrenaline, there does exist an issue. Once the action scene is over and Colin Firth has killed all of these people (a sequence that is clearly filmed for us to enjoy), the tone shifts as we realize that he wasn’t in his right mind. He wasn’t in control of his body when he went on the skilling spree, and now we are supposed to feel sympathetic for the people that died. It felt as if Matthew Vaughn showed us a piece of cake, let us eat it, and then spent a few minutes explaining why the cake is actually bad for our body. I didn’t buy it, and it did bring the movie down a few notches.
Keep in mind, though, that the action is still fun to watch. Vaughn knows how to do action, and the camerawork, while sometimes a bit shaky but never riddled with too many jump cuts, is always flashy enough to keep the eye focused. Also, I admired how Vaughn chose to allow his actors to actually do their action stunts, all captured in semi-long takes instead of the rapid cutting method that is being used by sucky action directors (looking at you Oliver Megaton).
It’s fair to compare Kingsman to Kick-Ass, as they are both adapted from a comic-book by Mark Miller, both directed by Matthew Vaughn, and are both hyper violent. If I’m going to compare, I’m going to say that Kick-Ass is much better than Kingsman on almost every level. This is a movie that has problems, and there’s no mistaking that. But where else can you see Colin Firth laying out punks in a pub? Nowhere. Firth is totally awesome in this role, and as his trainee, Taron Egerton shows serious potential in an excellent performance. Oh, and you can’t go wrong with Michael Caine as a spy, and when Mark Hamill himself shows up, you know you’re in for something good. Kingsman: The Secret Service is the love child of Scott Pilgrim and James Bond. It’s a burst of brisk fun.
Rated R for for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content
Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Mark Hamill
Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn