This weekend at the box office is most certainly going to belong to Fifty Shades of Grey. But if you’re looking for something different, something not insipid and tedious, you’ll want to check out Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic Kingsman: TheSecret Service. It’s the first of what are going to be many spy, or spy-spoof movies slated to hit in 2015 (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Spectre, the latest James Bond film, and another Mission: Impossible are all on the way, among others), and it’s a nonstop blast from beginning to end.
To call Kingsman a spoof does the film a disservice. This is much more In Like Flint than Austin Powers. Imagine how Cabin in the Woods takes horror tropes and cleverly subverts them, pays homage to the genre by tinkering with the clichés, and also functions well as a strong horror movie in its own right. Kingsman takes a very similar approach to the spy genre. The film is very meta and self aware, but not in an annoying way. These are people who live in a world of James Bond movies, and at one point two characters face off and take a moment to lament the decline of “fun” spy movies. Vaughn, who also helped adapt the script, is not above poking fun at the genre while making a damn fine installment at the same time.
The Kingsmen are a super secret spy network that operates outside of government oversight and with no recognition. Every time Harry Hart (Colin Firth), aka Galahad—all the agents are named after members of King Arthur’s Round Table—averts a disaster and saves the world, he frames the next day’s mundane newspaper headline on his wall as a reminder. He takes Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a young, troubled kid under his wing, trains him, and together they must stop Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a Steve Jobs-esque, billionaire villain, from destroying the world.
Kingsman is full of sly gadgets, whip smart humor, and huge action set pieces that are such perfect eye candy that it’s hard not to get giddy watching it in the theater—and it is definitely worth a trip out of your house to catch on a big screen. One massive, brutal scene set in a church—that’s all the detail you’re getting—is just mind boggling and destined to go down as one of, if not the most memorable action sequence of the year.
This is Vaughn’s second crack at adapting one of Millar’s comics, and the way he approaches the violence, and the way he balances that with the tone, is similar to how he handled Kick-Ass a few years ago. Much of the movie is bouncy and fun, but on the other side, that is counter-weighted by moments of stunning brutality, and the two often intertwine. There are times where you can’t help but laugh, while in the same instance you’re horrified as you witness terrible, visceral violence that erupts out of nowhere. It’s all highly stylized, and feels like an appropriate aesthetic match to the comic book origins, and while some people are going to appreciate this juxtaposition, it’s not going to sit well with some viewers.
The acting is fantastic and everyone is having a great time. Firth is a joy to watch, playing up his usual prim, proper gentleman type, and then flinging that out the window with a gleeful gusto. You never knew you wanted to watch Colin Firth dismantle and entire bar full of goons, but after this, you won’t want to watch anything else. Jackson steals every scene as the Bondian villain with plans to destroy the world, a lisp, and an aversion to blood and violence. While that sounds like an overly cutesy combination of character traits, he somehow pulls it off, even adding an air of innocence to Valentine. And the always-great Mark Strong shows up as a put upon fellow agent, providing a great dry sense of humor.
Egerton is the real revelation of Kingsman, however. He’s charming and charismatic, and turns what could easily be just another sarcastic, one note, punk kid role into something more, adding legitimate emotional weight. Eggsy is fun when he needs to be, guarded by nature, but still in awe of things like a cigarette lighter that’s also a grenade, and immensely likeable. You root for this kid from word one, and Egerton shows a wide range and is someone you need to keep and eye on coming up.
Most of Kingsman bounces back and forth between training scenes with Eggsy and other potential agents, and gradually revealing Valentine’s plot, avoiding blurting out the whole thing in one fell swoop like the spy movies it lampoons. This is cleverly handled, but for a while in the middle, the pace sags and you wish they’d pick things up a bit. You understand why all of the training scenes are included, but you can’t help but wish they tightened some of them up and could have easily trimmed down the 129-minute run time by 15 minutes or so. In the greater scheme of the picture, it’s a relatively minor quibble, but by the time they finally move on, you’re more than ready to go.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a hard movie to adequately describe. The idea of a self-referential spy movie sounds like something you’ve seen many times before, and you have, but never quite like this. There’s such a sense of fun and energy, with all of the pieces fitting perfectly and working at their peak capacity, which makes this movie so much better than it has any right to be. Triumphantly R-rated—it definitely needs to be—Kingsman is a frenetic, witty blast, and just the kind of fresh take an increasingly overly serious, borderline stale genre needs. [Grade: B+]