Movies about spies and secret intelligence agencies have been intriguing audiences for as long as there have been stories. They have evolved over the years, but there’s always been a strong, ageless core for which all spy stories latch onto. It starts with a strong hero — a brave man, usually stoic, suave and true (CHEER). This character knows right from wrong, usually stands for justice and purity and would never harm his integrity by doing anything remotely evil. His nemesis is more than likely a crazed lunatic with shifty eyes and a curled mustache (HISS) who wants nothing more than to mold the world into his very own cash-grab playground. In between them is the fair maiden, sometimes a damsel in distress, for whom the nemesis pines but is ultimately destined to fall for the hero, even if she’s only known him for mere hours. At some point, the nemesis will capture the hero and spend a few minutes to reveal all of his dastardly plans. Before running off to put this plan in motion, he will execute an extremely elaborate plan to kill the hero, who will no doubt escape in the nick of time to thwart the villain and save the maiden to live happily ever after. Kingsman: The Secret Service, as the film itself so rightly claims, is not that movie.
For starters, this is much more a hero’s journey than your typical spy caper, as the focus rests on Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a young street punk who spends more time getting into trouble (and having fun doing it, whether it’s a dust-up with the local hooligans or stealing a car and running it into a police cruiser) than he does with his mother (Samantha Womack) and her abusive step-father (Geoff Bell). Ultimately, he’s a tortured soul since losing his father years earlier during the war, and this is how he deals with that loss. What he doesn’t know is that his father was a member of a clandestine spy agency whose top agent, Galahad (Colin Firth), believes is primed to follow in his father’s footsteps. When one of their agents is killed, each of the remaining agents is assigned to bring in a potential nominee to fill his spot. The training that whittles the choices down to a single winner, and helps them evolve into a proper gentleman, is what lies at the heart of the film.
But it wouldn’t be a spy movie if these special secret agents didn’t have to deal with a pending global threat. I won’t reveal what the nefarious plot entails, all I’ll say is that at no point does anyone, including the nefarious mastermind, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), ever tell anyone else what’s actually going on. Every detail of Valentine’s plan is slowly parsed out in various ways over the course of the film. Some pieces of information are relayed through natural, ordinary dialogue between Valentine and his henchmen (or henchwoman, a seriously badass assassin played by Sofia Boutella), while others are discovered through research by Galahad and the lead training operative, Merlin (Mark Strong). Everything else we need to know is shown in well-placed plot developments.
But that’s about where the similarities to cookie-cutter spy movies end. Director Matthew Vaughn covers your expectations in whimsical butter, turning the genre on its head and spinning it out of control, only to structure it with the hand of a master painter. Vaughn (who also wrote the screenplay with Jane Goldman, based on the comic book, The Secret Service, by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) strikes a relatively unbalanced tone in the very beginning, where I wasn’t sure if it’s supposed to be serious or playful. However, as the movie went on, this tone matures into its own entity, a sort of sarcastic wink to the knowing love of films of yore mixed with a lightly serious undertone. By the last act, I had been absorbed into this fun dementia of highly-stylized action and gore that shoves the killing down your throat while keeping the blood, gore and guts to an absolute minimum. By the time Vaughn turns a massive genocide into a loving firework show, I bought the stylized sequence hook, line and sinker.
The most brilliant part of it all, though, is in the casting of Jackson as a villain with a lisp and a weak stomach. By itself, these character traits are nothing new, and under different management, may have been minimalized or distracting. But to have an actor like Jackson — known mostly for his tough exterior, foul mouth and gore craving machismo — portray what comes down to a McDonald’s loving techno nerd who’s afraid of both blood and violence is a stroke of genius. The way Jackson carries himself through this whole thing is like watching a kid having the time of his life on his first movie, bellowing out orders to people who are far superior and devising a plan that goes beyond ridiculous but stays true to our current culture and state of affairs. In conjunction with pitch perfect performances by Firth, Strong, and Michael Caine as Kingsman head honcho, Arthur, nothing that happens in this film is all that far-fetched, even when it’s entirely unbelievable.
Which, in the end, is what makes this movie so much fun. Vaughn plays on all types of action movie stereotypes that let you know he’s totally in on the joke, but at the same time, delivers a fresh spy thriller with some terrific and unexpected twists scattered throughout the second half of the movie. They become so abundant that at one point, I simply gave up trying to figure out what was going to happen and just went along for the ride because each new sharp turn fit so well into the scheme of not only the tone of the film, but to the plot. So much so that if some of the events didn’t happen, characters wouldn’t have developed as smoothly as they did — especially Eggsy, who needs every one of these twists to happen so that he can complete his hero’s journey in a manner that helps turn your typical spy story into a rousing seriocomedy that lives and breathes its own ego.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include The DUFF, McFarland, USA, and Hot Tub Time Machine 2. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.