Monday, 26 January 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

For 24 hours in late 2005, Matthew Vaughn was under the impression - not unreasonably, having apparently been offered the gig by the head of MGM - that he would be directing Casino Royale, the film that brought us the James Bond origin story we never knew we wanted. Whatever he did to get himself evicted from Bond Street, it's obviously been giving him nightmares ever since: he's now on his third fantasy hero origin movie in a row, and this one pulls down its pants and presses its spotty arse on the back window of the school bus at 007, following behind in his Aston Martin and praying for the lights to change.

While the ghost of a stillborn career directing Bond films might haunt Vaughn, Kingsman: The Secret Service probably owes more to The Avengers - the real Avengers I mean, not the attention-seeking Marvel superheroes - than Bond. Its diabolical mastermind, wafer-thin plot and sartorial choices - all double-breasted, patterned suits and old school ties - would make for a much more successful present-day update of the TV series than 1998's Ralph Fiennes-starring abortion.

But Kingsman, as it frequently reminds us, isn't that kind of movie. Vaughn's style is too hyperactive for Bond, and John Steed would need a nice sit down with a pot of Earl Grey if he saw some of what Colin Firth gets up to here. What it is, however, is enormous, guilty fun: a wilfully, gleefully offensive eruption of panto violence and adolescent fantasies drowning in inventive set-pieces and bawdy LOLz.

Kingsman's story doesn't bear too much scrutiny, not least because doing so invites a number of wider readings of the film which were probably never intended. Cartoon chav Eggsy (the origin of the nickname remains, sadly, a mystery) is plucked from his thinly-sketched underclass life by Harry Hart (Firth), a suave secret agent in a Savile Row suit, and taught how to kick ass like a first class gentleman. Sharp schmutter is their armour, politeness is their primary weapon (other weapons include guns and hand grenades; politeness will, after all, only get you so far). Meanwhile Samuel L Jackson's lisping, squeamish villain Valentine, the CEO of a global consumer electronics company, is hatching an evil plot straight out of Moonraker - only sillier, if that's even possible.
"I HAVE A DREA- shit, sorry. Wrong audition."

Like every other origin story, Eggsy's training - which involves some glorious action sequences undertaken in pin-striped jumpsuits - runs parallel to the buildup of the bad guy's scheme, and both storylines hit all the beats you'd expect them to. But because Kingsman is based on a Mark Millar comic, everything comes supersized, with a side order of irony and an XXL cup of meta. In the comic, for example, Millar has actor Mark Hamill kidnapped by the bad guy; in the film, the kidnappee is a dotty professor played by Mark Hamill. Do you see? There's quite a lot of this kind of thing, and I make no apologies for enjoying all of it.

Vaughn's set-pieces are delirious crowd-pleasers, and he does well to sustain dangerously high levels of insanity for the whole running time. The bonkersometer peaks with a remarkable (and, like much of Millar's work, morally questionable) scene in a church which should delight and disgust you in equal measure. Kinetic camerawork and eye-watering stunts are the order of the day, but as fun as they are you can't help being reminded of another visually innovative British director: while Edgar Wright's action scenes feel like the work of a clinical perfectionist, though, there's a distinct feeling that Vaughn sometimes signs his off with a hasty "that'll do".

Taron Egerton is convincing enough as Eggsy, if suspiciously buff for a character who we are to assume subsists almost entirely on Big Macs and beer. Colin Firth has an absolute ruddy ball as his answer to James Bond (not that anyone ever asked the question); Michael Caine, thankfully, gets more lines than Christopher Nolan ever gives him, and Samuel L Jackson wears a lot of bright colours. Sofia Boutella's bionic-limbed baddie Gazelle, meanwhile, is terrific fun, and deserves an origin story of her own.
I cannot pretend for a single moment that I did not enjoy the shit out of this bit

What Kingsman isn't, as you may have guessed, is particularly clever. Deliberately referencing Pygmalionesque stories like Trading Places, Nikita and Pretty Woman, Vaughn and Millar give themselves a fertile opportunity to explore notions of class migration and self-improvement, but choose not to bother. Eggsy's arc, such as it is, involves achieving success by ditching the alarming printed bomber jacket and Nike Air Force 1s in favour of dressing like a toff (the "changing room" in the agents' tailors' shop is as metaphorical as it is literal); there are some mumbled lines about how being a gentleman is more about how you behave than what you look like, but you'd be forgiven for leaving the film with the impression that it only furthers the demonisation of the working class from an establishment perspective.

That said, Kingsman is a film that features exploding heads, a henchwoman who bisects people with razor-sharp prosthetic legs and a spectacularly crude anal sex gag, so you have to wonder whether it's worth getting worked up about the lack of social commentary. Sometimes you just need to be entertained, and in that sense Kingsman succeeds with great big flashing neon nobs on.


  1. Thought TIS would be something of a closet fan of 98 Avengers what with the Bond connection.

    I remember seeing it back in 98 and wondering why there was so much hostility toward it as from what I remember it felt exactly like a big budget version of the quirky weird Rigg era Avengers. with Bond as the villain (after so many Avengers appeared in Bond films) Obviously it wasn't brilliant 5 star entertainment, but acceptable 3star. The one thing that annoyed me at the time (and since) was Liz Hurley was so obviously perfect for Peel and they got Thurman. Weird. Finnes was ok, Mel Gibson would've been ideal though

  2. I saw it in '98 as a fan of the TV series and thought it was OK. Tried to watch it again a few years ago and couldn't make it past the first half hour. Willing to give it another go out of curiosity, but the casting is just so awful. Liz Hurley and Mel Gibson? Seek help, my friend.

  3. a quick imdb browse and see Emma Thompson was also in the running as Peel so lets not be too harsh on the lovely Liz (who would've been great and boosted the box office to Avengers Assemble levels)

    Roger could've been in it too. he could've played Mother

  4. It really was excellent, and is about as far removed from the Sly and Arnie pics they are pumping out nowadays. I had been looking forward to it for ages!

  5. The origin of the nickname "Eggsy" has been revealed: