Published on January 23rd, 2015 | by Michael0
Kingsman: The Secret Service
From the minds that gave you Kick-Ass comes Kingsman: The Secret Service, the story of a organisation of British spies descended from the tailors of Kings. Yes, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn team up once again to adapt a Mark Millar comic, and while it may be a facile argument, it’s fair to say that this film does for superspies what Kick-Ass did for superheroes. As in its predecessor, Kingsman sees a young man plucked from mediocrity to live out the childhood fantasies of millions. But where Dave Lizewski took it upon himself to become a superhero, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a tearaway council estate kid, brimming with potential but lacking direction. Working for a government agency of any type couldn’t be further from his mind but he reckons without Harry Hart, agent extraordinaire, who happens to owe Eggsy’s family a favour…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film opens in the Middle East in 1997 and amidst the chaos is Harry Hart, codename Galahad (Colin Firth), interrogating a prisoner. Unfortunately Harry has made a mistake, one that proves fatal for his young protégé, who dies saving Hart. Hart visits the dead man’s family, promising them a favour should the man’s wife or young son get themselves into bother.
Seventeen years later and the man who became the new Lancelot at the expense of the dead man is attempting a rescue mission – his target is James Arnold (Mark Hamill), but unfortunately for Lancelot he reckoned without the razor limbed Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Lancelot’s death leaves a spot open once again in the Kingmen, as well as a mystery for them to solve – If Arnold was kidnapped, why has he turned up back at his job as a University lecturer? This sounds like a job for Harry Hart! Hart is tasked by codenames Arthur (Michael Caine) and Merlin (Mark Strong) with both investigating Arnold and finding a candidate to replace Lancelot.
Readers will be unsurprised to learn that Hart’s candidate as Lancelot’s replacement is Eggsy, who had finally called in that favour when arrested for a carjacking. Hart recognises the promise that Eggsy doesn’t – he was a top student who packed schooling in, a champion gymnast shamed into giving it up and a very promising marine who quit at the behest of his mother. Hart decides to help train up Eggsy, not just as an operative but as a Gentleman. James Bond is the obvious example of the Gentleman spy of course, but Hart perhaps more closely resembles the wonderful John Steed (not least because of a gadget laden umbrella) while the front as tailors that the Kingsmen maintain is pure Man From UNCLE. It’s worth pointing out that Matthew Vaughn takes him surname for the star of The Man From UNCLE, Robert Vaughn. The film maintains a neat balancing act between the perceived snobbery of such Gentlemen (Firth is the epitome of refinement, as Steed was) and the belief that anybody can be one, regardless of background, or indeed gender, much in the same way that The Winter Soldier showed us that Captain America had good old fashioned values without being a throwback or deeply conservative. Eggsy’s fellow candidates for the role of Kingsman appear to be universally Oxbridge bluebloods, with only female candidates Roxy and Amelia not openly hostile to the little oik. The politics of the film are strange given the source, Vaughn graduated from Stowe after all, and contain some less than veiled digs at the one percent generally, not just the British upper crust.
The rest of the film is pure wish fulfilment stuff. Eggsy excels in his training, often getting the upper hand over his toff tormentors, meanwhile Hart investigates internet billionaire Richmond Valentine, whom the Kingsmen believe to be behind the disappearance of Arnold and other dignitaries and celebrities around the world. As you might imagine in a Millar/Vaughn/Goldman story, the story blends humour with strong violence and a fair amount of crudity, which goes against the grain of most comic book adaptions. Of course, your individual tolerance to such things is subject to taste but for my money the film gets the balance about right. Taron Egerton excels as Eggsy, convincing both as a troubled youth and as a debonair spy while newcomer Sophie Cookson also adds good value as Roxy, although I feel the character perhaps merited more screen time. The older cast is awash with espionage experience, of course. Mark Strong and Colin Firth both starred in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Michael Caine played Harry Palmer three times, including in perhaps the best British spy film of all, The Ipcress File, and Samuel L Jackson will be known chiefly as Nick Fury to an entire generation of movie goers. Mark Hamill is also a good sport for taking part, as it is the actor himself who is the subject of a failed rescue attempt in the comic book upon which the film is based. It is Firth though that carries much of the film and his is utterly convincing as a man of impeccable taste but also of action. Give John Steed the gruff demeanour of Mr Darcy and you have Harry Hart.
As you might expect, the film is awash with cultural references. Songs with could appear hokey, such as Freebird, Money For Nothing and Give It Up are used superbly in context. When attempting to draw Eggsy into the world of Kingsmen, Hart cites Trading Places and Nikita, and is astonished when Eggsy correctly asserts that the situation is like My Fair Lady. Later on, allusions are made to the plethora of spies with the initials JB, while Hart and Valentine has a discussion about gentleman spies and megalomoniacal villains in the spy films of yesteryear. Hart says he thinks those films were only as good as the villains and Kingsman has a corker in Valentine, a lisping, apparently philanthropic billionaire with a penchant for Big Macs and a deadly henchwoman. His plot is brilliantly deranged in a Russell T Davis era Doctor Who sort of way.
A word too about the action sequences, which are as strong as they are varied. Vaughn’s action pieces have a distinctive style (think Big Daddy cleaning house in Kick-Ass), one that is evoked here strongly both in Hart’s scrap in a London boozer and in a tremendously violent sequence in a Southern Baptist hate church. There’s also a thriller parachute sequence, a detour to the edge of space and of course a showdown inside a mountain, amongst others. As with Kick-Ass, the sudden extreme violence can feel a little jarring with the tone of the piece but ultimately I think it works here. It must be said however that I loved Kick-Ass on first viewing but cooled on it considerably the second time.
For all that I enjoyed the acting, the action, the soundtrack and even the ludicrous plot, the overwhelming feeling I got from the film is that I really, really want to be a Kingsman and surely there can be no higher praise than that.