Back in 2002, Vin Diesel re-teamed with his The Fast and the Furious director Rob Cohen to make xXx, a so-called spy-thriller meant to upset the stiff, upper-crusty world of James Bond with a down and dirty modern riff full of nihilists, tattooed bad boys and extreme sports freaks. Of course, Pierce Brosnan‘s final Bond movie, Die Another Day, came out later that year and by box office proved handily that the gentleman spy was in no danger of being usurped by those that think a tux and a t-shirt with a picture of a tux on it are roughly the same.
That, shall we say, populist view of modern spy war by xXx was on my mind after watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, the new movie by Matthew Vaughn that is very much of the opinion that “manners maketh the man.” Basically, if you can kick ass with an umbrella, you can kick ass with just about anything, and while anyone can be a thug, it takes a rare kind of man to react to any situation with calm, rational composure. And what is the more dangerous: someone who flies off the handle, or someone who can keep their head even as all around them are losing theirs?
Pretty stuffy, right? Not hardly. Kingsman is a frenzied beast that frequently threatens to overwhelm the senses, daring you to keep up. Vaughn’s recent ventures into blockbuster action, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, both have a subversive quality in terms of audience expectations, and they both walk a fine line between the campy and the rational. Kick-Ass in particular manages to be satirical and straightforward, pulverizing your senses with over the top violence and characterization that still manages to get at something real and insightful.
Kingsman is just about as silly as anything produced as spy drama in the 60s. It features a top secret organization made-up of well-tailored men with funny nicknames and a myriad of gadgets struggling to stop a megalomaniac with an over-the-top scheme to take over the world for vaguely altruistic reasons. Our hero though is a kid from the council estates, a working class bloke that’s failed at everything except finding new ways to get into trouble. “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) has an abusive stepfather whose a small time hooligan, he can’t do anything to get his mom and stepsister out of their predicament, and he has no direction in life. But what he does have, naturally, is above average skill…
The star of Kingsman though is Colin Firth, an actor who won an Academy Award for playing King George VI in The King’s Speech, and is still beloved for his turn as Mr. Darcy in the 90s TV miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice. In Kingsman though, he’s an action movie revelation on par with Matt Damon in the first Bourne Identity movie, he’s skilled enough to make you wonder what he hasn’t been cast as a man of action before, which plays right into the idea of underestimating the dangerousness of the guy in the glasses and double-breasted bespoke suit.
Much of the plot flows the back and forth between the highly competitive Kingsmen training undergone by Eggsy and the investigation by Firth’s character, codenamed Galahad, into the mysterious disappearance of a number of high-profile figures. The villain, coincidentally enough given the occasion, is Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a Steve Jobs-like technology magnate with a hair-brained scheme to save the planet by basically getting rid of most of the people. Like all traditional Bondian villains, Valentine is slightly off, speaking with a lisp and balking at the sight of blood, and he has an Odd-Job like hench(wo)man in Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who’s armed with artificial legs that basically double as swords.
Describing the plot of Kingsman captures the very sense of ludicrousness that Vaughn and his screenwriting collaborator Jane Goldman are going for, but it can’t convey the sheer audacity of the direction, the edge of your seat thrills of some of the action sequences, and the almost farcical level of blood and gore that sometimes shocks you to the point of laughter. There’s also a degree of meta-commentary too, as the characters know they’re living in a James Bond movie, and Valentine knows he’s a crazy bad guy with an unnecessarily overly elaborate plan to become king of the world.
Vaughn manages to juggle those various desperate elements with tremendous skill, for the most part. Whenever the action goes up in the air, like during the climax or during an earlier training sequence where the cadets leap from a plane, it’s thrillingly frantic. The fight scenes are all exceptionally well choreographed, and although I think there’s maybe too much shaky cam going on at times, there’s a definite level of artistry in how the fight sequences are shot, and one of the few instances where the movie shows the grittiness of a modern spy movie. Mostly though, Kingsman is shot in bright colorful pallets, sunny as in the light in which its shot if not its disposition.
Credit should also go to the cast, and enough can’t be said about Firth who unsurprisingly can play a gentleman well, but can also carry those fights as if he were someone with the resume of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Firth and Egerton also make an engaging team as mentor and mentee, a relationship that doesn’t seem forced at all, and never condescending on the part of Galahad to Eggy in any way. Mark Strong as fellow Kingsman Merlin gets a rare chance to be a good guy, and manages to be quite humorous playing the Kingsmen’s Q. Jackson gets to be the slightly deranged version of his bad ass self, something I don’t think we’ve seen on-screen in a while, and Michael Caine adds a touch of class and a bit of twist as the Kingsmen’s leader Arthur.
It’s not all perfect though. There’s a fairly big action scene near the end of the second act where everything turns, and the plot unfolds a little too closely to the way things turned out in Kick-Ass, thematically and narratively. The source material for both films was a comic book written by Mark Millar, but the plot for both turns on the mentored having to cast aside all doubts and becoming embroiled in an ultra-violent final showdown that’s as notable for its high body count as it is for repeated violations of the laws of physics. Vaughn makes it work in the end, but the film’s flow gets upset as it races to its climax, and the director tries to compensate with a great big body count.
Still, one leaves the theater imminently satisfied at having viewed a wickedly entertaining and endlessly appealing action movie that features fun characters, cool sequences, and a wink and a nod to films and series beloved by those that miss the dapper days of spying. True, Bond still puts on a tux, but he’s now too busy being broody and intimidating to mix an etiquette lesson in with his world saving, so someone should. Let is be the Kingmen then! Let’s welcome well-tailored heroism again. It turns out, it’s still pretty bad ass.