By Preston Wilder
Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) talks with a lisp and can’t stand the sight of blood – he has “no thtomach for violence” – but still makes a pretty good supervillain. “Do you like spy movies?” he asks Harry Hart (Colin Firth), the suave secret agent posing as a rich investor. “Nowadays they’re all a little serious for my tastes,” replies Harry – a.k.a. ‘Galahad’, one of the modern-day gentlemen (and expert killers) in a secret society known as Kingsman.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a not-so-serious spy movie, a refreshing change from brooding tormented James Bond circa Skyfall. The film is stylish and fun, though its tone shifts alarmingly. The best way to describe it is to note that director Matthew Vaughn made both X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass – and this new film puts a sly British twist on the youthful heroics of the former, then succumbs to the outrageous comic violence of the latter. The third act, bookended by two gleefully gory scenes (the reason(s) for the film’s ‘18’ rating), doesn’t really gel with the middle section in which streetwise Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) is the sole working-class candidate in the “world’s most dangerous job interview”, training for the chance to become a Kingsman.
One thing’s for sure: Vaughn has flair. His camera swoops and glides, and usually ends on a neat visual joke (random example: when the spies get delinquent Eggsy sprung from jail, time is compressed so that Eggsy walks out of the police station just a beat or so after a chastened cop walks in to arrange his release). There are verbal jokes too. I’d never previously thought about the fact that the Chinese secret service is so secret we don’t even know what it’s called – unlike the Mossad, CIA, etc – but now I can’t stop thinking about it. Then there’s the bit where Harry uses well-known films to elucidate the concept of turning a pleb into a gentleman. You’ve seen Trading Places, right? he asks the lad. Nope, replies Eggsy. La Femme Nikita? Pretty Woman? Eggsy shakes his head, so Harry tries to explain what he means. “Oh – like in My Fair Lady!” says the young gangsta. Harry looks at him quizzically: “You’re full of surprises”.
The film has a few surprises of its own – especially in the second half when a scene in a fundamentalist ‘hate church’ spirals into a sudden orgy of ultra-violence, set to the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’: blood spurts, a man gets stabbed in the eye, another’s head is skewered, chin-to-crown, by a metal poker. The scene goes on and on, entirely unexpected (it only gets explained after it’s over) and extreme to the point of being off-putting – but Vaughn doesn’t see it that way, being the kind of director (he also co-wrote the comic book on which Kingsman is based) who subscribes to Quentin Tarantino’s dictum that a scene of violence is like a musical number. The most jaw-dropping scene in Kingsman features dozens of human heads bursting open like dynamited pumpkins – yet it’s played as a riot of colour and dance, the exploding heads making pretty patterns, like an unholy amalgam of Scanners and Busby Berkeley.
I’m making the film sound grisly, and it’s (mostly) not; as in Kick-Ass, however, Vaughn doesn’t seem to know when to stop. Kingsman needed a surer hand on the tiller; the tone feels erratic, the structure slapdash – one minute Eggsy’s being fitted out for a Kingsman suit, the next he’s failing his big test and being shown the door by snobby Michael Caine – the details sadistic, the James Bond parody inadequate. Yet it’s also true that the film is never dull, the gadgets are nifty (I liked the Rosa Klebb-style shoe dagger, activated by clicking one’s heels like a 19th-century German aristocrat) – and, though McDonalds may have paid good money for their product placement, they’re probably not too thrilled by Eggsy’s lewd reference (with accompanying gesture) to their “secret sauce”.
Kingsman is the work of a laddish smart guy with no self-control. It has wit, and energy to spare, but no class – which is odd because it’s about class, from our hero getting mocked by the public-school types to Valentine’s global cull (his plan involves SIM cards that trigger homicidal rage, leading people to kill each other like the folks in that church) sparing an elite of “chosen people” who watch from safety as the peasants self-destruct. You won’t find such acidic social comment in Skyfall, for all its tormented brooding. Kingsman is smarter than it looks, yet cruder than it should be – but it does have a great ticking-clock set-piece, plus those exploding heads set to KC & The Sunshine Band’s ‘Give it Up’, plus the funniest instance of the word ‘asshole’ spoken in a Nordic accent since Niki Lauda’s “ash-hole” in Rush. Hey, it’s something.
DIRECTED BY Matthew Vaughn
STARRING Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson
UK 2014 129 mins