It’s dinner time. Villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), flaunting his disarming lisp, confesses his love of good old-fashioned spy movies to debonair secret agent Henry Hart (Colin Firth). At the same time, he somewhat paradoxically reassures Hart that this isn’t one of them, coming within inches of breaking the fourth wall. This odd contradiction wonderfully summarises the action packed, self-referential romp that is Matthew Vaughn’s latest film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, an adaptation of Mark Millar’s graphic novel of the same name.
Vaughn channels the tongue-in-cheek swagger of his own films – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), where he produced, and Kick-Ass (2010), which he co-wrote and directed – but Kingsman is most indebted to post-modernist masters Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Watching Kingsman you can’t help but be reminded of the duo’s very British action-comedy Cornetto Trilogy. Just as Shaun of The Dead brought the zombie apocalypse into contemporary England and Hot Fuzz an the explosive police thriller into the quaint rural countryside, Kingsman reinvents the classic James Bond-style spy movie in a world of iPhones, hoodies and Iggy Azalea.
Old and new clash as dapper Kingsman special agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), channelling the best of Bonds Roger Moore and Sean Connery with his pinstripe suit and conservative British values, finds a new protégé in the inner city: working class ruffian Eggsy (Taron Egerton). This central relationship not only anchors the film, but also epitomises Vaughn’s desire to pay homage to much loved spy films of the past while injecting the genre with a burst of modernity. This dynamic is perfectly, albeit unsubtly, depicted when Eggsy nicknames his pet pug “J.B.” for Jack Bauer rather than James Bond, much to elder statesmen Michael Caine’s surprise and disapproval.
This juxtaposition of tradition and modernity is one of Kingsman’s great strengths; it makes the film accessible and enjoyable for young and old audiences. Nods to classic Bond elements, like Rosa Klebb’s shoe knife from From Russia with Love and other convoluted villainous plots to dispatch of the hero will please old school fans.
Alternatively, the villainous Valentine is a thoroughly 21st century baddie. He’s made his fortune in social media, à la Mark Zuckerberg, and regularly chows down on Big Macs for dinner. Even the soundtrack gets in on the old/new act as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Dire Straits rub shoulders with Dizzie Rascal’s banging hit “Bonkers.” With such an eclectic formula, it’s impossible for the film not to venture into the absurd – an avenue that provides Kingsman’s most memorable moments.
Like Kick-Ass, Kingsman loves a good action sequence. There’s glimpses of frenetic, beautifully choreographed fist fights throughout the film, but it’s not until national treasure Colin Firth finds himself in a Westboro Baptist Church lookalike, hounded by ravenous extremists, that these scenes really kick off.
Spurred by Valentine’s psychosis-inducing SIM cards, Firth, in an immaculate suit and tie, battles everyone in the church. In one dizzying take, Firth shoots, clobbers and bludgeons everything in sight with blood and guts spurting everywhere. Rather than conventionally depict the frantic action with quick, chopping edits, George Richmond’s cinematography unblinkingly follows Firth’s every more to give us a breathless view of the chaotic melee.
It’s one of the most brilliantly exhilarating fight scenes I’ve ever seen; the the scale and mayhem resembles something out of a video game more than anything else. The fact that this rather unassuming British gent is the one dishing out the beatings is the cherry on top. These fights scenes come thick and fast towards the end, however, and while impressively innovative and dynamic, they become literally exhausting to watch.
Not quite as impressive as the action is the script, where the comedy lacks the deadly efficiency of Firth wheedling his inconspicuously dangerous umbrella. Goldman and Vaughn’s script is a real hit-and-miss affair as too often the jokes resort to crudely constructed swearing and sex gags. At one point a princess offers Eggsy the chance to “f**k her in the ass” if he saves the world. Who said romance was dead? At times like this, the script’s try-hard bravado unfolds as if it were written by a horny teenager boasting to his pre-pubescent mates about an entirely fabricated sexual encounter.
Taron Egerton puts on his best East Landan twang as working-class boy done good, Eggsy. While his character is a predictably stereotypical portrayal of an urban kid, complete with a varsity jacket, baseball cap and joy riding antics, it works on the wider provision that he’s the polar opposite to Harry Hart.
Hart’s the real star, anyway; not only does Firth encapsulate the historical ideal of a suave English spy brilliantly, but he also revels in both the physical and comic demands placed on him. The ambidextrous nature of his performance is encapsulated superbly when, after dispatching some ill-mannered thugs in the pub, he calmly dusts himself off, sits back down and sips his Guinness amongst the crumpled bodies.
Firth’s comic timing, along with fellow spy Merlin (Mark Strong), is spot on. They draw from their ample acting experience to deliver the bulk of the laughs. In tune with the golden oldies, Samuel L. Jackson is at his daftest, most eccentric best to make Valentine not just a memorable villain, but a memorable role in the actor’s career.
Outrageous, absurd, exhilarating, Kingsman is a royally raucous and enjoyable romp. Comedy, blistering action and a couple of excellent performances once again see Matthew Vaughn invigorating a tired genre. We’ll always have 007 leading the line for serious cinematic espionage, but with Eggsy and the Kingsman, we’ve got a rambunctious alternative well worth taking a joy ride with.
Movie Verdict: Win