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Review

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Vaughn. Matt Vaughn.

There are plenty of directors whose work grows in resonance with each release. Themes and idiosyncrasies grow more resonant and sketch the vision and personality of an auteur. I’ve had basically the opposite experience with Matthew Vaughn, where I am merely vaguely amused by Kingsman: The Secret Service when by all obvious predictors I should love it. Yet, I couldn’t help but constantly notice how this takes Matthew Vaughn’s tics to an annoying Nth degree.

On paper, this film sounds like a slam dunk: Vaughn’s mission is to “Make Spies Fun Again,” James Bond-meets-Marvel, with a rip-roaring pace of set pieces and twists. The cast is charismatic and overqualified. The spy gimmickry and visual effects are slick and cartoony in ways I love: Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids but for college freshmen instead of ten year olds.

Unfortunately, in practice, it’s a little bit hollow for most of the runtime; squarely within Vaughn’s comfort zone and only transcending that for a single unforgettable scene near the finale. It’s light and playful throughout; solidly executed, but thin. Vaughn’s struggles to turn slickness into style, to rein any control of tone from scene to scene, to give the characters any depth or sense of meaningful growth, all continue.

Granted, with good execution, that still puts a pretty high floor on the film as a piece of entertainment, and I do ultimately give Kingsman: The Secret Service a recommendation. It won’t surprise you very much, but as far as popcorn spectacle goes, this is solid and full of energy.

Unlike Kick-Ass, which was a Mark Millar project that Vaughn adapted for film, and X-Men: First Class, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a Vaughn project from conception, that just so happens to have a concurrent Millar comic. He and Millar allegedly came up with the Kingsman idea in a pub after a few pints and some mutual bemoaning how gritty and serious the Bond series had become post-Casino Royale.

The script has all the hallmarks of Vaughn’s tastes. It’s very British, like Layer Cake, and it has a slightly cynical bent to it. I’d call it pandering to teenage boys, with some hookups and male gaze and nasty jokes, but there’s no question that this is exactly Vaughn’s taste, too, so it’s clear he’s making this movie for his own sensibilities as much as your average 17-year-old. There’s a certain cynical recklessness in the writing, too — Vaughn isn’t afraid to kill characters, lie to the viewer, and pivot stakes on a moment’s notice. It’s also too long by fifteen minutes, which most of his movies have been: This one feels like it has an extra climax tacked on (though I did love the colorful head-exploding fireworks grand finale).

The film follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as he discovers his late father’s history as a super-secret agent and then goes into a training program to join the “Kingsman” spy program himself. The supposed heart of the film is Eggsy’s bond with Agent Galahad (Collin Firth), his father’s former partner and friend. But the pair’s chemistry is underwhelming, and the result is a relationship a lot less colorful and heartfelt than other key relationships in Vaughn films, e.g. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, or Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr.

Running alongside Eggsy’s training is a conspiracy plot with megalomaniac supervillain Richmond Valentine, played by a lisping, campy Samuel L. Jackson in a performance I despised. Jackson has enough charisma to overcome the ridiculous decisions he’s making, but the wacky affectations don’t make for a memorable character so much as a distracting one. The choice to subvert our expectations of Jackson as an intimidating presence might seem clever in the abstract, but is annoying and lacking substance in practice. This story also offers some toothless satire on the dangers of overreliance on devices, but it’s an afterthought.

The film’s one great scene comes late in the film and lets Vaughn use his best filmmaking skill: capturing ultra-violence with thrilling visual grace. This one has a subversive undercurrent, too: The worshippers at a crowded church get brainwashed with some of Valentine’s technology, and Galahad needs to fight his way through the zombie-like hordes (a hilarious juxtaposition, as they are nicely-dressed churchgoers) to escape. Blood and bullets and debris fly like a finely choreographed ballet to “Free Bird.” It makes for some tonal whiplash, but it’s the one moment of the film that really upends the film’s sense of safe entertainment with something bravura and ballsy.

Otherwise, though, Kingsman: The Secret Service is solidly entertaining but frothy and disposable fun.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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6 replies on “Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)”

I think there’s a lot to be said for the casting of Colin Firth, here. The juxtaposition you describe in the Church scene also works because it’s one of the most stereotypically reserved, posh, dignified English actors in the A-list committing these cartoonish acts of ultraviolence.

I guess I just see Collin Firth as “movie star capable of anything” so didn’t think too much of it, but that’s a great point

Kingsman was one of those movies that I wondered if it held up at all (especially after its abject sequel), but I still really enjoyed it on a second go. It’s incredibly shallow, which should be fatal considering that for all its goal was “making James Bond fun again” it’s largely a sneering deconstruction of Bond, but it’s a fun version of itself, essentially Austin Powers with action scenes and less stop-the-movie-to-make-fun-of-the-movie bits, but pretty much all of the cartoonishness intact. And when Vaughn is on for me, he’s on. He’s on, like, half the time. That said, I’ve got no qualm with anyone finding this unbearable, or, in your case, semi-bearable–it’s sort of hard to really define why the sequel is so much, because it’s not just the easy-to-avoid rakes it keeps stepping on. Maybe there just didn’t need to be more Kingsman once the point was made, I dunno. But I predict you are gonna as terrible a time as I did with it.

(We are, however, in pronounced disagreement re: Kick-Ass!)

About two weeks and four more Vaughn films later, and I’m feeling higher on Kick-Ass than I was. I think I’d give it a “Good” and some warmer words. Now that I better get the tonal whiplash that is the director’s M.O. I don’t think I would be quite so thrown off by the different plot threads not flowing together especially smoothly.

“came up with the idea in a pub after a few pints and some mutual bemoaning how gritty and serious the Bond series had become…”

You’ve never gotten me on a director’s side faster.

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