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Friday, 30 January 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service – Ridiculous, riotous, Bond-flavoured fun

Review

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Director: Matthew Vaughan
Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong
Running time: 129mins



Pretty soon we’re all going to be sick to death of comic-book movies as studios roll out a staggering 17 of the bloody things in 2016-17 (I really don’t know how I’m going to contain myself until Spider-Man: Venom opens in around 22 months time). For now, though, here’s one to enjoy.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Mark ‘Kick-Ass’ Millar and Dave ‘Watchmen’ Gibbons, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an outrageous spy caper that celebrates all things James Bond (the Roger Moore era, especially) whilst mercilessly skewering the character’s clichés and absurdities.

Colin Firth is Harry Hart, a Savile-Row-clad hybrid of Bond, Harry Palmer and John Steed. He’s a member of the Kingsmen, a super-secret international intelligence agency founded in the 19th century to tackle evildoers whilst upholding gentlemanly standards at all times. They have state-of-the-art bases full of all kinds of hardware, novelty weapons to make Q drool and seemingly limitless funds. Following the death of a colleague (a nice cameo by Jack Davenport), Hart nominates an underachieving council-estate kid named “Eggsy” to compete to be his fallen comrade’s replacement. Meanwhile, Samuel L Jackson’s billionaire climate change campaigner – Valentine – is up to something very nasty indeed…

Kingsman is a brash, bold, peacock of a movie that manages to be as camp as Christmas, eye-poppingly violent and, most important of all, relentlessly, ridiculously entertaining right from the get-go. It’s cartoonish in the extreme with everything turned up to 11 throughout. Director Vaughan – reunited with Kick-Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman – is perfect for such material, turning in a film that is jammed full of frenetic set-pieces and memorable visuals.

He can do subtle too though. There is, for instance, a brilliant moment in the film’s final 20 minutes featuring Michael Caine’s Arthur – the Kingsmen’s leader – that tells you everything you need to know about his character in barely a single second of screen time. It’s really quite masterful.

There is, of course, a danger this type of material could have turned into an unintentional Austin Powers revival, complete with sly winks to camera. And, admittedly, there are some clever nods to all kinds of spy fiction (the casting of former Harry Palmer Caine sees to that) and even the odd bit of dialogue offering up a kind of meta-commentary on the genre (“Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day!”). But for the most part it’s played with a straight bat and is all the better for it. Firth (an actor I’ve warmed to enormously) is perfect as gentleman spy Hart, while Jackson clearly has a ball as his weird, lisping nemesis. Egerton – in only his second film role following Testament of Youth – is almost as impressive, especially in his scenes with Firth and the ever-dependable Mark Strong.

Not all of Kingsman works, with some of the film’s frequent black humour misfiring. A scene set in a Westboro Baptist-style church, whilst effective at showing us what Valentine’s villainy is capable of, comes off as nasty and gratuitous. Some of the CGI work here isn’t great either. There’s also an anal sex joke towards the end of the movie that is plain creepy and certainly a million miles away from the kind of harmless, Bond-style double entendre you’d find in, say, Moonraker (“I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir”). But maybe that was the intention.

Additionally, the film contains a plot hole you could comfortably steer one of Valentine’s killer satellites through. If Jackson's environmentalist is so mega-wealthy why does he need to concoct some wacky plot to wipe out most of the people on the planet? Surely he could just use his vast pile of cash to lobby/pressure/bribe politicians and businesspeople into changing their evil, planet polluting ways?

You’d think such a ridiculous romp would attract little controversy but in an article entitled "Is Kingsman the most conservative comedy this century?", the Guardian this week claimed the film was “in thrall to the establishment and utterly contemptuous of women and the working class”. It also lambasted the decision to make Jackson’s villain a climate change campaigner.

Articles like this are little more than nonsensical click bait, of course. How is a film denigrating the working class when one of its two main protagonists is from precisely that background? Eggsy is shown to be brave, bright, loyal, noble and kind. Whilst competing to be a Kingsman he has to overcome the prejudices of braying, upper-class rivals – as well as Caine’s snobbish Arthur – before battling a warped billionaire and an army of his minions to save the world.

Yes, there are working class characters shown in a substantially less flattering light but, if Kingsman has a message, it is a thoroughly liberal one: “Being a Kingsman has nothing to do with the circumstances of one’s birth,” Hart tells Eggsy, or, put another way, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”. 

Women are well represented here. Sophie Cookson is terrific as Eggsy’s friend and rival, Roxy, while Sofia Boutella’s beautiful-but-deadly Gazelle is a formidable, thoroughly Bond-esque villain. And it’s good to see Samantha Womack escape the wretched gloom-fest of EastEnders to turn in a sympathetic performance as Eggsy’s mum.

Regarding Valentine… well, he’s hardly Caroline Lucas, is he? He’s a psychotic misanthrope peddling a half-arsed version of Gaia theory to excuse his megalomania and general monstrousness. The real villains here are shown to be the world leaders and one-percenters who would sell out the rest of us in a heartbeat to save their own necks. If Kingsman is contemptuous of anyone, it is of them.

Rating: WWW

Ratings

WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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