Matthew Vaughn is a man permanently caught between being a twelve-year-old who just discovered ultraviolence and his interest in girls, and an adult with the self-awareness to frame his baser instincts within a more mature framework. What results is this interesting mishmash of films constantly walking a tightrope, between adolescent, laddish fantasy on the one hand and more intelligent, ‘ironic’ (as I believe cretins call it these days) examinations of that on the other. Kick-Ass’ teenage fantasy was juxtaposed with the hero getting way out of his depth and repeatedly almost murdered, and First Class’ political commentary teetered over into bizarre cheesecake, as if Vaughn had been dared to disrobe every actress at least once. It’s all rather like if Zach Snyder dropped his artistic pretensions.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is his latest such blend, adapted from another Mark Millar comic (after Kick-Ass, which was far nastier than its film version) which I won’t pretend to have read, and tells the story of Eggsy, a chav recruited from his dead-end life by Colin Firth into a secret, elaborate and remarkably snobbish spy agency his dad worked for years before. He finds himself caught in the throes of an elaborate, world spanning conspiracy and you can predict half of what follows just from reading this sentence (and the rest by the 30 minute point).
The plot (and much of the cast) are a bundle of spy clichés, played with a winking nod and smile that brings an anarchic sense of fun to the proceedings, but which makes the running gag of setting up clichéd bond scenarios before a character quips ‘this isn’t that kind of movie’ feel a little hypocritical. Firth is the only real stand-out performance here (also getting an action scene on par with anything in The Raid 2), and while the action and humour are very solid so much of the rest is rather mediocre. Samuel L Jackson plays the requisite supervillain determined to succeed where hundreds of shitty nineties anime villains failed (although his henchwoman’s prosthetic sword legs are officially the coolest things I’ve seen in some time), but he consumes scenery like this in his sleep and his gimmick of being a genocidal psycho who can’t stand blood could’ve been played funnier. The weirdest role however, goes to the the female lead played by Sophie Cookson, another Kingsman trainee and training rival to Eggsy. Not in the sense her character is unusual in any way, but that she’s probably the most thankless female role outside of Nolan’s dead wives collection. The story would play out identically in her absence, and her baffling amount of screen time makes the finale really weird when it dispatches her on a narratively pointless side-mission and then completely forgets about her.
Kick-Ass is the most obvious comparison and I’d say it’s probably the better movie, largely by being more even. It’s highs were never as high as Kingsman’s (even Hit Girl’s best moments never approached Firth’s shootout here) but the lows were never as mediocre, and the comic book nerd power fantasy was nicely balanced by Hit Girl inflicting most of the violence. Strangely though, the filmgoing experience Kingsman most reminds me of is Skyfall (whose seriousness it mocks at one point), as once the initial stratospheric emotional high came down, the central uncomfortable re-affirmation of a violent and sexually creepy form of masculinity became painfully obvious, with Kingsman ending on a misstep like walking off the Grand Canyon, by closing on what’s essentially Skyfall’s infamous shower scene but played for laughs.
I have to recommend Kingsman in the end as it is a damn good time at the movies, but it’s the kind of film I doubt I’ll watch again (though I will watch Colin Firth murder the shit out of the Westboro Baptist Church on Youtube from time to time).