There’s a sort of comfortable familiarity that comes with director Matthew Vaughn’s newest film Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s (mostly) a fun, witty, raucously violent bit of escapism, but it’s also very thematically similar to other adaptations of comic book writer Mark Millar’s work (this is based on his comic book series The Secret Service). If you’ve seen either of the Kick-Ass films (the first of which was also directed by Vaughn) — or even the Timur Bekmambetov-directed Wanted — then you’ve witnessed several of the tropes and ideas at play in Kingsman (which, for the sake of brevity, is how we’ll refer to it henceforth).
The film is a clear send-up of older spy thrillers, particularly of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. It uses that framework — a fictional secret group of uber-spies who save the world on the regular, while the world remains blissfully unaware — to tell a prototypical Millar story of a young man with a troubled past who comes into his own through contact with powers greater than his. He goes through an intensive training regimen, overcomes great odds, saves the world and gets the girl. In this case, the uber-spies are a generations-old network known as “Kingsmen”, each named after a knight of the round table. They use fancy gadgets, have a heavy emphasis on being “gentlemen”, and execute their plans with a rather shocking degree of lethality. The young upstart this time around is known as Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a troubled youth drafted into the Kingsmen by Galahad (Colin Firth), whose life Eggsy’s father saved years ago. From there, it’s fairly formulaic — there’s a brilliant weapons designer/trainer named Merlin (a wonderfully understated perfromance by Mark Strong), a pretty sidekick (the underused Sophia Cookson), and an older, distrustful leader (Michael Caine, playing Michael Caine).
Yes, I know. There are some rather stark similarities, no? Fortunately, the film has a great deal of fun with its cast, and Egerton in particular is a breath of fresh air, a cocksure, grinning little bastard who still manages to be charismatic enough that you’re more than happy to root for him. Firth is a highlight as well, and it’s particularly fun to see him, after a career of playing stodgy oh-so-British Brits, take a bit of a shot at that and also kick voluminous amounts of ass. There’s something delightfully wacky about seeing him absolutely devastate a room full of bad guys with such dry-witted aplomb.
No film such as this can succeed without a worthy adversary, and here’s where the film is a bit uneven. Samuel L. Jackson plays Valentine, a megalomaniac billionaire with a plan to cull the majority of the world’s population and leave the 1% alive and in charge of a new world order (all thinly veiled under a weirdly off-putting radical environmentalist pretext — the film’s politics are murky and troublesome at times). He plays the character capably enough — or Samuel L. Jacksony enough, anyway — even if it’s accompanied by an inexplicable lisp that really adds very little to the character. It’s a relatively by-the-numbers performance for him, which one could say for probably 50% of Jackson’s current role choices. The real standout is the absolutely terrific henchwoman, Gazelle, played by Algerian dancer/actress Sofia Boutella. Boutella’s sparse acting resume would have led me to expect a wooden performance, but damn if she isn’t the best thing on the screen at times. She’s funny, charismatic, and utterly charming — for a double-amputee ninja-psycho with blades instead of feet. She also has an utterly breathtaking physicality, and every fight scene with her is stunning. Boutella may well be the best part of the film.
So yes, Kingsman is quite fun, even if it’s simultaneously formulaic and oddly staid in its plotting. The catch is that fun is due almost entirely to the cast itself, with very little credit due to the script. It’s simply not that exciting a film for much of its far-too-long 129 minutes. There’s a remarkable amount of drag in the middle of the film, spending far too much time belaboring its points about how down on his luck the protagonist is, and how gleefully villainous Jackson’s Valentine is (which isn’t helped by Valentine simply not being particularly engaging). The action choreography is completely bananas, and the action and combat is shockingly violent, full of geysering blood and severed limbs, grisly bullet holes and slow-motion slaughter. It’s all terribly comic-booky and very Mark Millar-ish, which means that it’s done with tongue firmly in cheek and never too clinical or upsettingly gory. If anything, the film needed more action to help propel it past its slogging buildup (or, perhaps better, to simply excise a solid 20-30 minutes of repetitive exposition).
Ultimately, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an enjoyable enough romp, even if its script’s reach often exceeds its grasp. It’s bolstered by a collection of very good performances and some excellent, if garishly violent action choreography. I wish it would spend a bit less time slowing down and explaining things to its audience, and rather just cut the brake lines and shove us down a hill. It worked best when it embraced its goofy, pulpy roots, but the excess exposition and occasionally lumbering buildup sometimes take you out of it — it’s a film desperately in need of another editorial pass. Yet when it does work, it hits just the right notes, and so for two-thirds of the time, it’s wickedly clever and hellaciously good fun.