They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In which case director Matthew Vaughan’s spy pastiche Kingsman: The Secret Service should have those responsible for the genre’s most famous franchise tickled pink. If the films based on Ian Fleming’s perennial British agent are the embodiment of the secret service at its most straight laced, then this high octane caper is its black-sheep cousin.
What does the world do when threatened by larger-than-life American megalomaniac Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is intent on total domination on a global scale. It calls upon the skills of the shadowy British secret service branch Kingsman, headed by ‘Arthur’ (Michael Caine) and his trusted agent Harry ‘Gallahad’ Hart (Colin Firth). However neither men were counting on the help of new recruit Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taro Eggerton), whose involvement in their ensuing predicament is anything but conventional.
Everything – well, almost everything – in this film works because it doesn’t take itself seriously. Like Kingsman’s central protagonists – ‘Galahad’ and department co-ordinator ‘Merlin’ (wittily named after England’s mythical guardians and embodied perfectly by the suave Firth and steel jawed Mark Strong) – beneath its outward upper-crust Englishness this film hides a subversive and wayward streak itching to break loose when least expected. Which is what makes it such fun. British crime – whether on the big or small screen or in the written form – works so well because it juxtaposes apparent gentility with its complete antithesis in the form of surreal characters and often grisly violence. Whether it’s 007 or the classic crime busting duo of TV’s John Steed and Emma Peel, or even in the unlikely form of Agatha Christie’s unassuming Jane Marple, the murder and mayhem which forms the core of this form of entertainment is often all the more shocking because it lurks, as it does in Kingsman, beneath a deceptively benign and congenial exterior.
With its heightened cartoon’ishness and disjointed sense of reality, the similarities between Kingsman and Vaughan and co-writer Jane Goldman’s other cult collaborations Kickass and X-Men are unmistakable. However its resemblance with these and numerous other films within the spy / crime genre are approached with such lightness of touch, that the result is more respectful homage than heavy handed rip-off. Marry this with cameo support from stellar stars Caine and Mark Hamill (as a scatty professor), as well as name to watch Egerton and British TV favourite Samantha Womack, and the result is as strong in quality and depth as it is in mere surface charm.
As with everything Kingsman isn’t perfect. The reason behind making Jackson’s villainous Valentine quite so irritating as well as giving him an unnecessary speech impediment is mystifying and indeed disappointing. His presence soon begins to detract from instead of add to the strength of a movie which otherwise has so much in its favour. One of the best things about Bond’s bad boys – from which Vaughan and Goldman in their screenplay, based on the comic-books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, so clearly drew their inspiration – is that underneath all their megalomania and imagined superiority there is usually something which attracts the viewer to them. Here however there is genuinely nothing appealing in the character of Valentine, to the point that his American trashiness sits uncomfortably within the otherwise beautifully constructed depiction of modern Britain and its ever present and defining class divide, upon which so much of the film’s humour and sharpness hangs.
This however – along with an apparently overwhelming desire to litter the dialogue with the endless string of profanities which characters in so much modern entertainment increasingly appear to require in order to express themselves under pressure – is the only quibble with a film which is both fresh and clever, as well as a marker for future filmmakers aiming to fill the gap until the next Bond instalment comes along.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Stars: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson
Runtime: 129 mins