Once upon a time, there was a spy named James Bond. For most of the character’s 50-year history, he was a charming and handsome demigod with impeccable style and a ton of cool gadgets with which to save the world from evil and get the girl. But then the Pierce Brosnan era happened. Nothing against Brosnan himself, of course — it was hardly his fault and his time as Bond featured a lot of great moments. Even so, there was no denying that the series’ familiar elements had melted into a campy and cliched slog by the time he took the role. In many ways, Die Another Day was just as much a Bond parody as Austin Powers or Get Smart.
So the Daniel Craig era began, giving Bond a fresh start. This was a more gritty and grounded portrayal of the character, trading nearly all of the familiar gadgets and one-liners for immersive action on an epic scale. And don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely awesome. But it still feels like we’ve lost something.
In the wake of Jason Bourne and the pre-reboot collapse of Bond, it seems like we don’t have any high-flying escapist spy fantasies like those of Bond in his prime. Marvel tries on occasion, by way of rare moments in the second Captain America film and their Agents of SHIELD series, but it’s not even remotely the same.
I didn’t even realize that spark of spy adventure fantasy had been missing until I saw the first trailer for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Here was a spy action romp with all the flair, gadgetry, and escapist fun that made James Bond a household name, but with precious little of the campiness that eventually made the character a self-mockery. This looked like something that assembled old and familiar pieces into something new and fun, filling a niche that I don’t think anyone knew had ever been forgotten.
Needless to say, I had very high expectations going into this one. And the film more or less met those expectations, though it does have a few minor flaws. Let’s address those first, just to get them out of the way.
The plot is kind of problematic, in that it has several holes, a lot of predictable turns, and a few one-dimensional bit parts stinking up the joint. There’s also the matter of director/co-writer/producer Matthew Vaughn, who makes it abundantly clear that this was made by the same guy who brought us Kick-Ass. This is a very profane and bloody film with more than a few moments of raunchy humor. However, this makes for some tonal shifts that are rather jarring, especially since so much of the film revolves around our protagonist (inexplicably nicknamed “Eggsy,” played by newcomer Taron Egerton) learning how to be a proper gentleman. Moreover, this film doesn’t quite embrace its R rating the way Kick-Ass did, resulting in a movie that very awkwardly falls somewhere in between PG-13 and R.
The upshot is that we have a film with PG-13 sensibilities and R-rated thrills, successfully combining the best of both worlds. Of course, it also means that we get a film that’s completely stupid, but here’s the thing: There’s a very crucial difference between being stupid and being brainless.
This movie is very self-aware about its own spy fiction heritage, with frequent pop culture references made to pay tribute while also subverting its forebears. Additionally, though the film is loaded with more simplistic humor, the jokes are delivered and even lampshaded with meticulous wit.
Even the action scenes are deceptively smart. I know I’ve already commented about Vaughn’s crude knack for ultraviolence, but there’s little doubt that he delivers it with his own unique flair. Moreover, the fight choreography is made to look fantastic and the variable-speed presentation is remarkably effective. Sure, the camera can get a little too kinetic for anyone’s good, but it still looks amazing. And you know what the kicker is? The villain’s grand scheme involves getting all of humanity to turn on each other. So it’s a mindlessly violent movie in which the hero is trying to stop mindless violence. We see exactly what’s going to happen, it’s one of the most exhilarating scenes in the whole running time, then the film takes a step back and says “Oh, wait — this is a bad thing.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done quite like this before.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s a surprising amount of heart to be found here. Granted, it’s not like the concept of a coming-of-age tale framed as an origin story is anything new (Spider-Man and Superman come immediately to mind). Yet there are so many ways in which the central concept of learning to be a gentleman spy works here. For one thing, the mentor figure is played by Colin Firth. Who better to learn manners from? For another thing, it dovetails beautifully with the greater goal of deconstructing such figures as James Bond, easily one of most prominent archetypal male fantasy role models in pop culture.
Perhaps most importantly, the messages about decorum are delivered in a very uplifting and inclusive way. The film goes out of its way to show people from various walks of life on both sides of the Atlantic, from the poorest to the wealthiest. We can plainly see that there are fuckwits of every kind on every step of the socioeconomic ladder, and Vaughn loves to burn every last one of them in effigy (And yes, I do mean that literally. It’s spectacular, trust me.). Yet the opposite is also true. Just as anyone can be a total asshat, anyone could also be a force for good, bringing a bit of sophistication and respect to the world. Eggsy — raised in a broken home, disrespected and neglected by pretty much everyone — is held up as an example of how anyone can put in the effort to be better than our present circumstances allow. Granted, Eggsy had the advantage to be the son of a genius assassin who put another genius assassin into his debt, but still.
As for the villain, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is primarily motivated by corruption in politics, climate change, and other assorted reasons for why everyone seems to think the world is going to hell. Basically, his stance is that the world is doomed and humanity has put itself beyond saving, which is why 99 percent of all human life has to be destroyed. Yet the Kingsmen stand against him, implicitly stating that there is hope for a better way. Again, anyone could potentially choose to help make the world a better place.
Getting back to my earlier point, this is the distinction of how a film can be stupid without being brainless. It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to appreciate what this film tries to accomplish or what it ultimately does. But constructing all these jokes, fight scenes, pop culture references, and resonant themes in such a way that they work so well? That takes a lot of intelligence. There’s always a very clear sense that those behind the scenes knew exactly what they were doing, which makes it so much easier for the audience to kick back, relax, and trust that the storytellers are taking us someplace special.
Moving on to the cast, I’m sorry to say that we have a few cardboard bully characters, and the vast majority of Eggsy’s fellow trainees are completely disposable. Those minor problems aside, the cast is astonishing pretty much entirely across the board. It certainly helps that Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson all know that they have absolutely nothing to prove, which helps give their characters that crucial air of authority and confidence. Even the lesser roles work wonders: Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Hanna Alstrom, and Corey Johnson all get a few brief minutes of screen time apiece, yet each and every one of them succeeds in leaving an impression.
Best of all, we’ve got some jaw-dropping turns from three new talents who absolutely deserve to be recognized, respected, and treated by Hollywood as the next big up-and-comers. Taron Egerton does a fantastic job holding the camera, and he totally sells every step of the character’s transition from a hoodlum punk to a gentleman spy. Then we have Sofia Boutella as the gimmicky henchman (think Jaws or Oddjob) and she steals the whole damn show. She’s a gorgeous actress with serious action chops and charisma to spare, and I sincerely hope this opens a lot of doors for her.
Then we have Sophie Cookson as the de facto female lead. It absolutely broke my heart to see her so wasted. Her character subverts expectations in that she’s never positioned as a damsel in distress or a redundant love interest, and I more than respect that. On the other hand, Cookson has so much chemistry with Egerton and it sucks that the film couldn’t find a use for it. Perhaps more importantly, Roxy is quite thoroughly established as a worthy equal to Eggsy, such that they can support and learn from each other quite readily. All well and good. But then Roxy needs Eggsy to help deal with her fear of heights and she contributes nothing to the big climax except for pushing a button. Damn shame. Cookson deserved better, and so did her character.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is an undeniably stupid movie, but it never pretends to be anything else and it works perfectly fine on its own terms. The pacing is solid, the action greatly benefits from Vaughn’s signature touch, and the actors are all great fun to watch. This was a really fun movie to sit through, absolutely greater than the sum of all its disparate parts. Just don’t look too closely or you’ll see the stitches.