Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

by Patrick Bromley
One of 2015's worst-titled movies is one of its best surprises so far.

What Matthew Vaughn did for the superhero movie with Kick-Ass he does for the spy genre with Kingsman: The Secret Service. That makes sense, I guess, as he is -- along with his frequent co-writer Jane Goldman -- once again adapting a comic book, The Secret Service, by Mark Millar (with Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame). Like with Kick Ass -- still a polarizing movie, I know, but one of which I'm a big fan -- Kingsman is good at being both about the thing and the actual thing. It comments on spy movie tropes while still functioning as a fast and fresh update on the genre. It's surprisingly fun. Because it's a Matthew Vaughn movie, I should have expected as much.

Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, a member of an elite and independent spy network called Kingsman, whose M.O. is to save the world and never get the credit, because getting the credit would mean the world knows they exist. When one of their own is killed in action, they begin looking to recruit a new member. Harry is put in touch with Eggsy (Taron Egerton in a star making performance), a delinquent   whose father -- also a Kingsman -- was killed years earlier as a result of Harry's mistake. Seeing his opportunity to make good on his promise to take care of his friend's family and sensing a chance to prove his boss (Michael Caine) wrong about the need for an upper-class upbringing to make it as a spy, Harry chooses Eggsy as his recruit. While the cadets compete for a spot as a Kingsman, an internet billionaire named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) begins meeting with world leaders and celebrities to plan something nefarious as a way to combat climate change. Will Eggsy become a Kingsman? And will the organization be able to stop Valentine before it's too late?
When I say that Kingsman is a lot like Kick Ass, I mean it in a pretty literal sense. Pointing out all of the ways the movies are alike would mean indulging in some big spoilers, so I won't. Suffice it to say that it's about a young man who is introduced to a secret underground world of heroes and villains and has to train and adapt to be among them. There's a Big Daddy/mentor character and many of the structural beats are the same. Remember that amazing action sequence in Kick Ass in which Hit Girl took out an entire hallway of thugs and criminals in spectacular, violent fashion? That's here, too, only in Kingsman it's Colin Firth in a church.

About that scene: it's the showstopper, the one that will ultimately cement the movie's status as a cult classic (just wait) and the one about which even those that don't like Kingsman will be talking. It may be because of Vaughn's incredible staging, which is confident and clear in its long-take, Skynyrd-scored anarchic bloodshed. It may be because of Colin Firth's transformation as an action star; once a fumbling, stammering would-be boyfriend in a series of romantic comedies, Kingsman finds Colin Firth reborn as a fucking kickass kicker of asses. Or it may be because of the very dark implications of just what is happening in the scene. As much as it's an incredibly filmed, visceral and exciting set piece, what's really going on is not like anything we're used to seeing our action heroes do. There's a bit of half-hearted justification in filling the church with hateful, racist homophobes -- real pieces of shit -- but it's a world of difference between normal people with horrible beliefs and the violent criminals we typically find on the business end of a beatdown.
There's an undercurrent of that duality running through Kingsman (which I refuse to call Kingsman: The Secret Service, because it's the kind of garbage title that suggests a battle over what the movie should be titled that ended in a bad compromise in which both options were used) as it does't just slyly take the piss out of spy movie cliches, but also suggests a dark side to something like the Bond series. When it's not taking Bond's tropes to their logical extremes, it's blowing them up outright (this is the first spy movie I can think of that ends with the promise of anal sex). The heroes are not always heroic, the villains not always purely evil -- they even share words at one point about wishing they could switch places. But despite the occasional blurring of the lines in which Vaughn indulges, this isn't the usual nihilistic Mark Millar shit (though some of that brattiness does pop up on occasion). Kingsman is a movie that believes in heroes and believes in being something better. Being a Kingsman isn't about privilege or being born with a silver spoon, but rather trying to be ones best self. The film goes out of its way to point out that Eggsy is just as good a spy (better even) despite his lack of opportunity, even though that's negated some by the fact that he's only able to become a spy because of a very specific opportunity.

Samuel L. Jackson makes some big choices here, a few of which work better than others. He's given Valentine a lisp, which on its face seems self-consciously cute and like it exists just so that when he accuses the English of "talking funny" we can all giggle at IRONY. But it has the added effect of making him seem less threatening, which is ultimately what Jackson is going for -- he's the cheeriest super villain since Xander Drax. He's a likable eccentric who pairs vintage wine with McDonald's cheeseburgers (one of several little digs at American culture Vaughn slips by) and dresses like Spike Lee at a Knicks game. He gets sick at the sight of blood. Even his master plan came about because he's trying to solve the issue of climate change; unlike the common Bond villain, he's not looking to rule or destroy the planet, but rather to save it. Jackson has grown far too complacent in the last decade and a half, usually turning in the exact same performance (Django Unchained aside), so it's nice to see him trying something a little different and having fun on screen. We're a long way from The Octopus.
Vaughn and Goldman's script packs in a whole lot of story; the movie feels long, but not restlessly so -- I felt like I was getting a lot for my money. It's hampered at times by bad CGI, breaking the spell and feeling cheap and rushed. One sequence in particular -- another showstopper near the end -- is rendered via cartoonish computer effects, and while it's a distraction during a moment that ought to be transcendent, it's easy to see why Vaughn made the choice he made. Staging it via more practical means would have been gooey to the point of being unwatchable, repulsing and disturbing us instead of getting a big laugh. That's the kind of movie this is: bumpy and a little uneven, but energetic and fun to the point of pushing past its own shortcomings.

I really like these genre movies that Vaughn and Goldman write -- movies like Stardust and Kick-Ass and now Kingsman that work as straightforward exercises in entertainment but which can be unpacked to reveal both deconstructions of their respective genres (fairy tales, comic book movies, spy thrillers) and even have something to say about class differences and a political system that, like in Snowpiercer, needs to be torn down before it can ever be fixed. The movie is smart and it's subversive and while it hardly explodes the British spy mythos, it does offer us the possibility that somewhere James Bond has a snotty little brother who might make a good spy too.

17 comments:

  1. I had so much damn fun watching this movie. I felt like it was made just for me right from the beggining. Matthew Vaughn took everything i love about movies, especially james bond movies, and amped it up.

    I felt like the final set piece was a little bloated and needed some editing and Matthew Vaughn's style kinda gets in his way a sometimes when he's trying to do a little too much to make the action scenes look cool with camera tricks and slow motion and it wore on me a little towards the end. I loved all of the performances and I thought Samuel L Jackson's villain could have gone wrong in so many ways but they pulled it off and I thought it was really funny.

    Something major happens before the final set piece that I felt knocked the wind out of the movie a little (trying to avoid spoilers) I liked how it was handled but after that happened I felt like there was a key element missing from the rest of the movie. I wasn't a big fan of the anal sex joke that Patrick mentioned, I thought it felt forced and out of place when it happens in the movie. I know Matthew Vaughn was trying to spin James Bond tropes on their head and most of the time I loved when he did that and it worked but in that case I felt like it was a miscalculation.

    But these are all nitpicks. Its not a perfect movie (even though i think with a few tweeks it could have been perfect to me) but i really loved it and if you're a James Bond fan you should 100 percent see it. It has alot of energy and it sustains it for the whole running time. I was happy to see it make a good amount of money at the box office this weekend next to the 50 shades juggernaut so now we should get a sequel which I'm more than down for. Thanks for the review Patrick.

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    1. I didn't really like the anal sex joke either. That's some of the "bratty shit" to which I refer. Glad you dug the movie!

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  2. I second being pleasantly surprised by the movie. It's not perfect, but what movie is? For what it was going for, if succeeds quite well and proves to be a ton of fun (I know that word will probably be overused in describing this movie, but it's an accurate descriptor). Many of the characters were great, and I loved the skydiving scene scene and the church fight, both great examples of how awesomely energetic and wonderfully wacky this movie is.

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  3. I liked the trading places nods. The little quote near the end gave me as much joy as the gooey finale and the Chiricahua scene

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  4. Excellent review...looking forward to it.

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  5. One more review from someone I respect to encourage me to go see it. Thanks!

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  6. Great review, Patrick! And you bring up so much of what I found fun and interesting about the movie.

    I'm really glad you mentioned the church sequence; for me, it worked on so many levels, and showed me what a really good film maker can do to pack a lot of value into what some might write off as merely "an action scene." As you say, it's a great way to show off CF's asskickery, and it's also a chance for the filmmaker to skewer the worst aspects of American culture. But those "dark implications" you mention were what really got me. As the scene barrels on, I found myself becoming uncomfortable with Galahad's actions--and it's not until a little later that we find out this is Vaughn's way of revealing not only the protagonist's inner state, but a new truth about the villain's evil plot that even the villain didn't really know--we don't just hear about it through exposition, we FEEL it in our response to the scene as it plays out, which allows us a much more personal and layered understanding of both characters. That action scene, and our response, also inform some important truths about the Kingsmen that Eggsy learns later.

    I agree it's not a perfect film (because no dinosaurs), but when a director can make an action sequence do so much "extra" work for plot, theme, and character, I feel I'm getting my money's worth. (Though I'm using quotes around "extra" because why can't all filmmakers see EVERY SCENE as an opportunity to do these things?! But they don't, right?) Also, that stammery English politeness thing never did much for me, but now that I've seen him as a fucking kickass kicker of asses, I'm going to let Colin Firth be my boyfriend.

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  7. It's a fun movie and a bit of a guilty pleasure in which several sequences were simultaneously entertaining and dismaying. I could have done without the lisp and a few other things. The anal sex reference generated quite a few giggles from mature members of the audience at the screening I attended, FWIW. I very much liked the underlying commentary regarding consumerism and excess, although the movie/villan tries to have it both ways in some respects. It would be interesting to see this theme addressed in a less extreme manner, where the good guys are the problem and the antagonist's actions are justifiable.

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  8. I actually had high hopes for the movie and it didn't disappoint. I like the anal sex joke. That's the type of low brow humor I enjoy some time. I would love to see a serious comeback of the rated r action movie.

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  9. I loved almost everything about "Kingsman" except for two glaring flaws: Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew Vaugh's recurring directing tropes. It doesn't help that I had just watched "The Long Kiss Goodnight" on DVD and seen Jackson become and inhabit a character (Mitch Henessey, who almost steals the movie), but in "Kingsman" I couldn't tell the difference between Valentine and the credit card pitchman Jackson plays on TV. The lisp was annoying and a bad character choice for Valentine, IMO. Between this and the "Old Boy/Robocop" remakes I'd say it's time to declare the cool mofo Sam Jackson from "Pulp Fiction" gone for good. As for Vaughn's direction, I'm beginning to get the same sense of fatigue I get when watching Edgar Wright repeat the same quick/flash edit techniques over and over again. Vaughn is too good a director (as is Wright) to keep depending on the CGI-enhanced slow-motion and frame-cut action he's been using (abusing?) in his past three movies. For all the special effects effort put into making Sofia Boutella's hechman a cool character, she doesn't come close to the assassins squad in "The Raid 2" done on 1/1,000th the budget of "Kingsman."

    That said, holy crap, "Kingsman" is awesome. Could Colin Firth be about to be reborn as a Liam Neeson-type mature action star? I wouldn't mind that after seeing how cool and suave his "Railway Man" and "King's Speech" meek personas can carry ass kicking undertones. The church scene works on so many levels besides being a kinetic action piece, but ultimately it connects with us because we like Harry so much. The more a fan of the movie you are both the best and worst you feel about liking it so much. "Kingsman's" finale has the best use of "Pomp and Circumstance" I've ever seen on film. I only wish the post-credit sequence had been moved to the very end of the credits instead of midway between the principals and the below-the-line crew, because it didn't really do anything for me except to remind me that a lot of the aftermath about what happens during "Kingsman's" action climax is left unexplored/unexplained. A cheeky and bloody (very bloody) good time, indeed.

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  10. Thanks for this review, Patrick - with a newborn hanging around my house now I've become super book-cover judgy about what I do with my rare moments of free time and mostly because of the horrible title I had already dismissed Kingsman: The Secret Zzzzz as BORE-ing. I'll be sneaking out to a movie soon and now that I know Jupiter Ascending is a bust, and with your review and some of the comments backing you up, I'm going to try to see this!

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  11. Just got back from seeing it, and I liked it a lot. I think one of the real victories of the movie is throwing people's fanatical politics (on both sides of the aisle) back in their faces. I think it speaks to this generation's view of class, but also challenges people who want to take it too far in either direction. Judging by the review, it seems like you definitely got it, and the mixture of laughter and discomfort (and some really out of place applause) in the audience I saw it with suggested they did too. I had my problems with it as a whole, but I think it will be looked back on as a really perceptive movie of its time.

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  12. Just got back from seeing it, and I liked it a lot. I think one of the real victories of the movie is throwing people's fanatical politics (on both sides of the aisle) back in their faces. I think it speaks to this generation's view of class, but also challenges people who want to take it too far in either direction. Judging by the review, it seems like you definitely got it, and the mixture of laughter and discomfort (and some really out of place applause) in the audience I saw it with suggested they did too. I had my problems with it as a whole, but I think it will be looked back on as a really perceptive movie of its time.

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  13. I just saw it. I really loved it, and I'd put it in the same camp as Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie in it's tone. These sort of irreverent, secretly smart genre movies are becoming more common lately and that makes me happy.

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    1. And godDAMN I really love Matthew Vaughn. He has yet to direct a bad film.

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  14. I'm not a lover of violence but a realist and if this movie was rated PG-13 it would not have been the same.

    Only thing I didn't like about the movie is that there was no combat training shown.

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  15. Where can i download this movie? ??

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