Kingsman: The Secret Service
courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk / Twentieth Centry Fox
Galahad (Colin Firth) and an unlikely Arthur in inventive spy-thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service
I can’t be alone in pegging Colin Firth as an awkward, bumbling romantic also-ran because of his roles in things like Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare in Love and Bridget Jones’s Diary.
So I also won’t be alone in marveling at his confident, entirely convincing alpha-turn, in Kingsman: The Secret Service, as Harry Hart (aka Galahad), a super-spy posing as a Savile Row-like tailor. Firth is unflappably cool, crisp as a pleat, and commits brutal acts in impeccable style. This exuberant pastiche of James Bond movies shows how credible he would be as the genuine article.
Kingsman shakes (not stirs) its Bond with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
, another film adapted by Matthew Vaughn from a comic book series by Mark Millar
, with which it shares its garish spasms of comic-book violence. People get cut in half lengthwise by assassins with giant apple-peelers for feet, among other means of acrobatic evisceration, as the action poses and spurts through stylish editing techniques. Though quite extreme, the violence is more madcap than gruesome, and gains impact from being spaced out and concentrated.
Tendency for blood-soaked conflict aside, the Kingsmen are a genteel secret service order who fashion themselves as Knights of the Round—“The suit is the modern gentleman’s armor,” Galahad advises—in service of the British realm. (Naturally, their membership includes Michael Caine.) They blend the zany devices of mid-20th-century spy flicks with cutting-edge ones, attending conferences via augmented reality heads-up displays. The film tells the story of how a working-class teenager called Eggsy (Taron Egerton)—intelligent and gifted, but with hoodlum affectations—becomes the order’s unlikely Arthur.
Eggsy gets arrested for stealing a car from some guys who were hassling him in a pub, and calls a phone number written on a medallion around his neck. We know of its origins from the opening flashback, where Galahad gave it to Eggsy’s mother after his father sacrifices his life to save Galahad’s own. Eggsy has hardly uttered the code words “Oxfords not Brogues” when Galahad arrives to spring him, and sees the potential to repay his debt even more.
Eggsy, with an abusive stepfather at home, naturally gravitates to the spy who says “manners … maketh … man” as he slams down each of three door latches in the pub, before roundly abusing Eggsy’s bullies with a bulletproof umbrella. Thus does Eggsy accept the chance to compete with other young recruits to replace Lancelot, the Kingsman who was killed by the aforementioned apple-peeler lady. This vetting process forms a good portion of the movie, and it's great fun. As the recruits sleep, their barracks fill with water to test their survival skills, a nice nod to vintage spy-movie deathtraps. They are forced to sky-dive as a group, minus one parachute. They’re tied to railroad tracks to test their loyalty.
The competition is also for social standing. The focus on issues of class, even more entrenched in Britain than in the U.S., gives what would otherwise just be thrilling wish-fulfillment a more substantial edge. The other recruits are plummy prep-school kids, and they all tease Eggsy, except for Roxy (Sophie Cookson). We see how his class station fueled his prior misbehavior. He was afraid to strive for what he unfairly—by accident of birth, not lack of talent—couldn’t have: the possibility of escaping his origins. But he finds it at the academy, especially after Galahad teaches him how to be a gentleman, with manners, suits and signet rings.
The complicating factor is Valentine, a tech tycoon played by Samuel L. Jackson with the most ludicrous sissy lisp. Whether this is offensive is up to each viewer, but it struck me as an irreverent, oddball rebuke to the tiresome tough-talk Jackson is often given in movies, more than an attempt to play worn-out gay stereotypes for laughs. (The film makes it clear, through Valentine's winsome razor-footed assistant, that his accent does not reflect his sexual preferences.) I sometimes questioned whether it was necessary, but it did give Valentine more unique personality than many African-American movie villains, and Jackson leans into the unusual role.
What Valentine is up to comes out slowly. We see him having conversations with world leaders and celebrities—two species that happen to be vanishing at a remarkable rate (early on, we catch a TV news flash about the disappearance of Iggy Azalea). We know Valentine had something to do with the professor who Lancelot died rescuing, whose head exploded upon interrogation. And we learn that Valentine plans to give away a SIM card for free internet and phone service. To everyone. Can you guess that his intentions are neither altruistic nor what they seem? He only fully shows his hand in the last act, after Eggsy is properly leveled up, and the movie embarks on an delightful orgy of absurdity and violence that climaxes with an unexpected kind of fireworks (you’ll see).
For fans of the comic, Kingsman does a great job of nailing the source material's tone while expanding its narrower, more intricate plot into something sleek and punchy for the big screen. Key scenes are retained, though many more are missing. The comic’s story beats are more inspiration than fodder. But the arc of a father-figure initiating a troubled yet promising kid into an exciting, dangerous secret world is fully intact.
There are ample plot holes, but this is a hard movie to be very clinical about. It's too winningly knowing and witty, faithful to its own hermetic world. It's so tautly plotted and entertaining that you just want to go along on the ride. It has no slack—no getting-to-know-you or sweeping-up-loose-ends filler. It treats plausibility with appropriate lightness, surfing rhythms that are unusually spry and jazzy for an action flick. It’s like what we saw in Guardians of the Galaxy, but polished to a sharp gleam instead of broad and shaggy. In fact, that imaginative swapping of tones is exactly what makes both films stand out from the comics-movie mass.
There’s a great meta-moment when Galahad and Valentine first meet to size each other up, both knowing the other is hiding something. They discuss spy movies. Galahad quips that he likes old-fashioned, far-fetched, theatrical plots. With feigned innocence, Valentine says that he always wanted to be the “gentleman spy” as a kid. Galahad shoots back that he wanted to be the “colorful megalomaniac.” This bantering relationship with its subject matter is what makes Kingsman such a fertile homage, striking just the right playful notes of self-awareness. It handles ridiculous subject matter with its own perverse brand of aesthetic class, but undermines stereotypes about social class in the process.