Review: “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

As a sly and self-aware homage to beloved spy films past and present, and as a slick and stylish action romp with a definite subversive streak, Kingsman: The Secret Service is easily the most fun to be had at the box office so far this year. It’s essentially an R-rated superhero film perfectly tailored in the trappings of a Cold War style spy thriller, executed with near-flawless precision by director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) and a pitch-perfect cast led by Colin Firth and, of all people, Samuel L. Jackson.

Firth plays Harry Hart, who to all outward appearances is one of the always impeccably dressed employees at Kingsman and Co., a renowned and long-established bespoke tailoring shop on London’s Saville Row. What is not generally known about Kingsman and its employees is that it’s a front for an independent intelligence agency whose agents’ abilities, resources, and standard-issue gadgetry might make a certain Commander Bond of MI6 a tad envious. While on a mission in the late ’90s, Harry, or “Galahad”, as he is codenamed, makes a critical error that results in the tragic loss of a Kingsman recruit, a young man who he himself nominated to fill a vacancy in the super-elite organization. In order to make up for his failure, he delivers to the recruit’s widow and their young son a medal and a boon, of sorts: should they ever need help, just call the phone number on the back of the medal and be sure to say, “Oxfords, not Brogues.”

Seventeen years later, the recruit’s son, “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton), now in his twenties and living in less-than-ideal circumstances, finds himself in a spot of trouble with the law after a bit of creative hooliganism targeting his lout of a stepfather. Remembering what his mum told him about the medal, which he wears around his neck and under his clothes, he calls the number, and within minutes he finds himself free to go and face to face with Harry, who after some time spent with Eggsy and some due diligence done comes to see Kingsman potential in the young man.

As it stands, the group is once again in need of recruiting a replacement for a fallen member of their order, and so Eggsy becomes Harry’s nomination, and begins to train for the opportunity in competition with a nominee from each of the other members of the order, including the agency’s head, “Arthur” (Michael Caine). But it’s not just the other recruits, including the smart and savvy Roxy (Sophie Cookson), that Eggsy’s up against. It’s also fact that most of the other recruits and Arthur himself view Eggsy, with his working class background and rough manner of speech, as nothing but a chav, hardly worthy of carrying their luggage, much less joining their ranks.

For his part, Harry does what he can to mentor Eggsy, but he’s got his hands full investigating a case involving an abducted climatologist (Mark Hamill) and his connection to tech billionaire philanthropist Richmond Valentine (Jackson), who as far as the world at large knows has devoted all of his time and energies towards efforts to save the planet from itself. The true intentions behind Valentine’s most recent philanthropic endeavor are, of course, nefarious, and it falls to the Kingsman, along with their new young recruits, to stop his plans for … well, what else would they be for? World domination!

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Very loosely based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Kick-Ass co-creator Mark Millar, Kingsman: The Secret Service in some very important ways is the antithesis of what spy and espionage films have evolved into in the 21st Century, and has more in common with comic books and comic book movies. Unlike today’s film and TV spies, all iron resolve and dead serious pragmatism, the Kingsmen are the epitome of the “gentleman spy”, just as unflappable as they are unstoppable, capable of taking out a room full of bad guys and saving the day with nothing but an umbrella in one hand and a perfectly-crafted martini in the other. (Although, to be fair, their umbrellas are good for a lot more besides just sudden downpours and looking dapper.) They are superheroes, just clad in the finest of tailored (and bulletproof) suits rather than capes and masks.

But even if you’re not a fan of superhero fare (oh, what a miserable time for film this must be for you, if that’s the case!), a great deal of what makes Kingsman so much fun to watch, especially if you’re a fan of spy flicks and Bond films, comes from how the film winks at the audience by referring numerous times to the very genre of film and TV that it belongs to within the course of telling its own story. References to Jason Bourne, 24‘s Jack Bauer, and of course, 007 himself are sprinkled throughout the film, and commentary on the genre, as well as the direction it has taken in recent years, is a big part of multiple exchanges between the main characters. The writing team behind the film’s screenplay, Vaughn and his frequent writing and producing partner Jane Goldman, deserve a ton of credit for incorporating all those sly in-jokes so organically into the progression of the film.

Speaking of Vaughn, his signature style of slo-mo, carefully-choreographed action chaos, the likes of which we first caught a glimpse of in Kick-Ass back in 2010, is on full display here, and arguably taken to new heights of frenetic visual fun. This is hyper-violence like you’ll never, ever see in a Bond or Bourne film simply because those films aim typically aim for PG-13 ratings, with blood and broken teeth and lopped-off limbs flying in all directions. Yet it’s all put together in such a stylized, cartoonish manner that it’s more like a bloody ballet movement than it is actual death and dismemberment, and thus only the most squeamish of viewers should have any trouble enjoying the craziness here.

In terms of flaws, the film does have a few, the most notable of which is that certain characters that audiences are led to believe are important to the film are left undeveloped and underutilized. Most notable of these is Roxy, supposedly Eggsy’s stiffest competition in terms of gaining admission to Kingsman, but also the one among the competitors with whom he forms any sort of bond. Actress Sophie Cookson certainly looks and sounds the part of the beautiful and tough-as-nails recruit who would be a worthy addition to the group, but audiences never really get to learn much about her, and it’s a shame. Her potential as a leading lady in the film, along with the interesting story beats that might have arisen from more time taken with the training and testing of the Kingsman recruits in general, certainly would have resulted in a much longer film, but also would have provided more opportunities to understand just why Roxy is as good as she is, and why she’s a worthy rival/teammate for Eggsy. Perhaps more of that material will be part of an unrated extended cut coming with the home video release. One can hope.

In the meantime, however, there’s plenty to enjoy in the characters that don’t get short-changed in the theatrical cut. Samuel L. Jackson practically steals every scene he’s in as he plays somewhat against type here (see it for yourself, because any description of it at all here would spoil the effect), and his scenes with the measured and mannered Firth are as much a treat in the film as all those insane action set pieces. Taron Egerton also delivers the goods in a demanding lead role, and watch for a fun turn by Mark Strong here as he gets further away from the roles as the “heavy” that first brought him to the attention of Hollywood film audiences. Plus, there’s a great deal of not-so-subtle political and social commentary to be found here that’s sure to get people talking, as all good satire in art does. All put together, Kingsman: The Secret Service is bloody brilliant fun, as the British might say, and it certainly should not be missed.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Jack Davenport, with Mark Hamill and Michael Caine. Directed by Matthew Vaughn.
Running Time: 129 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content.