Here there be spoilers
Five movies into his directorial career, Matthew Vaughn is still a pleasingly unhinged talent. Vaughn has long since proven a superior filmmaker to Guy Ritchie, whose Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) he produced, as a strong visual stylist who renders his framings rich in comic book colours that suggest the static eye-delights of the printed page come to rowdy life. Vaughn enjoys playing pop provocateur, thrusting violence and sex under his audience’s noses with a jokey, punkish, revisionist tone and a bratty verve that feels calculated to rile as many as it entertains. But Vaughn also retains a certain old-fashioned fondness for dramatic values, taking his characters and the little worlds they inhabit seriously, even if they seem to be just satiric or generic conceits set up to be knocked down. He plainly enjoys the genre fare he also disassembles, which means that he occasionally falls prey to cliché amidst ebullient travesty. His works aimed at large audiences – Stardust (2007), X-Men: First Class (2011) – have felt a tad tamed and lumpen, although he brought style and humour to both projects, whilst his more individualistic oeuvre – Layer Cake (2004), Kick Ass (2010), and now Kingsman: The Secret Service – are brittle displays of his diverse temperament. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a follow-up to Kick Ass, likewise adapted from a graphic novel by progenitor Mark Millar, a bold, maliciously funny if facetious genre lampooner whose work stands at slight distance from Vaughn’s interpretations of them: Vaughn has a populist, romantic streak where Millar is a blunter tool, apparent in the diversions between Kick Ass’s source material and the film. Nonetheless the duo clearly share vital similarities, and Kingsman brings Vaughn a step closer to the mystique of James Bond, already strongly referenced in Layer Cake and First Class. A key conversation between hero and villain in the course of Kingsman lays the basic thesis almost overly bare: the po-faced seriousness of recent Bond, Bourne, Batman-a-la-Nolan and other action heroes is placed aside in favour of the sort of absurdist tang associated with an older brand of pop-art pastiche, and transgressive thrills that considerably up the ante.
The first third of Kingsman is however played rather straight, almost frustratingly so: after a promisingly raucous opening during a commando raid on some Middle Eastern fortress set to the day-glo pomposity of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, Vaughn settles down to depict the travails of his young gobshite hero Greg “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton). The Kingsman organisation is a quasi-independent league of intensely talented and physically dynamic clandestine operatives that uses a Savile Row tailor’s store as its base of operations, with a membership traditionally chosen from the British elite. Eggsy’s father died protecting his squad of fellow Kingsmen by quite literally jumping on a grenade during the opening raid, and so senior Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth), codenamed ‘Galahad’ in the organisation, leaves the infant Eggsy with a trinket bearing a phone number to call one day if he should ever need a favour. A decade and a half later, Eggsy’s widowed mother Michelle (Samantha Unwin) has slid down to the bottom of the social ladder and married abusive gangster Dean (Geoff Bell). Eggsy himself has grown up into a professional underachiever, dressing and acting like a chav, his talents, including gymnastics and soldiering, all allowed to fall fallow out of a sense of futility and duty to his wounded mother. Fed up with being bullied by his stepfather’s crew of thugs, he steals the car of one, and crashes into a police vehicle. Against the wall, Eggsy finally calls in that favour. Hart swiftly extricates him from his legal troubles, beats up Dean’s goons to blow off steam, and selects him as a candidate to fill the vacancy left by the recent death of the organisation’s ‘Lancelot’ on a mission.
Eggsy joins a team of candidates, all blue-blooded swots, and is put through the paces of a cruel and rigorous training run by ‘Merlin’ (Mark Strong). The training sequences, although touched with an edge of absurdly extreme black humour, recalls to mind all too quickly the similar pacings of many recent movies, from the Harry Potter series to Divergent (2014), without quite tapping the vein of fascist mockery Paul Verhoeven did so casually in Starship Troopers (1997), whose satiric foresight is only locking all the more impressive today as such narratives have become so popular. Eggsy’s romantic interest is another candidate for the Lancelot slot, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), a seemingly sweet-tempered posh bruiser who could be fresh from St Trinian’s, who proves Eggsy’s equal in every way and indeed, by Kingsman standards, superior. Sadly, though, she is essentially written out of the last act, albeit by being packed off to accomplish a very dangerous mission. In fact, Hart is the equivalent of Kick Ass’s Hit Girl, the character who indulges brute violence and rampant profanity in contradiction of surface appearance. Firth has a ball in the role, which plays as calculated disgrace of his image as the epitome of the suave, anodyne English gentleman, an image I don’t think he ever particularly wanted but has been stuck with: indeed the foundation of Firth’s career was the physically challenging role of a damaged warrior in the 1988 telemovie Tumbledown. Kingsman has a lightly mocking approach to the class-conflict dichotomy of the traditional image of British Tory style essayed by Hart and the down-market playa chic Eggsy plies, with Eggsy battling the jolly sociopathic toffs also competing for the Lancelot post and sticking up for his identity, but responding against his will to the appeal of the bespoke suit. This juxtaposition has a certain amount of incisive smartness, because the force of real British Imperial power was indeed wielded like a set of brass knuckles kept in the pocket of one of those Savile Row ensembles. But in the end Kingsman infers that everything is now a pop trope, including class, nationality, and many another construct people so urgently wish to define themselves by. One of the film’s best touches depicts Hart’s office, which is filled with framed front pages of The Sun, a coterie of gutter journalism and celebrity cult service. Hart explains to Eggsy with a certain perverse pride that each of these irrelevant idiocies was the headline on a day when he pulled off some great feat of patriotic duty. The point is plain enough: real news is scarcely ever on the front page.
Vaughn and regular screenwriting collaborator Jane Goldman play out the same joke in a number of variations, including a moment, perhaps a bit obvious but delivered well, when Hart dines with the supervillain, who serves up McDonald’s. “I’ll have the Big Mac,” Hart replies, oh-so-coolly. Vaughn and Goldman may actually have stumbled on something more fascinating than they realise here, in noticing that the modern world is such a gaudy mix of power forms, from populist capitalism to remnant aristocratic flare, that stoic savoir faire, far from being outmoded, is more necessary than ever. Often throughout the first half of Kingsman, I sensed Vaughn and Goldman holding back from pushing their scallywag impulses to fitting extremes, like when they send the last three candidates of the Lancelot training field, including Roxy, to seduce socialite Lady Sophie (Lily Travers), a set up for a dirty joke that goes nowhere. The script plies an even-tempered approach to transgression, suggesting a slightly toned-down take on Team America: World Police (2004) in offering up a work that takes a bite out of several sides of the political spectrum, including American religious conservatism, celebrity do-gooderism, privileged sadism, and plebeian try-hardism. It’s a little frightening and galling to note that the final test of Kingsman material is taken straight from the SS handbook: Eggsy pointedly refuses to engage in it and so technically fails his training, and soon he learns that the leadership of the group is as corrupt as every other, and yet the film never quite subverts the Kingsman worldview. Indeed, the Kingsman group is the sort of organisation that could have been villains in Ian Fleming’s universe: they’re a covert, independent, privately financed team of self-appointed interventionists.
The official bad guy on hand is Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), an internet billionaire with a lisp, a penchant for tacky street fashion that rivals Eggsy’s, and a horror of blood, which doesn’t stop his intent to commit radical genocide to cull down the human herd in order to halt global warming and other world-degrading human activities. Jackson has a mischievous time in skewing his gift for ebullient theatricality to play a villain who lacks the threatening force of his usual roles, but makes up for it in weird gusto. For extra ridicule value, Valentine turns out to have involved just about every rich and famous person in the world in his plan, or kidnapped and imprisoned those who haven’t: one of his meetings, with a Scandinavian Princess, Tilde (Hanna Alström), and her Prime Minister (Bjørn Floberg), goes both ways, with the PM gleefully signing up and the Princess protesting, only to be locked away in Valentine’s hidden fortress. At least this does set up a dirty joke that pays off, in a fade-out gag that both honours and defiles the traditional sex joke at the end of the Roger Moore Bond films. Mark Hamill has a good time playing a shambling professor who is at first the object of Valentine’s plotting and then his confidant, breaking out an English accent that sounds a little like his old Joker voice from Batman: The Animated Series, and a reminder of what a good character actor Hamill grew into. The genre references of Kingsman obviously move beyond Bond to fare as diverse as The Avengers, The Prisoner and Thunderbirds, whilst Harry Palmer himself, Michael Caine, turns up as ‘Arthur’, the head of the Kingsmen, who holds court with his knights via electronic projection and leads toasts to the fallen. Valentine’s henchwoman ‘Gazelle’ (Sofia Boutella), who dances about with delicate, lethal grace on razor-sharp prosthetic legs, is another inspired touch who gives the film a lot of what juice it has in the conventional first half, as handycapable lady bifurcates men with casual kicks: the inevitable climactic clash between her and Eggsy sees him wielding the good old toe-blade wielded by the villains of From Russia With Love.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is almost shamefully entertaining, and more successful in blending Vaughn’s schizoid impulses than Kick Ass, but this also means it doesn’t quite have the same punch either. The qualities that made the earlier film feel like some sort of perverse minor classic in laying bare the lawless side of adolescent fantasy and taking its wayward metaphors to the nth degree, are here smoothed over. Vaughn’s camerawork in the early sections of the film, observing actions from a distance in mobile, unbroken shots, essays an organic sense of space and action with deft twists and flicks of attention-directing and orchestrated movement. An escape Eggsy makes from the clutches of Dean’s bullyboys, sees him step light as Astaire along concrete parapets and railings, is filmed with casual grace by DOP George Richmond’s gliding camera. Another shot starts with the detective who’s been interrogating Eggsy receiving Hart’s call to free the boy as he's smoking a cigarette outside the station; the detective walks up stairs and inside the station, and then Eggsy immediately walks out, to meet Hart in the spot where the detective was moments earlier: time has been negated and the wrong authority figure replaced with the right one. Such shots suggest an aesthetic ambition on Vaughn's part that he only partly realises. Gazelle’s ballerina-butcher grace embodies the visual schema Vaughn is reaching for, one that immediately recalls the similar extended staging contortions in Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014): like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Vaughn wants his audience to be specially aware of his actors as units in the cinematic frame which becomes then a performative space, a roving stage, but for much less pretentious reasons. Much as Vaughn declares independence from the self-seriousness of most current takes on superheroic fantasy, the filmmaking similarly rejects the assumption by much contemporary action cinema that sacrifices coherence for immediacy via hacking edits and camera jolting: Vaughn instead sets out to prove that the spectacle of bodies in motion is the essence of a great action film just the same as in a classic musical. The finale sees Eggsy and Gazelle engage in what is basically an aerial ballet.
But it must also be said that Vaughn doesn’t make as much of this aesthetic as he might have, splitting the difference between inventive, outrageous moments and regulation chase-and-shoot fight sequences. When Kingsman finally cuts loose, it does at last pay off in a gobsmacking sequence of showy, amoral verve: Hart, having travelled to a Westboro Baptist Church stand-in in the American hinterlands following a lead, finds himself included in Valentine’s test of his master weapon that drives people to insane violence, a test he’s applying to the coterie of hatemongers through some ironic inspiration. Hart, affected like everyone else but far more talented as a trained human killing machine, battles through the midst of rioting church folk, slaughtering everyone in sight until he’s the last man standing. The image of the crisp, cool man of moral imperative turned insane beast is affecting enough, and Vaughn rams it home by pursuing his rampage in what purports to be a single, unbroken shot, wrapping the audience in the awesome spectacle of action heroics plied for all the wrong reasons. Firth beautifully handles the moment of Hart’s restored sense and realisation of what he’s just been made to do. There’s another interesting idea buried here, a contemplation of the will to chaos lurking just below the surface of the average person requiring constant channelling and cathartic release in the midst of modern life’s version of propriety: indeed, this essential idea is both the object and motivation behind both of Vaughn’s Millar adaptations. Vaughn evokes George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) as a mother tries to break into a bathroom to murder her child under the influence of Valentine’s plot. For a punch-line Vaughn delivers a therapeutic depiction of all the world’s unfairness being levelled out with one fell stroke, and tries to outdo Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) in making disgraceful use of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1”. Vaughn hits the mark with such explosive sarcasm you may never hear it the same way again. The film’s only real flat spot is Egerton, who never convincingly finds the charismatic swashbuckler under Eggsy’s duly frowning pleb visage.