criticism film

Kingsman: The Secret Service Review: Profundity in an Action Picture

Friday, February 20, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson
Rating: Four and a half stars out of five

Utopian thinking is rarely as great for everyone as those spouting its rhetoric would have you believe. Perhaps it'll be great in the end, humanity will rise to previously untouched heights, and capital-P Progress will fix all the world's ills. But of course, there are sacrifices to be made to reach that level. And those sacrifices are usually a radical, blowing up the current system, a total departure from the good and bad of modernity. And people usually die as a result.

This is Matthew Vaughn's (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) thesis in his latest, Kingsman: The Secret Service, a James Bond, gentleman spy ode/spoof. But the movie is so much more than slick action set pieces and suave men conducting themselves in matters of derring do. It's a biting social satire about changing cultural norms and it's a refutation of cynicism, replacing that notion with an unwavering dedication to humanism, all wrapped in an action film so giddily violent and irreverent that it could very well prove to be the most entertaining movie of the year – no small task considering it's a February release.

Relative newcomer Taron Egerton, like an English Josh Hutcherson on charisma steroids, plays Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a London street urchin used to stealing cars, running from the cops, and wearing stupid hats. However, he doesn't know that his late father was a member of Kingsman, a secret, private spy/tailor operation in place since the end of World War I. He died on a mission when Eggsy was a child. His training officer, Harry (Colin Firth), feels terrible about it and tries to make up for it decades later by getting Eggsy out of a legal bind. Harry notices some off-the-charts smarts and supreme athletic ability in the younger man, however, and can't help but think Eggsy could join the ranks with some buffing out of his rough edges.

Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson's heavily lisped tech billionaire Valentine worries about climate change. He looks like a buffoon with his diamond cutter's glasses and dork's idea about what looks fashionable, and his inability to connect with others leads to some dire thoughts about the solutions to saving humanity from its carbon-emitting self. He begins kidnapping “important” people – heads of state, popular entertainers, scientists – in order to save them from his grand plan: the eradication of everyone else. The means for his plan add another satiric layer to the film, this time aimed at consumerism. But let's not worry about that for this discussion, because Vaughn is up to something deeper and more profound than one might expect for a little spy movie.

The constant speechifying Valentine does has a teenager's nihilistic view of humanity to it. Nobody but the chosen few are capable of fixing things, everyone is a fool but him and his puppets, and it's better to let the great unwashed destroy themselves so he can reap the benefits of having no competition. It's a warped view of altruism, a “burn it all down” mentality that, while utilitarian and coldly logical in some sense, causes more harm than good to reach that limited goal. Essentially, he longs for the ending of Fight Club, except with global warming action in place of the elimination of society's credit history.

And it's up to the posh, stiff members of Kingsman to stop him. They are men of distinction and rank, also holding themselves in higher esteem than the commoners like Eggsy. Those in the organization beside Harry resist Eggsy's inclusion every step of the way, belittling him and tricking him, but he's smarter and more capable than they can handle. He also has more heart, as what begins as one of the tensest scenes in recent film plays out in adorable fashion – you'll know what I mean when you see it. He is wiser than anyone in the film because he incorporates his heart with his brain, often choosing the conciliatory route despite his man-of-action attributes and profession. His is a “let's work together” attitude to build a solution rather than force one through global upheaval and genocide.

But none of these deeper themes would matter if the movie atop them was subpar. As a piece of entertainment, Kingsman is remarkably functional. It has simple, clear motivations for every key player. Humor is everywhere, with fish-out-of-water jokes, sight gags, wordplay, and more tossed into the blender to keep things bouncy. It has an unfussy, pedal to the medal quality to its cause-effect plotting.

The early action tips ever so slightly into being too glossy and manufactured, but before long it becomes outlandish, Looney Tunes-inspired anarchy in a wonderful way. Theme and function dovetail in spectacular fashion in a scene at a Westboro Baptist Church-esque revival meeting. Vaughn's evenhanded irreverence goes into overdrive here, taking on more than just utopians and aiming at the institutions those revolutionaries hate so much, too. The minister ignorantly blasts off at the mouth about gay marriage, the scourge of minorities, and more while an undercover Harry sits in the audience, a mixture of perplexed and disgust on his face. It's a way for Vaughn to say that pushback against these powerful institutions is plenty acceptable, but you need to find constructive ways to do so. This is when Valentine springs his trap, and a melee breaks out. It's one of the finest pieces of action choreography in years, up there with anything in The Raid. It's a hilarious, horrifying, lunatic's idea of a good time at the pictures.

And that's only the end of the second act. There's plenty more uproarious violence to come following that sequence, and while it's not quite on the same level of technical mastery, it pushes the right goofy buttons through to the final credits. The climax is a loving sendup of the Roger Moore-era Bond films and a comment on the darker path those films have taken in the last decade.

These meta and thematic convergences and good humor make Kingsman: The Secret Service something truly special. It's an action film with a beating heart, if not a bleeding one, and it has more on its brain than anyone would reasonably expect, too.

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