Adapted from the Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons series The Secret Service, the longer titled Kingsman: The Secret Service sees Matthew Vaughn taking on another Millar property, having previously adapted Kick-Ass to some acclaim (before the Jeff Wadlow-directed sequel squashed any and all of that franchise's goodwill). Whereas the latter film was a subversive take on super-heroes, with Kingsman, Vaughn sets his sights squarely on the spy genre, or more specifically, the Roger Moore-era James Bond films and all of the gadgets, paper-thin female characters, and British patriotism that are hallmarks of that iteration of 007.
For about 2/3rds of its running time, I enjoyed myself. And then the film takes a turn that left me outright hating it. It was a strange experience and left me wondering how I could put it into words.
But let's get the key details out of the way:
Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a troubled chap, living with his mother and her thug boyfriend, and finding himself in constant dire straits both with other street toughs and the law. After a particularly damaging incident with the authorities, it seems like Eggsy has reached the end of the line - until he's saved from imprisonment by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a gentleman spy. Harry once mentored Eggsy's now-departed father within an organization of spies, and as with all guilt-debts of this type, Eggsy is intended to replace his father. It's typical hero's journey stuff, but Vaughn handles much of this with panache. The film reveals a rich organization, where its members are all named after Knights of the Round-table including Hart's Galahad, Merlin (Mark Strong, the Q of the group), and their leader Arthur (Michael Caine, another casting coup if you love The Italian Job as much as I do).
Eggsy is forced to compete with a number of other young proteges for the role of "Lancelot." It's here where the film shines. We get a number of exciting training sequences and tests for the prospects, and it's all wrapped together with a fairly knowing wink. This is the point where Kingsman knows exactly what kind of film it is, relishing the old cliches that are inherent within its genre while still declaring itself not that kind of movie. Even the villains are right in line with that formula. Samuel L. Jackson's Evan Valentine, a tech mogul that gags at the site of blood (and who has a masterplan that's about as ridiculous as something out of Moonraker) is workable enough, though the riff on Spike Lee is less funny than Vaughn and co. thinks it is. His having a hench-woman that's straight out of the Jaws/Oddjob playbook is a good, if obvious, touch.
I also cannot express enough what Firth bring to the proceedings. For my money, he's one of the best actors in Hollywood and the level of gravitas and authoritative manner that he excels at is right at home in Kingsman. In this kind of film, you need an actor that can exude that debonair quality, especially given how forgettable Egerton is in the lead.
Yet for all the things Kingsman does enjoyably well from its outset, I found myself leaving the theater with a bad taste in my mouth. There's a point when the film turns from a fun, action-based satire into all out carnage and, from there, it never really lets up. Once that moment comes, and the film shifts its focus to just one character, everything falls apart. It's here where all of the Millar-isms come into full force, and I was reminded more of the side of Millar's work that highlights an over-indulgent attitude regarding sex and violence. In one of the film's worst moments, there's a scene where we're forced to endure the mass slaughter of innocents (despite being a group of admittedly awful people), and I was unsure what I was supposed to be feeling. It was clear the film had the same problem, playing to both anguish and glee at the same time.
And the less said about the final pre-credits scene, the better. To be frank, the gender politics of the film are a bit of a mess. Sophie Cookson's Roxy really had no reason to exist at all other than to play on the potential of romance with Eggsy and/or her own capability as a rival, though neither really play into the plot in any significant fashion. Like I spoke to above, there's a point to where all of this is an over the top parody of a well-worn genre, but this would have been a great place to transcend that source.
Kingsman, is at its heart, a film focusing on men celebrating the concept of being "gentlemen." This is all well and good, except Vaughn and his team defy those very lessons in the final turn, where the overall treatise seems to be more: "A gentleman is all well and good, but it's better to be a sleaze". Metaphorically you could even say "they shot their own dog". If you see the movie, you'll get what I mean.
Or not. You'd be better off saving your money.