The last time Matthew Vaughn directed a film based on a comic book written by Mark Millar, the result was Kick-Ass, a lewd, crude takedown of the superhero genre featuring an 11-year-old girl who swore like a sailor and more violence than a Marty Scorsese mob picture. After that, Vaughn made X-Men: First Class, an actual superhero film that he wisely set in the Swinging '60s for a bit of the old superspy groove. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, Vaughn teams with Millar (and regular co-screenwriter Jane Goldman) again for something that’s a little of both: the over-the-top energy and hyper violence of Kick-Ass combined with the colorful fun and wit offered up by the best British and American spy thrillers/spoofs of the 1960s and 1970s.
And it works. Kingsman may not be Vaughn’s best film (I still have a soft spot for First Class), but it’s his biggest, his most confident, and his most outlandishly entertaining. Kingsman is top-notch fun right from the start, sagging a bit in the middle before wrapping up with a ridiculously huge finale. He’s aided tremendously by Colin Firth as his lead spy, a combination of Roger Moore’s Bond, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed (from the British TV series The Avengers) and Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer (it’s no coincidence surely that Caine is in the film too). Firth is all proper British mannerisms and composure until he lets loose with everything from lethal umbrellas and hidden throwing knives to his own fists; he then appropriately straightens his tie and combs back his hair, slightly sighing once whatever melee he’s faced is over.
The story opens with Firth’s Harry Hart leading a team of fellow spies from the clandestine Kingsman organization into a mission somewhere in the Middle East. It goes tits-up (as the British say) and one agent is killed; Harry takes it upon himself to visit the man’s wife and young son, and offer to help them if they’re ever in a tough jam. A dozen or so years later and Harry gets the call to bail the now-grown son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), out of jail for jacking a local hood’s car. But Harry also offers Eggsy something else: a chance to become a recruit for Kingsman and, if he succeeds at getting through his training, taking his father’s place at Harry’s side.
Kingsman is, in a sense, an origin story for any one of the classic spies I mentioned above, and Eggsy does go through some familiar paces as he teeters on the edge of washing out of the program. He’s joined there by several other cadets, including the resourceful Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and as they endure a trial by fire presided over by no-nonsense drill sergeant Merlin (Mark Strong), Harry and Kingsman head Arthur (Caine) are also consumed by other matters: a string of celebrity abductions somehow tied to the sinister mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who you won’t be surprised to learn is hatching some sort of plan that involves something terrible happening on a global scale.
Jackson’s Valentine, who speaks with a pronounced lisp and cannot stand the sight of blood, puts a quirky spin on the typical supervillain that’s on a par with the rest of this film’s tweaks of the genre’s nose. Another one of those is his henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), a super-efficient female take on the Oddjobs of the Bond films: she has blades for feet and a sharp wit as well. They both join Firth and Strong in selling the story and their characters even as they walk the thin line between self-awareness and self-parody – landing firmly on the self-aware side pretty much throughout the entire length of the film.
Egerton’s transformation from street hooligan to gentleman spy – the film references My Fair Lady directly – is believable although the extended training sequences tend to slow the middle portion of the film down. But it’s quickly revived by a stunning action scene in a church (set to the strains of “Freebird”), in which Firth takes on an entire congregation. It's a sequence that revels in its own bold gratuitousness, paving the way for an equally bravura finale.
Here again, Vaughn and Goldman infuse the familiar and even clichéd with humor, irony, and a heavy dose of bloody action as Vaughn also comes into his own as an action director. He also keeps his narrative and character beats clear and focused, making sure you know where everyone is, what the stakes are, and giving you glimpses of what it could mean if our compromised heroes fail in their mission. All this results in an onslaught of action that keeps you riveted and finishes with a payoff that is well-earned and satisfying, albeit with a Millar-esque bit of raunch to top things off.
There’s a scene midway through Kingsman – the inevitable polite sitdown between hero and villain that was a staple of so many Bond movies – in which Firth and Jackson discuss how much they miss spy movies when they were “fun” -- clearly Vaughn’s statement of intent. Well, Kingsman is not only fun, but it has heart: you come to care about Eggsy, Roxy, Harry and the rest, and I never got tired of seeing the dapper Firth turn into a whirling dervish of death and then back again. There’s almost nothing in the movie’s fundamentals that we haven’t seen before, but Vaughn, Goldman, Millar, and the cast have added just enough of a fresh coat of stylistic paint to give it new vigor. Kingsman: The Secret Service does exactly what it’s required to do, with panache and even a touch of elegance – much like the fictional spies that its makers unreservedly love and pay tribute to.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is out in theaters Friday, February 13.