Kingsman: The Secret Service review

A Colin Firth action sequence, a Mark Hamill cameo and a lisping Samuel L. Jackson. What's not to love?

Some people sit back and complain about the state of comic book movies, and then carry on making films in the same vein. For the third time in his career, director Matthew Vaughn has actively gone out of his way to do something about it.

The first such occasion was the commendably Daily Mail-baiting Kick-Ass, a film that beneath its energy, ideas, music and fruity language had real substance to it, and plenty of rewatch value. Oh, and an 18 certificate. I fondly remember such things.

Then his X-Men film, X-Men: First Class, put character firmly at the fore, at least until the special effects moved in for a large chunk of the final act. In both cases, there was a real sense that Vaughn had taken the films on because there was something he actually wanted to do with them.

Onto Kingsman: The Secret Service, then.

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This is the project that Vaughn directed instead of moving onto X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and after spending just over two hours in its company, you can understand why it appealed. It’s as if some invisible fences have been removed from the edges of the comic book movie here, allowing Vaughn not just to keep the violence and language of the movie in tact (it’s as refreshing an antidote to the PG-13/12A dominance of big films as we’ve seen in some time), but also to grant himself some welcome extra tonal muscles too. The trade-off is a little less action than you may expect from such a film, but then Kingsman makes those sequences really count. We’ll be coming back to them shortly.

In truth, much of the influence here is drawn from the world of James Bond rather than your standard comic book summer blockbuster, albeit with jokes and moments that would never be allowed to seep into the world of 007. The heart of this particular film is Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton, a troubled youth who finds himself recruited to the Kingsman programme. It’s a programme that recruits future secret agents, under the watchful eye of Mark Strong’s Merlin.

With glorious tips of the hat to those Bond movies, Vaughn sets all this up with utter glee. The training routine that Eggsy and his cohorts go through for instance, to see who can measure up, just needs Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket to wander in and throw in a few barbs to ice it all off.

Not that Kingsman needs him: through the actions required of the training programme, rather than covering its darker edges with dialogue, it leaves you in no doubt what a tough place it is. It makes Divergent, where you watched its young cast go through similar motions, seem tame, bloated and irrelevant. And I didn’t mind most of Divergent.

Casting, as well as tone, is key here. Colin Firth plays both with and against type as Harry. A gentleman spy in the classic sense, he’s also at the heart of Kingsman‘s most brutal, violent action sequence. It’s a spectacular scene that draws comparisons to something like The Raid. Just with Colin Firth at the heart of it. I can’t imagine I’ll ever write that sentence again.

Firth is excellent value, but then so is relative newcomer Taron Egerton. Along with Sophie Cookson, he’s given much of the heavy lifting to do, and the pair prove to be engaging leads, holding their own against an otherwise far more established cast.

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The only part of that cast that didn’t quite gel for me was Samuel L Jackson. He plays the villain of the piece, Valentine, with an over-the-top lisp, and even appreciating his limited screen time, it’s a joke that runs out of steam quickly. Jackson too is playing a little against type here, and he has his moments, but if Kingsman 2 does go ahead, a stronger antagonist should be on the shopping list.

Still, it’s hard to grumble when the ensemble is so strong: there’s a fun Mark Hamill cameo here, a memorable moment for Jack Davenport right near the start, Sofia Boutella’s leg does immense damage, and Michael Caine – his inclusion alone surely a tip of the hat to Harry Palmer – lends added gravitas.

To Vaughn’s credit, he’s not content with the novelty of his ensemble cast, and he fashions a film whose commitment to sheer entertainment feels far more refreshing that it should. It does feel a little too long, perhaps, with a fair amount of plot to get through. Yet Kingsman treads, carefully, a line between tipping its hat to things that Vaughn and his team clearly love, and being its own thing. It succeeds, and succeeds with considerable style. It is also a huge, gleeful slice of cinematic fun. More please.

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4 out of 5