The spy film is one of the longest lasting subgenres in all of cinematic history. While its most popular incarnations tend to be pulpier and less plausible than how actual spy activities tend to work in real life (the James Bond and Mission Impossible franchises immediately spring to mind, both of which have their latest installments being released later this year, which makes the timing of this film’s release all the more potent), there of course is a lot of room for a series of imitators and parodies. The latest form of espionage-themed mockery comes in the form of Kingsman: The Secret Service, directed by rising British filmmaker Matthew Vaughn. Just like most of Vaughn’s previous works, Kingsman is unapologetically crude and violent to its core, yet manages to be an affectionate send-up of the much beloved spy subgenre, all the while flaunting its nihilistic intentions with a commendable amount of self-awareness. Essentially, this film is for the spy genre what Kick-Ass was for the superhero genre.
A loose adaptation of a Mark Millar graphic novel of the same name, Kingsman tells the story of a secret British spy organization which seeks to recruit its newest member in time to take down a mad billionaire whose evil scheme will result in extremely gory and stylized actions sequences breaking out all over the globe. The film makes efficient use of its intentionally familiar setup and uses these broad strokes (so often found in the types of films it seeks to lampoon) to quickly define and develop its characters, from Colin Firth’s beleaguered mentor, to newcomer Taron Egerton’s everyman protagonist.
Were the film aiming for a more serious tone, these clichés would prove to be more bothersome, but Kingsman puts them to good use and relies on identifying each character with a familiar set of tropes in order to propel the story towards its vastly more interesting series of set-pieces. And the sort of tone thatKingsman brings along with it is one of its most valuable assets. It’s not unlike the equally sardonic Team America: World Police (minus the puppets), in its ‘take no prisoners’ attitude and joyful laying to waste of both American and British sensibilities of imperialistic superiority. But what sets Kingsman apart from through and through satires like Hot Fuzz and the Austin Powers franchise is the driving sense of earnestness at its heart. For all the hacking, slashing, shooting, and cussing, there’s a significant human core to this story, which derives almost entirely from the characters herein, both good and evil.
The film also excels in the casting department. The aforementioned Taron Egerton makes for a solid enough lead and manages to hold his own against such notable British thespians as Michael Caine and Mark Strong. Colin Firth is also perfectly matched for this material, and proves to be surprisingly adept during some of the film’s more action-heavy passages, with an extended combat sequence that takes place in a church ranking among the most wildly energetic and heart-pounding single action scenes thus far in the 2010’s. From now on, Firth will probably be getting offered every leading man role that Liam Neeson passes on.
The villains of the film provide some of the more blatant but welcome homages to the Bond series, with Samuel Jackson’s billionaire baddie strutting into the proceedings with an emasculating lisp as well as a foppish and dated sense of faux-thug fashion. Also worth mentioning is his female henchman played by real-life dancer Sofia Boutella, whose alluring presence and jagged metal legs ensure that she would be right at home on the set of an actual James Bond or Mission Impossible film. In the hands of a lesser film, these characters would be totally stock and not used to their maximum potential, but are here utilized nearly to their fullest extents, with each one given a proper amount of screentime and equal participation in the jokier side of the film.
While the film moves along at a slick enough pace overall, the extended midsection can’t help feeling a bit long and repetitive. This is where the bulk of the training sequences are, as well as when the villain’s main scheme starts to get fleshed out. It’s all very flashy and cleverly written, but after a while the constant repetition of ‘Hero training scene / villain plotting scene / hero training scene / villain plotting scene’ can get somewhat tiresome, and the experience isn’t made any better by having obvious bully/rival characters thrown into the mix, who serve little function in the grand scheme of the plot and feel oddly perfunctory, especially considering how creatively adapted most of the other character archetypes are.
Also, the note the film chooses to end on, while amusing, seems to be quite rushed and undercooked, all for the sake of taking one final jab at the Bond franchise, and a cheap one at that. Nothing too detrimental to the overall impact of the film, but given the zaniness and controlled chaos that was offered up so consistently beforehand, to close the film with something that had a little more bite shouldn’t have been too much to ask for.
After weeks of self-serious awards tentpoles and creatively lacking flops, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an absolute breath of fresh air. It’s the same type of campy, purely entertaining genre filmmaking that made the best entries in the genre it’s lampooning so memorable in the first place. Crack open a brewski and enjoy the ride.