Kingsman: The Secret Service
I understand the idea of counter-programming an action flick most likely to appeal to male moviegoers to open opposite a huge tent-pole romance likely to draw female audiences. And that might work as a distribution in, say, August. But to open opposite any romance the day before Valentine’s Day — much less opposite a guaranteed juggernaut like Fifty Shades of Grey — seems like a recipe for getting lost in the shuffle. And that’s especially unfortunate in this case, since Kingsman: The Secret Service is easily one of the most original, visually striking, and entertaining action movies in years.
You know how Guardians of the Galaxy brought the fun back to comic book movies? After years and years of superheroes getting darker and grittier — especially Christopher Nolan’s Frank Miller-inspired Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel — James Gunn brought us a superhero movie that was colorful and zany and just plain fun again. Well, Kingsman seeks to do that for superspy movies, explicitly calling out Bond films. It aims for a level of rollicking action fun somewhere between the Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore eras, only with director Matthew Vaughn’s eye for over-the-top action violence.
The hook, from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book The Secret Service is an ultra-clandestine organization of superspies code-named after knights of the round table, and disguised as high-end British tailors. When one of their number is lost, they nominate a new slate of candidates to be the next Lancelot. While everyone else sticks to Harry “Galahad” Hart (Colin Firth) chooses parkourist chav
“Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), everyone else sticks with the public school/Oxbridge crowd they themselves came from. They set off on a series of training exercises under the guidance of the quartermaster “Merlin” (Mark Strong).
Meanwhile, Galahad is chasing down the lisping American Bond-villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his razor-legged hechwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) before they can carry out their incredibly complicated and megalomaniacal plan. Obviously the trainees — or what’s left of them — are going to end up drawn into this mess by the end, and Eggsy will save the day. The ending may be clear, but how we get there is a mile-a-minute thrill ride.
Most notable in the action is how Vaughn and cinematographer George Richmond shoot the fight sequences. Spy movies have generally fallen under the spell of chaos editing; dozens of split-second cuts may inject an artificial sense of energy, but with no real sense of what’s going on or where the audience soon feels empty.
Vaughn and Richmond keep the amped-up energy that comes from flitting between many different angles, but in a completely new and compelling way: instead of cutting, they employ a virtual camera that flits around the scene like a gnat. It speeds from one perspective to another, slowing down for a moment to watch a punch land or a weapon fire, then zooms off to the next angle at high speed. We are as close, fast, and brutal as in any chaotically edited fight, but having everything visible as we tilt and whirl around the scene keeps us anchored firmly in place.
Like the suits, this technique brings a very particular feel to the movie, and luckily it’s one that works perfectly with the tone Vaughn sets with everything from the acting direction to the classic rock-packed soundtrack. Firth and Jackson’s leads are impeccable, as are the supports from Strong and the ironically cockneyed Michael Caine as the classist “Arthur”, heading up the service. Arianne Phillips’ costumes are fantastic across the board from the Kingsman suits to Eggsy and Valentine’s more hip-hop inspired outfits, and they fit perfectly into Paul Kirby’s production design.
It’s a look and sound and feel that grabs you right from the outset and never lets you go until the end. Yes, it’s hyper-violent, and yes, it’s got every bit of the sexism Bond films always have. It’s a lads’ movie through and through, but delivered with such panache and good humor it’s almost impossible not to be drawn in. This is truly one of the most fun times you can have at the movies right now.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.