Mark Reviews Movies

Kingsman: The Secret Service


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Michael Caine, Edward Holcroft, Samantha Womack, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill

MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content)

Running Time: 2:09

Release Date: 2/13/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 12, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a cheeky revamping of spy movies of old. It features a group of gentlemanly spies who worry as much about fashion and decorum as saving the world, a megalomaniacal villain with a preposterous plan, a sub-antagonist with a unique set of weapons, and a secret lair built into a mountain and filled with disposable henchmen in matching white uniforms. The characters seem to know that they're in an old-fashioned spy movie or, at least, to recognize that pretty much everything they do has already been done.

The screenplay by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (based on the comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) doesn't outwardly spoof, parody, or satirize those kinds of movies, though. Kingsman: The Secret Service appropriates the characters, the scenarios, the backdrops, and the general attitude of the movies that inspired it for purposes that at once nudge the trappings of the genre while still—and happily—embracing them. It's a movie that can't quite seem to decide if it wants to come across as superior to the perceived silliness of its inspiration or if it just wants to go with the silly flow.

At one point, the experienced mentor quotes Ernest Hemmingway about the lack of nobility in being superior to others. "True nobility," the quotation goes, "is being superior to your former self." In a way, the movie sets itself up to fail the nobility test, because we can consider the movie's inspirations as both "others" and its "former self."

That, of course, supposes that the movie's goal is nobility, but even that is unclear. It is at times as classy as the best examples of its forebears, with characters elevating fashion and manners above all else. It is also profane, vulgar, and probably filled with more gratuitous bloodshed than the collected cinematic adventures of pretty much any debonair spy. The movie is a lecture in proper behavior and grooming that's given as the speaker runs around the room pummeling each and every member of the audience. At a certain point, more than a few audience members are going to start wondering if the tips on tailored suits and preparing a proper martini are really worth the abuse.

There's a level of sociopathy here that's rather startling at times. Maybe that's the point. Maybe a bad-tempered young man with a perpetual chip on his shoulder like Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), who's selected as a candidate for membership in the eponymous spy agency, isn't the exception to the rule of the type of person who becomes a charming secret agent in the movies.

Maybe he's exactly the kind of person they need—angry, eager to pick a fight, and capable of ending it with a well-placed fist or a spray of bullets. His mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth), codenamed "Galahad," certainly shows him how one can incapacitate a roomful of bad guys while maintaining a customarily stiff upper lip. After Eggsy's father is killed in the movie's prologue, Harry apologizes to the rest of his team for the trouble. That's the kind of absence of emotion that can't be taught.

Kingsman, we learn, is a private intelligence firm, started by a group of wealthy elites whose heirs were killed during World War I and who found themselves with extra inheritance money on their hands. They started the organization, accessed via an underground shuttle that transports agents from a tailor shop to an estate in the country, as way to achieve peace. The agents take on the names of the Knights of the Round Table. Their leader is dubbed Arthur (Michael Caine), and their technology wizard is, of course, called Merlin (Mark Strong).

The villain is Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a tech mogul with a lisp, whose plan is to make every cellphone and computer into a transmitter for a mind-altering signal that turns people in its vicinity into merciless killing machines. He and Harry have a good talk about their shared love for spy movies and all the clichés within them. Valentine's assistant Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), meanwhile, is a walking example on bladed prosthetic legs, which double as tools for dismemberment and, in one grisly moment, bifurcation.

The scenes of bloody, excessive violence are odd and troubling—the former because they are in such stark contrast to the movie's mostly playful demeanor and the latter because Vaughn seems to take such giddy pleasure in them. Take a slaughter in a church, where Valentine tests out his scheme on a small scale. Vaughn gives us lengthy shots of one of our heroes, who is hypnotized by the signal, unleashing a non-stop barrage of brutal violence upon the congregation (members of a hate group, making the bloodbath of bigots slightly more tenable). The sequence, which grinds the movie to a halt, exists solely for the extravagance of bloodshed. Later, there's a mass detonation of people's heads, and at least Vaughn has the good sense to make a bad-taste joke out of the gruesome imagery.

In between such moments, we do gain some idea of what the movie is attempting, and it is, admittedly, amusing even as it feels incomplete. Kingsman: The Secret Service has enough self-awareness to make the jokes and the genre references but not enough to give them a purpose.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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