“Kingsman: The Secret Service” Review: Everything Looks Better in a Suit
On a mission in South America, a top secret British spy organization loses one of their best agents. The Kingsman, as the group is called, is now each of them tasked with finding a suitable replacement for their fallen comrade. Harry Hart, aka Galahad (Colin Firth), expands his search outside the realm of convention and enlists a young streetwise troublemaker named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as a potential new recruit. In the meantime, a tech mogul/total whackjob named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is secretly plotting to reshape the world. Can the young recruit prove his mettle in time to save mankind?
While trailers may sell Kingsman: The Secret Service as a dopey, blockbuster action romp, the advertising proves to be a cover for the film’s true identity. It operates in deep cover, gleefully blazing through spectacular action sequences that will thrill and delight even the most die hard action fans (and no, we don’t just mean fans of Die Hard). At the same time, Kingsman is takes creative chances in its comedic leaps and sticks the landing again and again. A casual glance will reveal the film to be exactly as it is sold, a high-energy Men in Black meets James Bond by way of The Avengers television series.
But again, this cover is merely that. Matthew Vaughn has done it again. He has crafted a film that is everything the audience wants, but nothing the audience expects; given the creative changes he has made to Mark Millar’s source, even fans of the comic won’t know what hit them. We get Samuel L. Jackson as a megalomaniac who delivers wonderfully sinister quips, but does so with a pronounced lisp. We have a training sequence that involves prospective spies being tasked with seducing a young woman (a la 007), but the female agent in the group is given the same assignment. We get the obligatory imposing henchman, but that henchman is a female amputee who walks, and kills, with the assistance of razor-sharp running blades. Oh, and lest we forget, Vaughn also gives us the debonair, deadly action hero, but he’s played by…Colin Firth?
Yet for all these leaps, there is not a missed step in Kingsman. While a lisping Sam L. may strike one as an off-putting gimmick, it actually humanizes Valentine more and more with each line. This may have something to do with the fact that Jackson himself had a speech impediment that he overcame before becoming an actor, but mostly it relates back to the idea of all supervillains having some weakness or perceived defect for which they violently compensate. And Firth? He trained for months to get into shape for this role and purportedly performed around 80% of his own stunts. So even at its wildest and weirdest, Kingman is still grounded.
Sure, it’s action sequences are flashy and frenetically fun in ways that coyly flirt with the boundaries of physics, but even in the throws of action, Vaughn demonstrates a signature commitment to reality. One thing that has always been impressive about Vaughn’s work is that looming in the shadows of big-budget studio mayhem is the icy sting of real consequence. In Kick-Ass for example (SPOILER), he kills off Big Daddy despite the fact that A.) Nicolas Cage is the film’s biggest star and B.) that doing so meant making an orphan out of a beloved young female character. The severity of the violence in Kingsman is more often than not played up for thrills, but the constant implementation of dire consequences precludes the film wandering into empty exploitation territory.
That’s not to say the Kingsman is deathly serious, quite the opposite in fact. It’s a movie sending up James Bond films, but from filmmakers and writers who clearly adore those movies. It’s therefore less a smarmy swipe and more the loving Friar’s Club Roast of an old friend. Specifically, it takes playful potshots at the snooty aristocratic airs of James Bond and revels in the crudest humor as a method of undermining the PG-rated winking of that legendary spy franchise. This is in turn artfully confounded by the fact that visually sampling the indulgent costuming of Kingsman will make one want to don a three-piece and a pair of Oxfords.
And then, when the cards are all firmly on the table and all cloak and dagger pretexts cease, Kingsman reveals itself to be a wonderfully adept piece of satire. Slight spoilers to follow. Our villain’s plan involves his presumptuous decision to save the planet by forcing a huge percentage of the over-populous to destroy each other. Valentine takes special care to save those rich, powerful, and influential folks whom he deems more important than the average expendable plebes. Suddenly the lisp and our antagonist’s squeamishness toward getting so much as a drop of blood on his own hands seems less weirdness for weirdness sake and more a deliberate statement about the harmfulness of classist rhetoric. And, of course, the young man tasked with deterring this one-percenter’s new world order just happens to be a young man plucked from the streets; Galahad’s bold, unpopular selection.
Still, ever the balanced mayhem maestro, Vaughn ensures that while the rich and powerful are reproached, we regular folks are not let off the hook either. Kingsman is a film that is enormously crowd-pleasing, and will likely politely saunter away from the box office with attachés full of cash. However, Vaughn has the fortitude to narratively cast humanity as their own worst enemy. The group think and telecommunication obsession of society are portrayed as a dangerous virus that can indeed be weaponized against us. It’s not enough for Kingsman to have mass appeal, it feels the need to also warn against automatically conforming with the masses. A bold declaration from a Hollywood filmmaker to say the very least.
Now before you pass over Kingsman for fear that it may be too heavy-handed, understand that the over-the-top nature of the satire keeps the movie light and fun. For example, the end result of Valentine’s attempts to save only the cream of the 1% while decimating the less affluent scores of humanity is so magnificently, wickedly deranged that one can’t help but laugh right through the catharsis. Seriously, Kingsman is the result one could expect if Johnathan Swift had written a Bond Film.
Our man Eggsy has a line of dialogue in the film about how “slight of hand” comes naturally to him. This one line is the perfect encapsulation of what Kingsman really is. It is a film that distracts the audience with popcorn spectacle so that they don’t see Matthew Vaughn slip social commentary into their pockets.
How It Stacks Up
Kingsman vs. The Avengers (1998)
Matthew Vaughn has stated that the 1960s television series The Avengers was in fact a major influence on his adaptation of The Secret Service comic. The 1998 big screen adaptation of that TV series was absolutely dreadful, but does share some similarities to Kingsman. Both involve secret agents so dedicated to gentlemanly propriety that the posh umbrella accessory becomes a chief weapon in their arsenals. Also, the villains in both films are oddly obsessed with climate. Still, there is no denying that whereas Kingsman is smart and deliberate with its execution, The Avengers is just a frappe of ill-advised dopiness.
Kingsman vs. xXx
In both Kingsman and the 2002 actioner xXx, unconventional recruits are called upon to embark on missions that have proven too tasking for more standard agents. In the case of Kingsman, Eggsy was not considered agent material for lack of being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, whereas in xXx, Vin Diesel’s titular lead cares far more about chasing adrenaline highs than chasing bad guys. Oh, and let us not forget that Samuel L. Jackson actually appears in both films. But getting down to brass tacks, while the action sequences in xXx may be more grandiose, those in Kingsman pack way more punch.