With Kingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn filters the classic James Bond clichés through a comically broad but colorfully controlled prism of spoof and satire that mirrors early Tarantino. If that sentiment doesn’t immediately pique your interest, The Secret Service won’t be your cup of Earl Grey. The rest of you, however, can proceed with the review, and prepare for one of the most fun nights you’re destined to have at the movies this year.
Very few filmmakers direct action with the same kinetic flair as Vaughn, whose previous credits include the spot-on gangster drama Layer Cake, the brutally earnest superhero origin story Kick-Ass, and the top-notch X-Men reset, First Class. There’s something special about the way Vaughn utilizes his natural surroundings in his sequences, pushing the envelope of what’s acceptable in an action piece but refraining from tipping too far past the point of believability. There are five or six jaw-dropping set pieces in Kingsman: The Secret Service that, alone, justify the cost of a ticket… and one that we’re bound to be talking about for decades.
More on that in a second, though. Matthew Vaughn could have winkingly called his spy-in-the-making comedy Eggsy: First Class. We’re introduced at the start of the film to teen Brit punk Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton, a sure-fire star), a wayward soul without a proper dad whose mum drifts from one spiteful bloke to the next. Following a late-night roe in a pub, Eggsy places a mysterious call for help (it will make sense in context – I’m protecting you from a mild spoiler), and is thrust into the mentorship of Harry Hart (Colin Firth), an authentic spy working for the secret organization, the Kingsmen.
Co-written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, Kingsman draws its inspiration from a Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons graphic novel, but unapologetically borrows traits from a wealth of genre classics. Of course, the 007 catalogue provides structure to the main Kingsman story, right down to the presence of an over-the-top Bond-esque villain named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a megalomaniac with a devious – and silly – plan to damage our planet.
But Kingsman is hardly a relic, a time-capsuled tribute to the spies who loved us, and if you are familiar with Vaughn’s penchant for blowing up conventional genres, then this should come as no surprise. Kingsman and its characters know that they collectively exist in a world exposed to 24 and YouTube. Valentine’s scheme is as deeply rooted in society’s hunger for the next tech tool as it is in convoluted climate-control science. Eggsy and the recruits with which he competes to earn a spot in Kingsmen aren’t awed by the traps and weaponry at their fingertips, likely because they have absorbed every action movie in the Hollywood catalogue and have been hoping for their own bloody adventure for some time now.
It would be easy to praise Kingsman for its breathtaking action sequences – and logical, as well. An underwater training scene and a pulse-racing skydiving sequence tweak the familiar just enough to pull your heart into your throat. Eggsy battles with Valentine’s henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), a lithe assassin whose legs have been replaced by razor-sharp swords! They all take a backseat, however, to what will be Kingsman’s signature sequence: the Battle Royale at the South Glade Mission Church. This is one of those scenes that you will anticipate every minute until it happens – and then wish you could rewind and appreciate it the second it ends. It’s not just the vicious choreography of the scene, which is masterful. It’s the no-holds-barred approach taken by Colin Firth, displaying unexpected rage and physicality, that will pin you to the back of your seat.
But singling out Kingsman’s action, and only its action, overlooks everything else Vaughn gets right with the film. His cast is incredible, from the chemistry shared between Firth and Egerton to the priceless contributions made by brilliant character actors like Mark Strong, Mark Hamill and Michael “F’ing” Caine. Though Kingsman has to take a few obvious steps to establish this world, Vaughn’s style – and his music selection – always keep the film rocking on an energetic axis. This could be the start of an exciting franchise, the scrappy little brother nipping at the heels of distinguished sibling James Bond, making sure they both strive to deliver thrills while on her majesty’s secret service.