Garry ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton) is to all intents and appearances an archetypal ‘chav’ hanging around the Sarf Lahn-dan housing estate where he lives with layabout mates, trying to avoid getting a thick ear from his mother’s scuzzy boyfriend. But there is more here than meets the eye. An opening credits sequence establishes that Eggsy’s soldier father died saving the lives of Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and his fellow soldiers whilst on a super-classified mission in the middle east. Hart bestows upon the infant Eggsy a boon, in the form of a medal. If the keeper of the trinket is ever in serious trouble a call to an unlisted number etched on the reverse, and the code ‘oxfords not brogues’ will grant a one-off favour.
And so, when he is arrested after a joyriding incident (a sequence filmed with exuberant glee) Eggsy calls the number and is instantly sprung from the 18 months hard time he is facing. That is supposed to be the end of it, but Hart sees potential in the borderline delinquent. Hart, codename Galahad, is a ‘Kingsman’, a member of an elite private covert intelligence agency operating at the highest levels of espionage free of the corrupting influence of political affiliations.
And it just so happens that there is a job opening.
After the 9/11 filmmakers and filmgoers appeared to lose their taste for escapist espionage fantasies. But the spy thriller didn’t exactly go away. Instead the genre became dark and mean. Surfing a zeitgeist of shock the new millennium’s heroes were sad, morally conflicted men like Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne who existed in a world without convenient black or white hats making loyalties clear. Even James Bond was reborn dour and conflicted. Out went villains’ lairs in volcanoes, sharks with laser guns, safari suits, ejector seats, and gas grenades disguised as golf balls. In came angst, parkour, torture, Krav Maga, and heroes who stopped in the middle of car chases to consult street maps.
And for a while, this was good. 24 actually seemed important for at least a couple of seasons. The Bourne films are terrific. Casino Royale and Daniel Craig rescued the Bond franchise from the tedious CGI-ridden snoozefests they had become. However, for all the blood under the fingernails these films were as much fantasies as Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs or In Like Flint, and eventually under the repetitive demands of franchise movies and serial TV the hidden hokeyness of their premises started to show and audiences began to tire of morally compromised protagonists.
Genre is cyclical, a churning batter into which ingredients are added and subtracted until something chimes with the public taste and fizz-BOOM! It’s off we go again.
No matter how evil the world around us there is always a need for pure entertainment (in fact the darker the climate the greater the demand for fun from this business called show). While the spy movie was on an extended tour of duty in a morally bankrupt wasteland of shattered dreams and despair, the comic book movie jazz-danced back onto the scene in the form of the Marvel powerhouse, all shiny-shiny and quippy-quippy. Now as that brand of entertainment is turning towards the unhappy and tortured (even Marvel has got in a grump giving Captain America: The Winter Soldier a conspiracy movie spin) a swell of retro spy nonsense is rising up to flood multiplexes. Later this year we will see Melissa McCarty going undercover in Paul Feig’s Spy, and if we basically know little about the next Bond, its title Spectre promises a change in direction (and Skyfall felt like a chapter’s end). But first up is Kingsman: The Secret Service.
I’ll lay my cards on the table. I cannot say I approached Matthew Vaughan’s latest film with any great enthusiasm. I’ve been ambivalent towards the director’s filmography. While I enjoyed Stardust, I hated Kick Ass, and thought X-Men: First Class squandered a great first half in favour of dull and protracted spectacle (as is sadly too often the way with superhero movies). Added to which the initial trailers strongly gave me the impression this was going to be a kid’s movie. Something like the underwhelming Stormbreaker.
In hindsight this is quite hilarious. Trimmed slightly to avoid cutting out a vast section of the film’s potential audience with an 18 certificate, Kingsman is still often deliriously and excessively violent. X-Man: First Class now looks like a dry run, given more creative leeway Vaughan and Goldman rough up the formula a little, adding eye-popping scenes of mass carnage – including a burly brawl featuring Colin Firth ruining a redneck party by uncorking a fizzy bottle of fisticuffs over every last blighter in the ruddy room.
This is an exuberant, sometimes messy, occasionally profane, but largely good natured film. Very loosely based on a comic book by Mark Millar (also the author of the Wanted and Kick Ass comic books), Vaughan and his regular screenwriting partner in crime Jane Goldman have set their sights on creating the sort of colourful cold war pop-culture spy yarn that the Mike Myers’ Austin Powers movies had spoofed out of existence. There is something admirable about the way the film gleefully throws notions of plausibility out the window, embracing the silly gadgets that Bond has recently eschewed. The range and utilities of the Kingsmans’ gadgets are daft enough to grace a Matt Helm film but have a distinctly British edge, my favourite being their bullet-proof bespoke tailoring.
It’s light, it’s breezy, it’s completely inconsequential, but it is a generous helping of beer and skittles with a comparable visual energy to Edgar Wright’s films. Occasionally the visual effects work is a little rough giving the film the look of a mid-range US action show, but if budgetary compromises have been made, they presumably allowed Vaughan and Goldman to go wild within the looser constraints of a less restrictive 15 certificate/R rating. Just to be clear though this isn’t The Raid. This is cartoon violence, speedy, flashy, occasionally splashy, but largely free of consequence and almost entirely absent of the sort of wince inducing moments that make Raid director Gareth Evans a god to fight movie fans but exclude his films from the mass audience they deserve.
Among a handsome cast Firth is fantastic, filling out a succession of superbly tailored suits and demonstrating a mastery of the obscure English martial art of Umbrella-Fu that will make you wish someone would take another run at a movie version of The Avengers (preferably without Sean Connery in a teddy bear costume). Taron Edgerton is an appealing lead, making Eggsy a character to stand behind, especially when pitted against a series of Bullingdon Club type ninnies during the extended Kingsman recruitment process. Mark Strong fills a combination Q and drill sergeant role with a highly amusing Scottish accent (that may one of the film’s many Bond in-jokes but isn’t quite Connery), and Michael Caine turns up as the Kingsman’s M slash Dumbledore.
Samuel L. Jackson worked less well for me rather phoning it in with an irritating lisp. His character, Valentine, an evil Mark Zuckerberg type social media entrepreneur with a Ghia fixation, is disappointingly clichéd. Thankfully he is coupled with a terrific henchperson in the shape of Sofia Boutella as Gazelle his bodyguard and assassin. Gazelle’s preferred weapons are her prosthetic legs, literal ‘blades’. Boutella made a big impression (at least on me) as the female lead of Streetdance 2. There her Latin dance moves looked like choreographed martial arts acrobatics. Clearly Vaughn thought the same thing.
There are a some unfortunate niggles, did Kingsman really so much blatant product placement? I guess you could argue that this is another of the film’s many lighthearted digs at Bond, but it is grating. Both a McDonald’s plug and a scene that is basically an advert for The Sun equal the infamous ‘that’s a nice watch’ scene from Casino Royale for crass commercialism. Such moments pull you out of the film and seem crowbarred in. Anyway, Firth’s character seems much more of a Telegraph man if you ask me.
Also there is the depressing inclusion of a really misjudged joke involving a Scandinavian princess that is pure lad’s mag bait. I personally found it so distasteful it very nearly ruined the film, coming late enough that it left a sour taste as the credits rolled. Thank heavens then for the addition of an end credits scene that meant the punchline to this ‘gag’ did not end the film on a bum note.
Rough edges and occasional ill-judged ‘bantz’ humour aside, this is a welcome treat to lighten the post Christmas gloom.