One of the centrepieces of director Matthew Vaughn’s latest collaboration with screenwriter Jane Goldman (the two previously worked on Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) features an impeccably besuited Colin Firth violently slaughtering a room full of people in a church. It’s deliberately crass, provocative and morally dubious. And it’s also kinda fun.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is Vaughn’s attempt to skewer, and pay homage to, the spy genre; similar to Kick-Ass, which did the same but for superhero movies. It’s bombastic and wears its heart on its sleeve, and while it doesn’t always succeed, it aims high on the fun-o-meter for its entire runtime, and often scores pretty highly.
Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, a suave pastiche of a number of spy heroes – primarily James Bond and to a lesser extent John Steed. He’s sophisticated and well mannered, but not afraid to get down and dirty when the time comes. “Are we going to stand around all day?” he asks a group of London thugs, “or are we going to fight?” He is part of a clandestine group of super spies called the Kingsmen, who fight behind the scenes for our safety. When one of his number is killed, Hart is tasked with finding a replacement, and for reasons established in the opening couple of scenes, turns to young Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who, unlike the other privileged nominees for the vacant spot, is a down-to-Earth street kid. While Eggsy is trained in the arts of spy craft, overseen by Merlin (Mark Strong), Hart must go about solving the mystery of a megalomaniacal tech billionaire by the name of Richmond Valentine (played by a slightly camp, lisping Samuel L Jackson) and his killer sidekick ‘Gazelle’ (Sofia Boutella), who sports prosthetic legs fitted with razor sharp blades.
The film establishes a solid chemistry between Firth and relative newcomer Egerton, the latter of whom does a good job of conveying street smarts, vulnerability and toughness with the likability required of a leading man. Firth is clearly having a grand old time in his role, and it suits him (pun intended) to a tee – he finds a balance between serious and tongue-in-cheek that the film, which is very playful, needs.
Vaughn and Goldman’s script pokes fun at the genres the film is aping, mostly in a loving way, and also has room for some fairly blatant, but welcome, political statements. It’s a little disappointing that the two leads’ time together is reduced once things get going, because their scenes have a sparkle the film can’t always find. Jackson is game as the villain (he and Firth share a good dinner table scene), but only gets to make a real impact on a couple of occasions, while Gazelle is simply present for the action sequences. That’s true to the mould of the kind of films Kingsman has a reverence for (in particular the more playful entries in the Bond franchise), but the villains are only passingly interesting.
The training section of the film, meanwhile, conjures up a couple of good set pieces, even if it feels a little by-the-numbers. But even when things fall a tad flat, Vaughn keeps the film moving at a significant pace, propelled by the bombastic (and at times slightly grating) score. Which brings us back to that scene in the church. In all its R-rated, rip-roaring grotesquery, I won’t deny it’s a fairly exciting action spectacle, but it’s also indicative of a slightly juvenile approach to violence – something that also reared its head in Kick-Ass. Something about the way in which the film revels in the violence of that scene brings to light how superficial the whole thing is; a feeling which doesn’t taint the other delirious action scenes, and which actually isn’t representative of the whole. Some might argue that that sense is mitigated by the populace of this particular church, but the film is having too much fun for it to stand up as a political statement or a substantial character moment.
At times the script and the drama fall flat, and the action sequences, while generally well choreographed, have a slightly bizarre, plasticky feel to them. But in gen eral, the film’s sense of fun is catching (Mark Hamill cameo included), the leads are good, and there’s enough zip in the script, and Vaughan’s direction, to hold the interest.