The problem with Kingsman: The Secret Service is that it just doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.”
On the surface it seems like a pretty serviceable spy thriller. Suitably eccentric megalomaniac with a compelling, excessively convoluted plan gets thwarted by effortlessly suave and universally capable (and British) spy. The kid even winds up drinking martini, the little ASBO scamp. But it’s not a spy thriller. Look a layer deeper and you almost have a coming-of-age story. Brash young outsider gets offered the opportunity to make something of his life by an enigmatic sponsor – is pitted against some wealthy elite brats and finds a way to best them using his wily, street-smart background and unparalleled montage of skill acquisition. But it’s not a coming-of-age story.
The spy parts work because it leans on well-worn conventions, but then they don’t when it tries to simultaneously lampoon them. The coming-of-age parts work because Taron Egerton is a likeable guy who you root for, but then don’t because the director can’t seem to decide on simple things like how much time is passing or what kind of relationship these characters have to each other.
There’s really good stuff here. The villain’s big plan isn’t anything new, but it comes with some (possibly accidental) fascinating social commentary. The action is wonderfully bonkers, and shot with supreme confidence and minimal Shakycam – so you always have a good sense of what’s going on even when all hell is breaking loose. Maybe most importantly, the main character – Eggsy – is played with aplomb by Taron Egerton. He does a good job of coming across wounded without being insufferable and is undeniably charming when he turns it on.Colin Firth is a bit of a revelation as well. There’s something supremely cool about watching Mark Darcy do violence. His straight-backed, dignified manner turns even the most ludicrously brutal, gratuitous action into a captivating balletic performance. Pair that with Mark Strong’s reliable tough guy persona and Michael Caine’s predictably mercurial acting and the Kingsmen have a strong team.
For the opposition we have Sam Jackson leaning heavily into a thick lisp, protected by a lady henchman with bionic sword legs, and spouting the new favourite doctrine of the 21st century villain – nihilism. Ever since Hugo Weaving gave that exquisite “Humans… are a virus” speech at the turning point of The Matrix, it seems like simple acquisition or domination are just not enough for the modern megalomaniac. Total, aggregate destruction is the only way forward. And this is where Kingsman: The Secret Service had and lost its opportunity to be a great movie.
As Colin Firth puts it when chiding the impetuous Eggsy, Kingsman is an organisation of ‘gentlemen’ – representing admittedly out-dated but nonetheless noble principles. He quotes Hemingway, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”You see, at times it seems like Kingsman: The Secret Service is harkening back to some of the forgotten virtues of chivalry in the face of a detached, apathetic reality; represented by corporate monster Sam Jackson but also by the day to day civilians the organisation are trying to protect – all of us complicit in crimes against our own habitat (the justification Sam Jackson’s character uses for his nefarious schemes).
It seems like they’re building to some sort of statement about social responsibility – how only a private organisation founded on objectively moral principles and unencumbered by the politics of government or greed of international corporations could stand a chance against the indifference of the desolate modern world. And all of this seems to be mirrored in Eggsy’s personal growth throughout the movie, from a joyriding chav with no future to a respectable gentleman determined to protect the innocent.And then they go and blow every ounce of integrity they built over the course of the entire movie on an unimaginably sexist joke in the final act. And you know what? It wasn’t even funny.
So, there’s a bunch of almost-good movies in here. A decent spy thriller, a rushed but workable coming-of-age story, and a lame Scary Movie level comedy. It’s just too bad they couldn’t pick one.