Film Review | Kingsman: The Secret Service

Bond with blood and bite: Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar give the espionage genre the Kick-Ass treatment.

Colin Firth inducts Taron Egerton into the Kingsman programme
Colin Firth inducts Taron Egerton into the Kingsman programme

Ever thought James Bond needed more blood, guts and swearing? Personally, I always did, but I’ll understand that not everyone may agree. However, one thing I’m sure a sizeable chunk of moviegoers – especially, I’d imagine, the more venerable among us – do miss from the current crop of espionage blockbusters is a sense of fun. Though Skyfall (2012) began to soften the Jason Bourne-inspired ‘grimdark’ approach that the franchise fell prey to – and let’s hope the recently announced Spectre follows suit – the lack is there. It’s a lack that director Matthew Vaughn, once again adapting a comic book penned by Mark Millar – as he did for Kick-Ass (2010) – is eager to address with the gleefully amoral retro-romp Kingsman: The Secret Service.

An eccentric – and lisping – billionaire, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is threatening to wipe out a sizeable chunk of the earth’s population in a loopy attempt to deal with global warming. The covert organisation Kingsman – “operating at the highest levels of discretion” and predominantly employing England’s elite – is stepping up to the plate to stop him, but not before they get a new recruit on board. Veteran ‘Kingsman’ Harry ‘Galahad’ Hart (Colin Firth) sees potential in street kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton). But is his faith in the jarringly working-class rabble-rouser misplaced?

Staking a claim in the movie world as producer to Guy Ritchie’s trendy gangster films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Matthew Vaughn has since established himself as a slick and dependable genre director. Bursting onto the scene with the violent but also highly stylish Layer Cake (2004) – which significantly stars current James Bond Daniel Craig – the only blip on his CV so far is the lacklustre fantasy adaptation Stardust, which even the director admits wasn’t the ideal material for him.

No such problems with Kick-Ass: a superhero story that behaves like an R-rated gangster film, which Vaughn brought to blistering life as a high-powered indie from the equally cult-favourite comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.

Kingsman sees both Millar and Vaughn on closer domestic turf. Vaughn has complained about how, despite the fact that the Brits can boast of the two most enduring and profitable film franchises around – Bond and Harry Potter – the UK doesn’t seem to be taking much advantage of this in the long term. So just like JRR Tolkien strained to carve a mythology for Britain from scratch – which he saw as a clear lacuna in British culture – so Vaugh and co. appear to be adamant to create a pop culture behemoth that can meet its American counterparts on their own terms. Apart from the film’s clear and acknowledged homage to Bond, the ‘Kingsmen’, whom Harry Hart first pitches to Eggsy as “modern day knights” are code-named after the Knights of the Round Table – with Michael Caine’s patriarch as its ‘Arthur’, Mark Strong’s pilot and gadget-meister as ‘Merlin’, the gentlemanly Hart as ‘Galahad’, who is attempting to recruit Eggsy as their new ‘Lancelot’.

Perhaps as a direct result of this, it all feels a bit like the Conservative Party’s propaganda machine: the landed gentry are charged with saving the world from a crazed American environmentalist. But the film is too invested in its kinetic action and good-natured childish thrills to be mired in ideological ickiness for too long. Not to mention that Vaughn and his screenwriter (and frequent collaborator) Jane Goldman do everything with tongue firmly in cheek, and remain entirely self-aware about the genre they are aping.

As with Kick Ass, there is a diabolical precision in how the audience’s basest impulses are catered to. This is the main difference between Vaughn’s approach and how Hollywood blockbusters “give people what they want” – the British tradition demands that it’s all sharpened with an added edge of black humour and/or cruelty. The bad characters not only ‘get what they deserve’: their bodies are eviscerated in the most inventive of ways, and during the most spectacularly choreographed fight scenes this side of Jackie Chan.

The extravagance also errs on the side of inspired, rather than insipid: Valentine’s henchwoman Gazelle (the ravishing Algerian dancer Sofia Boutella) is equal parts Oscar Pistorius and Rose McGowan’s Cherry Darling from Planet Terror (2007), in terms of weaponised pulp excess crossed with sexiness. The suits and fancy gadgets are also spot on, and more than make up for their absence in the Daniel Craig Bonds.  

Perhaps turning the whole thing into a franchise may be a step too far – enthusiasm for Kick-Ass was capsized by a scattergun sequel – but for now, Kingsman stands as an unapologetic slice of bona fide entertainment: the kind that Hollywood doesn’t have the guts to make anymore.