By Michael Arruda
Matthew Vaughn wrote and directed KICK-ASS (2010) and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011), two of my favorite superhero films of recent years, so when I learned that he was writing/directing KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, my interest in this flick went way up.
I’ll say right now that KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE is not as good as KICK-ASS or X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, but it comes close. Its action scenes look like a video game and are about as compelling, and its story is about as believable as a SPY KIDS movie.
The Kingsmen are an ultra-secret British spy organization even more mysterious than MI6. The film opens in the late 1990s as a mission goes wrong and Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is saved by a young protégé who gives his life to save Harry. Harry later visits the agent’s wife and young son and tells them he owes them a debt, which years later the now young adult son Gary (Taron Egerton) collects when he finds himself in jail after stealing a car. After Harry arranges for Gary to be released, he then goes about grooming him to become a future Kingsman.
Of course, you’re not just selected to become a Kingsman, you have to compete for it, and so Gary finds himself competing against other recruits in a series of tasks which are overseen by their trainer, who goes by the code name Merlin (Mark Strong).
Meanwhile the rich philanthropist Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) has caught the attention of the Kingsmen because of his connection to the murder of one of their agents who had been trying to rescue a kidnapped scientist Professor Arnold (Mark Hamill). Harry, whose code name is Galahad, is assigned to the case and begins to infiltrate the empire of Valentine in order to learn what dastardly plot he has in store for the world, and it’s a doozy.
Of course, things don’t go as planned and before you can say Sir Lancelot young Gary finds himself as the world’s best chance for survival, and suddenly it’s up to Gary to save the day, with a little help from Merlin and Gary’s friend and young Kingsman agent, Roxy (Sophie Cookson). Wait a minute. Shouldn’t she be a Kingswoman?
Anyway, at times I really liked KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, and other times not so much. In spite of this imbalance, it’s got enough good things going for it- strong direction, a clever script, and an excellent cast to tip the scale in favor of my recommending it.
First off, the cast is the best thing about KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE. Colin Firth is excellent as Harry Hart/Galahad. He’s British to the core and makes the perfect gentleman spy. While there are plenty of James Bond references throughout this movie, Firth’s performance calls to mind another fictional English spy from the 1960s, Patrick Macnee’s Mr. Steed from the TV show THE AVENGERS (1961-69). Firth’s suave and debonair demeanor is reminiscent of Macnee’s Mr. Steed in that classic TV show.
Samuel L. Jackson chews up the scenery as mastermind supervillain Valentine, and he’s just as good as Firth if not better. Jackson speaks with a lisp and gets to deliver some of the best lines in the movie. One of the funnier bits in the film is that both Jackson’s Valentine and Firth’s Galahad are movie buffs and they exchange barbs about the old James Bond movies, which are quite funny.
The film is very cognizant of its origins and how it owes a lot to the James Bond films of old. As such, it has a good time making jokes at its own expense, poking fun at itself, its characters, and its plot. However, this only goes so far and on its own isn’t enough to make this film an instant classic.
Mark Strong, as always, is very good as Merlin, the agent who is in charge of training the young recruits and who by the film’s end finds himself with his two newest agents in the daunting position of having to save the world.
Interestingly enough, both Strong and Firth appeared in the substandard Nicole Kidman thriller BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014) last year, and while both were fine in that movie, they’re better here in KINGSMAN.
Michael Caine adds class as the Kingsman’s patriarch agent, Arthur, and in a surprise bit of casting Mark Hamill shines in a brief role as Professor Arnold. It’s a very small role, not enough for Hamill to make much of an impact in this movie, but when he’s on screen, he’s really good, and I couldn’t help but wonder, where has he been all these years? Yeah, I know, he’s been a very successful voice artist for animated cartoons over the years, but it sure would have been nice to see him in more movies.
But what about the young cast members? The leads? After all, the film is mostly about young Gary (Taron Egerton). Egerton isn’t bad, but the problem is he’s surrounded by some excellent actors, and sorry to say, he’s outclassed by them throughout. I found myself wishing this movie was more about Colin Firth’s character.
Sophie Cookson is also very good as Roxie, Gary’s chief rival but also his closest friend— can anyone say HUNGER GAMES? But she too is outclassed by the veteran cast in this one.
The most interesting of the young characters is Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, Samuel L. Jackson’s right hand woman and chief assassin. She sports a very deadly— and razor sharp— pair of metal legs that can slice a man in half, which she does in this film.
So, I enjoyed the cast, but the story not so much. The biggest problem was I never really believed any of it. The Kingsman as a concept is believable enough, but when we see these guys in action, their fight scenes look like video game sequences. It’s all stylish and polished, but it looks oh-so-fake. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE definitely has a plot, but its action sequences pretty much all fall flat. They look great, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t look real.
As I said earlier, there are plenty of James Bond references, especially about how outlandish the old Bond films were, but even those films had action sequences that looked believable. They were epic and grand in nature. There isn’t anything epic about KINGSMAN. And when Colin Firth goes into action mode and wipes out an entire church full of people, there is nothing believable about it. It looks fake and phony. Pass me the controller please so I can have a turn.
Even KICK-ASS was more believable than KINGSMAN. There was a grittiness and realism in KICK-ASS that in spite of its farfetched superhero plot worked. That is completely gone here.
Like KICK-ASS, KINGSMAN is rated R, and so there’s plenty of blood in the action sequences, but unlike KICK-ASS, none of it looks real. Again, with fake looking violence, the action scenes in this one were a disappointment.
It’s also rated R for language, and this is mostly because of Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine’s colorful vocabulary.
Director Matthew Vaughn has made a movie in KINGSMAN that looks good, but it’s not quite the complete package as KICK-ASS or X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Those films had pretty much everything.
The other problem I had with KINGSMAN is it never builds its suspense. From the get-go, we see the Kingsmen in action. There are stylish fights before we even know who we are supposed to be rooting for. Plus, the film’s climax, while it’s certainly not a dud, isn’t overly exciting either.
The screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who also co-wrote KICK-ASS and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS with him, is based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, and it runs hot and cold. For the most part, I liked it. I enjoyed the characters and I enjoyed the film jokes, especially about the Bond films, but where it lacks is it never reaches out and grabs its audience with conviction.
The training sequences of the young agents were reminiscent of THE HUNGER GAMES where the young adults/teeny boppers have to compete against each other to make the grade, and only one of them is chosen, and oh yeah, if you fail you go home in a body bag. You fail. You die. Sort of. The film kind of cops out on this part later.
But a large chunk of the movie was about this training, and I can’t say that I liked this plot point all that much. Every time the film dealt with the cadet training, I wished for more scenes with either Colin Firth or Samuel J. Jackson.
I never once feared for the characters’ lives, which is strange since characters do die in this film. But I didn’t fear for them because I never really believed in what was going on, and for me, at the end of the day, if I don’t believe it, I don’t really enjoy it. That being said, KINGSMAN has such a talented cast, as well as director and screenwriters, that the talent here actually overcomes the film’s shortcomings. It’s just that with a credible story, this one could have been that much better.
Still, it’s all rather entertaining and is one of the more enjoyable pieces of fluff I’ve seen in a while. I just wish it had been less fluff and more grit.