Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service Review

(dir. Matthew Vaughn)

20th Century Fox

“Manners maketh man.”

Matthew Vaughn has developed quite a reputation for irreverent takes on popular film genres. The man who bent the rules with Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class takes the spy genre to new, yet familiar places. When the independent secret service known as the Kingsmen, suffers the loss of one of their agents, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) recruits the thuggish, but well-meaning, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as a potential replacement. Eggsy’s training tests him in ways he never imagined, but his real challenge comes when he must team up with fellow recruit Roxy (Sophie Cookson) to stop the world-ending plans of Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman is a throwback to the Bond movies of old, with all the crudity and violence those films could only winkingly suggest at.

There’s a lot Kingsman has working in its favor, chief amongst them is its sense of fun. Vaughn has made no secret of his fatigue with serious genre movies and Kingsman is the antithesis of ‘dark and gritty.’ That’s not to say the film isn’t violent. The fight scenes are bloody, over the top, and rely quite a bit on shock value. These aspects come together to create some of the most inventive action scenes I’ve seen in a while (set to a great soundtrack, if I may add). But all the action, as good as it is, wouldn’t have emotional weight without the charming performances by its leads.

Egerton (certainly a star in the making) blends Eggsy’s street-smart ways, naivety, and misplaced pride into something irrefutably endearing. In less capable hands, the role could have easily fallen into the realm of annoyance, but Egerton creates an underdog you can’t help but root for. Colin Firth, who provides the film’s moral center, is nothing short of badass. And who would have ever thought to associate Firth with badassery? Mark Strong, who plays the Q-esque role of Merlin, delivers a consistently great performance. While Strong is never the leading man, any film that has him as a supporting player is immediately elevated. Jackson’s Valentine, supported by blade-footed henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), twists the classic Bond villain tropes into something born of the era of self-made computer billionaires. The characters serve to create an amusing contrast between gentlemanly codes of conduct and the celebrity-inspired notions of street cred. Behind all the gags and guns is a measured examination of class struggles and status.

Matthew Vaughn is as visually imaginative in his creation of set pieces as usual (Valentine’s secret lair is fantastic) and he has the ability to create films that feel much larger than their budgets. But, his biggest strength comes in the form of screenwriting partner, Jane Goldman. Goldman is one of the best screenwriters working today, a fact that goes sorely unrecognized far too often. It’s her deft handling of humor and heart, the creation of morality in chaos, that allows this film to transcend some of the more juvenile and outright offensive aspects that Mark Millar’s creator-owned projects are sometimes known for. Furthermore, the story has a sense of completion, a clear arc that understands its characters and allows them to evolve. While I’d certainly enjoy a sequel in Vaughn and Goldman’s hands, the film doesn’t fall prey to the traditional Hollywood method of telling part of a story. Kingsman feels complete, like its creative powers weren’t saving things for later, and I think that’s one of the reasons the response to it has been so positive.

Kingsman is a much needed relief from the dire state of winter releases. As one of the smartest action-comedies in recent years, it’s a must see for fans of spy movies and a solid reminder that we don’t have to take genre so straight-faced. It’s a film conceived out of pop-culture, one that manages to play with references and callbacks without feeling like parody or spiteful mockery of the films it’s indebted to. While the film still throws up the middle-finger that Millar’s work is famous for, Kingsman lovingly dares to be more. 

Grade: A

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