Kingsman: The Secret Service

March 3, 2015

kingsman-image

There’s something queasy about the bright, digital dullness of Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Matthew Vaughn’s style worked well enough in his (other) 60s throwback pastiche, the singularly interesting if not terribly exciting X-Men: First Class – and it’s a testament to his particular visual sense that the similar era wasn’t nearly as fun or vivid in Singer’s Days of Future Past installment – but here he runs into the same trouble as he did with his previous Mark Millar comic book adaptation, Kick-Ass.  The contrast of extreme violence with the bright, silly worlds created isn’t, for the most part, shocking enough to register as anything other than nihilist geek gore. 

The plot is a  fairly standard kid-from-the-street-enters-secret-world stuff, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as a rough London boy who butts heads with his mother’s low rent gangster boyfriend and his thugs in the local pub (aptly named The Black Prince, after the great could-have-been of English High Medieval Chivalry).  When he gets into trouble with the cops, he calls in a favour left to him by Hal aka Galahad (Colin Firth), a member of the elite private secret spy agency The Kingsmen, for whom Eggy’s father died when he was child.  He enters the training program that takes up the bulk of his film’s running time, coming up against the decent few and the many snobs of Oxbridge elitism that so populate the classic Bond films that are endlessly referenced.  The villain is tech industry billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, in full on SLJ goofy mode with added lisp), who is unleashing some kind of massive global plot while trying to suss out the secretive organization that might throw a wrench in his grand designs.

Spoilers abound ahead, but the film can’t reasonably be discussed without them, so consider yourself warned.

Because Eggsy is just not very interesting as a character, and the training sequence feels more like something they just have to get through rather than something that could stand on its own, the development and eventual execution of Valentine’s plot is where the filmmakers’ interests truly lie.  Valentine attempted for years to get something done on climate change, but having concluded that people are the problem, he’s decided to send out a signal using his cell phone SIM cards to drive everyone to kill each other save the selected elite and powerful he has convinced to join him.  Those he deems important otherwise – mainly celebrities and royalty, it seems – are held against their will until the cull is complete.  The knotty, reactionary politics of the film are its most interesting – and to a degree, appalling – feature.  There’s an honesty about the Cold War, Bond (read: non LeCarre) spy genre that’s appealing to be sure.  The Kingsmen have been set up by wealthy aristocrats to preserve peace in the world (or, more likely, the status quo) and it’s no coincidence that the codenames are all from Arthurian legend (their Q is Merlin, played by Mark Strong, whom also starred with Firth in the masterful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation – an irony not missed by anyone).  Although the organization itself proves to be corruptible, the film falls in line with the Arthurian ideal of aristocratic protector class that is supposedly meritocratic (Eggsy is from “the streets”, of course) but still maintains the air of a decent, bygone chivalric society that never really existed.  The fact that the supervillain is a left wing do-gooder just “trying to do the best for the world” is the icing on the cake.  The seemingly anarchic finale, which features every political and wealthy elite – including Obama – have their heads exploded simultaneously, Vaughn approaches it with a cheery sense of anarchism that is admittedly rather fun, but give more than two seconds of thought and you realize it isn’t an anarchic triumph of the people but rather a Tory fantasy that venerates the apolitical wealthy – meritocratic or not – to maintain the order of things and protect the teeming, moronic masses in the process.

The aforementioned gore is CGI and fast paced to the point of numbing, so it’s no wonder that the climax has to involve colourfully exploding head en masse, but it also gives some weight to the best sequence in the film, where Hal is caught in a test run of the SIM card plot and , a solid 4 minutes massacring a church of hateful evangelics.  It’s choreographed to the nines and shot in the expressive, bone crunching style of every other action scene, but its content is both so numb and sickening that it achieves what is the closest thing to a thoughtful consideration of its premise that the film has.  It’s a glorious thing, really.  Equal turns exciting and horrific, watchable and guilt-inducing, it exemplifies the end result of the gleefully chintzy gore that permeates Vaughn’s work.  In a film that tries very, very hard to shock you time and time again, it’s the scene where the shocking excess just wears you down and forces you to keep looking that best exemplifies the real effect of this kind of film violence.  Kingsman spends most of its time in the (admittedly well designed) doldrums of the origin story before erupting into full on Bond pastiche (complete with hollowed out mountain lair!) but with an EDGE, but for one gloriously horrific 4 minute stretch, it lets its winking perspective slide to honestly reveal itself for what it really is.

-M

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