There are only a handful of films in the past ten years that have managed to spoof a genre and simultaneously be a great example of that genre done well. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Kick-Ass are the three most recent ones that come to mind. We can add another movie to that list: Kingsman: The Secret Service. Kingsman is a very self-aware love letter to spy movies. It pokes fun at the outlandish plots of James Bond and Jason Bourne movies by having one of the most outlandish plots I’ve ever seen in a spy movie. It smirks at over the top action sequences by having incredibly over the top action sequences. And yet, it manages to highlight what audiences love about the genre. Some great twists are thrown in, none of which I will divulge here, and it even elevates its female lead beyond “Bond girl” or damsel in distress status. All in all, Kingsman is pure fun.
Director Matthew Vaughn has always had exceptional skill at delivering audiences exactly what they expect but with a slight variation that makes everything so much more interesting. For example, take X-Men: First Class. It had everything that made the first two X-Men films great, but making the cast younger and adding little new bits of information about the characters, like Professor X being a partying ladies’ man and Magneto being a world traveler with dark secrets, created an entirely new experience. Kick-Ass is a superhero story through and through, almost mimicking the plot of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man beat for beat, but because the superhero has absolutely no super powers or any ability to fight, the whole ordeal feels fresh and hilarious. With Kingsman, Matthew Vaughn highlights all the aspects audiences seem to love about spy movies – cool gadgets, well dressed gentleman, a billionaire bad guy hell bent on world destruction – but decides to focus on a young societal reject whose father happened to be a spy. In focusing on this young character and his family life, Vaughn is also able to call attention to Britain’s socio and economic problems without actually calling attention to them.
The movie opens with Galahad (Colin Firth) interrogating a terrorist. This terrorist is concealing a grenade that would have killed him if his partner didn’t throw himself on the grenade to protect Galahad. Filled with humility, Galahad visits his partner’s family and gives the young boy, nicknamed Eggsy a token, which is essentially a calling card should he ever need it. Fast forward 17 years later, and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a complete degenerate. He starts bar fights, steals cars, threatens to beat up his mom’s boyfriend, and ends up in jail – all in one night. He decides to finally use this token as a get out of jail free card and is immediately recruited by Galahad into Kingsman, which is a privately owned spy organization employing the best secret agents in the world. Eggsy is then placed into weeks of grueling training with other recruits, including Roxy (Sophie Cookson). The recruits are told only one of them will be hired as a secret agent, and failure to complete any training exercise will result in death or dismissal.
I love movies that show ordinary people train to become extraordinary heroes. The training exercises in Kingsman are frightening and suspenseful, far more intense than any of the training sequences in Divergent. Water suddenly filling the recruits’ sleeping quarters while they’re asleep. Skydiving from a plane without parachutes. Tied up on live train tracks. These are training sequences that actually develop characters and expose personality traits that get you to care about all of them, particularly the growing friendship between Roxy and Eggsy. In most spy movies, Roxy and Eggsy would fall in love. That doesn’t happen here. Roxy is not a weak, love-struck supporting female. She is compassionate but also smart, determined, and has no problem shooting an innocent animal to get where she needs to be.
One of the best things about Kingsman: The Secret Service is its main villain. Vaughn has cast none other than Samuel L. Jackson as Valentine, the world’s most powerful and richest man who has come up with a grand scheme to battle global warming. This scheme involves turning the world’s population into murderous zombies who will fight and kill off each other. Jackson plays this villain in perfect, over the top fashion, with tons of Samuel L. Jackson – isms and clever lines. His partner is a beautiful but deadly assassin with swords for legs named Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). It’s not just a clever name as she manages to stay perfectly upright on these swords and can kick high enough to cut her opponents in half.
Like Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service is incredibly violent. The decapitations, slicing off of limbs, stabbings, shootings, and impalements are executed with a realism that may make people who are sensitive to that sort of thing a little queasy. It’s an added bonus that Valentine, who causes so much bloodshed, can’t stand the site of blood. Despite the gore, the action scenes are well choreographed. Colin Firth does all his own stunts and hand to hand combat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Colin Firth in an action scene before, but here he single handedly takes out 79 people inside a church.
Colin Firth is perfectly cast here as Eggsy’s mentor. He adds much needed humour, and looks so dapper in a suit that when he teaches Eggsy the importance of good manners and good dress, you believe his every word. Mark Strong is equally great as Merlin, Kingsman’s answer to Q. And Luke Skywalker himself Mark Hamill plays Professor Arnold in a delightfully silly yet creepy surprise cameo. But the star of the film is Taron Egerton, who commands every scene he is in. Something tells me he will be a top billing celebrity pretty soon.
The few minor flaws to Kingsman: The Secret Service, such as sub plots that go unresolved, or the odd joke that falls flat, can’t hold back what is otherwise a great action comedy that has a style all of its own. No other film has dared to use Dire Straits or Lynard Skynard as background music for hand to hand fighting, but Kingsman dares to make it work, and it does. Vaughn knows how to film action scenes, using a mix of long shots, handheld close ups, and flashy zooms, all of which work together to keep the audience oriented and engaged in what is happening. If you’re a fan of the James Bond and Jason Bourne franchises or a fan of spy movies in general, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a must see. Even if you aren’t a fan, you will enjoy the film, since it’s almost always poking fun at itself while highlighting the best parts of the genre that it’s spoofing. Shaun of the Dead did the same thing for the zombie film; Hot Fuzz successfully spoofed the action film while also being a great action film and Kick-Ass was a great superhero parody and a great superhero film. Likewise, Kingsman: The Secret Service is equal parts hilarious spy spoof and first rate spy thriller.