If I didn’t know better, I would say that the international custom of day-and-date releasing – the system whereby films appear on the same date worldwide – had been abolished, for not only is the UK enjoying Alex Garland’s Ex Machina several months before its US debut, but we have also been treated to Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service a couple of weeks before its American premiere. I’ve no idea why we have been granted such a signal honour, given that this is clearly intended to be a major movie: could it simply be the result of most of the principals involved being British themselves? I don’t know.
Vaughn directs and co-writes with Jane Goldman, based on a graphic novel scripted by Mark Millar, and prominent among the cast is (hardest working man in showbusiness) Mark Strong. If you feel a faint bell dingling somewhere in your cortical region, it may well be because all these people were also connected with 2010’s Kick-Ass, a lairy and rambunctious take on the superhero genre. Kingsman has the same sort of style and attitude, even if its subject matter is different.
The protagonist is Eggsy (Taron Egerton – yes, that really is his name, apparently), who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a lowlife, living on a London council estate and passing his time squabbling with his thuggish stepfather and doing a little petty crime. (His real father died while serving in the armed forces, when he was but a tot.) Finding himself up on charges, he calls in a favour and is rescued by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), an old comrade of his father, and member of an ultra-sophisticated, ultra-discreet, independent intelligence agency, known as the Kingsmen.
As it happens, a Kingsman mission to rescue kidnapped scientist Professor Arnold (a barely-recognisable Mark Hamill, who was apparently at one point scheduled to be playing himself) has gone terminally bad, leaving a hole in the ranks of the organisation, and Hart puts Eggsy up for the selection process before heading off to investigate. The trail leads to internet billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), who has an evil scheme on the go. Will Eggsy be able to satisfy training boffin Merlin (Strong) and his snobby superior Arthur (Sir Michael Caine, Gawd bless you sir), and join the Kingsmen as they take on Valentine and his henchmen?
With the Bond movies currently locked into ultra-serious mode, there is obviously a gap in the market for a big, daft, crowd-pleasing spy action movie, and I rather suspect Kingsman would like to be it. Certainly, it is stuffed with references, subtle and not so subtle, to classic spy and spy-fi offerings from years gone by: the front for the Kingsman organisation is a tailor’s shop, just like that of UNCLE, while a casual mention of a phone with a shoe in it appears to be a nod to Get Smart. Firth’s performance as a very British superspy, fighting the fight from a mews flat, umbrella in hand, seems to me to be very clearly informed by Patrick Macnee’s John Steed in The Avengers. But, above all, there are the classic Bond films from the 1960s.
There is an excruciatingly knowing sequence in which Firth and Jackson have a pleasant dinner together and discuss how serious and dull the modern spy movie has become, and how much they both enjoyed the old sort, with wacky gadgets and insane supervillains. This is clearly the territory Kingsman is looking to occupy, and there are trick umbrellas, exploding cigarette lighters, and frankly implausible schemes aplenty before the film is out. And yet the film seems reluctant to completely relax and be a simple pastiche of the genre. A repeated line is ‘This ain’t that kind of movie’, which is invariably delivered before one of those genre tropes is subverted.
This for me is the main thing stopping Kingsman from being the piece of jolly, breezy entertainment it clearly wants to be. Half the time it wants to be an old-school spy-fi romp, the rest of the time it insists on undermining and subverting that very genre, usually in way that seems calculatedly transgressive or openly absurd. By the end, proceedings have extended to include international carnage, sex-crazed Scandinavian royalty, a bevy of exploding heads (including, we are invited to assume, those of the entire British Royal Family), and the end of the world occurring to a disco soundtrack, and the sense that this is on some level intended as a bizarre spoof is hard to shake. Yet elsewhere the film is clearly aspiring to moments of genuine gravity and emotion. As a result, it all ultimately feels rather insincere, guided only the script’s instinct for the excessive and outlandish.
I could go on to talk about the film’s colossal inverted snobbery (Eggsy finds himself competing against worthless public schoolboys with names like Digby, Rufus and Hugo for his Kingsman place), cheerful amorality, bafflingly graphic violence, or indeed Taron Egerton’s fairly indifferent performance (I’m struggling to avoid using the word ‘smug’), but I think you get the idea. All in all it’s a bit of a shame, as there are individual moments where Kingsman shows the potential to be every bit as much fun as its premise suggested: needless to say, Michael Caine does exactly what the script requires of him with great aplomb, while Colin Firth shows a very new side to himself in a couple of action sequences (there’s one extraordinary shot where he single-handedly punches, kicks, stabs, detonates, and gun-fus to death about fifty people). Samuel L Jackson manages to find some genuine menace and humour in a character who could just have been silly, while Sofia Boutella is eye-catching as his henchperson (Boutella’s lower legs have been digitally removed and replaced with razor-sharp blades, which if nothing else is a new take on the traditional deformed-villain Bond archetype). Vaughn’s direction is undeniably inventive and energetic, too.
But, very much as in the case of Kick-Ass, Kingsman seems to be so preoccupied with being shocking and cool and cynically funny that it doesn’t really have time to be anything else – or at least anything else new. Once you strip away the violence and class warfare and black humour, what you’re left with bears an eerie resemblance to Stormbreaker, a much more family-friendly spy-fi pastiche from 2006. This is a lot more polished and in some ways cleverer, but I can’t shake the impression that it ultimately seems to have been made by and for teenaged boys, rather than mature human beings. Which is fine if you’re a teenaged boy, but this film could have been a lot more enjoyable for a much wider audience.