Kingsman: The Secret Service, like most blockbusters these days and like the insane new reality of our every day world, is ripped straight from the pages of a comic book.
The franchise was co-created by comics legend Mark Millar. He’s known for his work on things like Marvel’s Civil War, Kick-Ass, and Wanted, which became that flick where Angelina Jolie shoots a gun the same way my late grandfather once used his fly fishing rod. They all became movies and for the most part, successful ones.
And then came Kingsman. Unlike the Austin Powers films, which sought to take the piss out of the James Bond franchise, Kingsman serves as part playful deconstruction, part loving homage. It even directly references its inspiration by name, more than once! Kingsman gets far more deep than simply being meta, though.
If James Bond was a mirror and you held him up to another mirror and then exploded them both with a dump truck full of C4 while smoking weed, this is what you’d get.
If you’re not sure what that means, then feel good about yourself. Neither do I, really. Kingsman was a delight, as we will momentarily discuss. But it also kind of irritated me a little. Not because it wasn’t in fact a delight, but more because how many goddamn franchises now is it that do James Bond better than James Bond?
What the fuck, James Bond?
To add insult to injury, Kingsman: The Secret Service does in its first act what the current iteration of Bond has struggled for four films to fail miserably at. Namely, establishing the identity of its main character.
What the fuck, James Bond?
Let me put it in context. The “Kingsmen” are a top secret and distinctly British organization consisting of…I don’t know…five or six guys in double breasted suits and square-frame glasses who defend the free world from evil? Using… machine-gun umbrellas, designer shoes and kung fu?
Yeah. That’s pretty much it. One day twenty years ago, Kingsman agent Lee Unwin (Jonno Davies) is killed in the line of duty right before the eyes of his superior, Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Heartbroken over what he sees as his own failure, Harry visits Lee’s widow and young son. He delivers unto little Gary Unwin (Taron Egerton, eventually) a posthumous medal meant for his father. On it is engraved an emergency number which may only be used once.
A get out of jail free card, if you will.
“Eggsy”, as Gary is later known, grows into a notorious malcontent, resentful of the world and just generally kind of a dick-and-a-half. He is established as one of the Royal Marines’ most prominent dropouts, so that later when he becomes a super-spy overnight it will seem logical. Clearly capable of following in his father’s footsteps, Eggsy instead gets mixed up in petty crime and imprisoned. It is there, in his darkest hour (so far) that he remembers the medallion.
It indeed gets him out of hot water and into a mentor relationship with his father’s old boss, Harry.
So there’s your setup.
Moving on, a prominent scientist named James Arnold (Mark Hamill) is kidnapped by faceless goons whose only job is to die moments after they walk onscreen. The Kingsman sent to rescue Arnold is successful, but at the cost of his life. This means there’s an opening in the organization, for which Harry is immediately groomed.
A rather interesting and immersive training sequence goes a long way toward re-establishing Eggsy as Kingsman material. But the dramatic stakes that makes this part of the film feel satisfying are later nullified, which kind of retroactively ruins it.
I can’t give you more detail without spoiling the story, so let’s just call the first third of the film “uneven but fun” and leave it at that.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking to craft a James Bond-style adventure you have to have a good villain. Kingsman‘s attempt at this is an eccentric billionaire philanthropist named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). In keeping with the genre, it’s obvious from the start who the villain is going to be. And while I didn’t exactly find him to be the highlight of the film, Jackson at least creates something truly unique out of the character.
It was also nice that for once in this post X-Files world, a villain can have a fairly straightforward and easy to understand evil scheme. I’m just about sick of the vast, byzantine conspiracies and pointless misdirection that plague the plots of far too many films these days. And in the end you usually discover that no, you were right the first time. It actually doesn’t make any fucking sense.
There IS no story, just a thread of meaningless gristle designed to loosely connect a series of mildly interesting action set pieces.
Movies like that piss me off, so kudos to Kingsman for at the very least not being that. Valentine’s plan may be little more than a corny stunt lifted from a Flash Gordon comic, but you can have fun with it precisely because you don’t need to set up a fucking Gantt chart to figure it out.
If you’re looking to craft a James Bond-style adventure your villain also has to have a great henchman, and on that note Kingsman scores more points. Sofia Boutella plays Gazelle, so named because of the razor sharp walking appendages she has instead of legs. Look out, Ray Park. You’re not the only one with some moves. Boutella has been a highlight of the last two films I’ve seen her in, so feel free to quote me when I predict you can expect to see her kick many more assess in coming years.
Here again, we see Bond being out-Bonded by well meaning competition. As Goldfinger himself might have said, that’s the first step on the road to irrelevancy.
Not a problem for Kingsman however, as the obvious father-son dynamic between Eggsy and Harry serves as the heart of the film, and I have to admit it really worked for me. Unfortunately most of what makes the Third act meaningful is later unraveled just like the Second. But Kingsman exists in a John Wick-style universe where at some point, unbeknownst to both parties, a silent pact is made between exhibition and audience not to ask too many questions.
After all, you never know when a middle aged guy in a bulletproof pin-striped suit might get into a Matrix-style gunfight with a girl that has swords for legs.
Let that sink in for a moment.
And…there’s a stunning murder spree in a church, and more exploding heads than all four Rambo movies combined. Matthew Vaughn (who by the way, also directed the aforementioned Kick-Ass) is like a kid in a candy store here and it’s infectious. Plus, Michael Caine plays the Head Kingsman.
I’m sure he collected a lovely paycheck for just…kind of being Sir Michael, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t one of the last guys alive who can pull that off.
I guess I could go on, but hopefully you see my point. Kingsman is a delight. It’s funny, silly, exciting and its ironic sense of style would make agent 007 feel right at home. I could say that it’s not perfect, but that’s a stupid thing to say because nothing is perfect (except this). On the other hand, a lot of things are at least 20 minutes too long, and you can go ahead and count this movie among them. Still, Kingsman does what it needs to do and gets out of your way quickly enough to make you feel like you did yourself a favor with your time.
If only James Bond could still do that for me.
What the fuck, James Bond?
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."