Director Matthew Vaughn is always making movies about other movies, not subverting formula or deconstructing tropes, but doing his favorite genres louder, gorier, and goofier than before. The British gangster picture Layer Cake, fantasy Stardust, and superhero movie Kick-Ass are of equal falseness, movies for the sake of movies. They have their moments, but is it any wonder his X-Men movie is his best? The dictates of franchise care required him to play it straight, funneling his skills into his energy and staging instead of stunted and narrow movies borrowing real world pain for nothing more than bloody riffs, one step further removed from anything worth caring about. His latest, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is a colorful goof on the James Bond formula, following the basic outline of the typical 007 plot but playing it looser, faster, bloodier, and cheekier. It’s an enjoyable movie right up until it isn’t.
Maybe it’s more accurate to call Kingsman a half-serious Austin Powers for how consciously silly the plotting, how fawning it is over retro gadgetry. It’s eager to tell us how smart it thinks it’s being, which takes some of the charm out of its self-congratulatory deployment of Bond-style gadgets – bulletproof umbrella, poison pen, exploding lighter – and plot turns. After all, this is a movie with a megalomaniac villain and his exoticized henchwoman trying to execute their convoluted plot for world domination, complete with a giant glowing countdown clock. Several times characters make reference to fictional spies – Bond, Bourne, Bower, you get the picture – and trade the barb, “It’s not that kind of movie.” Oh, but it is. From the first notes of Henry Jackman’s John Barry-esque score, it’s obvious what territory we’re in.
The film’s one clever idea is to recast the double-ohs as a clandestine organization carrying out secret spycraft, a good old Spies of the Roundtable complete with codenames like Lancelot, Galahad, and Merlin. Called The Kingsman, they’ve had a sudden opening. And so respectably stuffy Colin Firth, properly situated in a sharp suit, recruits a rough, tough, street-smart lad (relative newcomer Taron Egerton) and bets he can turn him into a proper superspy, a sort of My Fair Lady actioner (a reference explicitly made). Vaughn, with his usual co-writer Jane Goldman, milks these riffs on pop culture past for bright engaging action. It’s often jolly good fun, drawing on X-Men: First Class montage swagger for early team-building training sequences as Egerton grows from a street kid to a spy, then turns into a adolescent power fantasy. Save the world, get the girl, and all that jazz.
There are giggles to be had in seeing Firth turn into an action hero in elaborately staged, CGI assisted, action sequences. The kid’s quite good, too, holding his own against the older folks while looking dashing in his eventual spy uniform. Their colleagues include a comic relief Q figure (Mark Strong), an underwritten-but-capable pretty girl (Sophie Cookson), and a wise old mentor (Michael Caine). Their villains are nasty, a crazy billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson, hamming it up) and his flunky (Sofia Boutella), a woman with razor-sharp prosthetic legs that make her as fast and deadly as a certain Olympic athlete. The cast is engaging and entertaining, having as much fun playing broad comic book shtick as Vaughn is having a good time whipping up scenarios for near-death action movie experiences for them, like a tense skydiving sequence that’s the cleverest the film gets.
More fun than not for awhile, the movie goes wrong by giving in to its regressive fantasy, probably leaking in from the Mark Millar source material. His are the most gleefully ugly comic books around, trafficking in unapologetic laddish humor and smug shock violence. Kingsman isn’t that bad, but it is a movie in which the villain is an evil lisping black man and the only hope for the world is a bunch of upper-crust white guys and the one up-from-his-bootstraps recruit whose eventual reward is access to a woman’s body. The optics are obnoxious. It’s a movie so caught up in its splashy R-rated cartoonishness that it loses sight of what, exactly, it is enjoying. It spends its time tweaking tropes in the name of escapism, but can’t escape the implications of its giddy gore that ends up giving rightwing nuts something to cheer. (I’d trim two scenes of a real-life world leader if I could.)
Its most troubling scene is a turning point between goofy wish fulfillment and poisonous misanthropy. An elaborate gory massacre is played for laughs, scored with rock and staged with slapstick. It’s followed immediately by the death of a major character we’re supposed to mourn. (How we’re to care about deaths, and yet also find exploding heads hilarious is beyond me.) As this rockets the movie towards a crescendo of climaxes, the movie wants us on the edge of our seats fretting over the fate of the world as violence erupts here, there, and everywhere. I felt the suspense, was effectively manipulated by the crosscutting. And I would’ve enjoyed it more but for the feeling the film was reveling in the carnage and wouldn’t mind if its heroes failed to stop it. It’s a brisk, exciting movie, better in its breezy charming moments than its splashy nasty conclusions.