Kingsman: The Secret Service is a film that understands how nostalgia gilds memories, how what we remember about a particular pleasurable experience is often better than the experience itself. Such can be said for the glory days of James Bond films, when Sean Connery pranced around in a stylish suit spouting one liners and taking down the most devious of villains. From a modern perspective, these films have not aged particularly well. They remain classic because of their influence in popular culture, not because they’re able to compete with some of the best action films that came out before or since.
Yet we remember these films as cornerstones of our childhoods, capturing our imaginations and causing us to dream of our own suave futures as 007-esque agents. Kingsman aims to recreate the feeling of those films, not as they exist, but as they exist in our memories. As a result, it’s forced to turn the Bond-ness level up to eleven, going over the top in every way possible without losing the charm that made the originals so special. We don’t have a James Bond; we have a team of them. They don’t fight to save the government or to save Fort Knox; they fight to save the planet. And they do it all amidst London bars and disco balls, moving with such smooth acrobatics as to put Mr. Connery to shame.
But as much as Kingsman understands what made the original Bond films great, it also understands what pulled (and continues to pull) them down. Never has a serious action movie been so self-aware of the tropes of its own genre, and never has it gone to such lengths to let the audience know how it avoids them. One of the best scene of the film involves the agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) having a conversation with the villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) about how they both dreamed of playing roles like the ones they saw in spy movies as children. Jackson concludes with “This is not that kind of movie.”
To backtrack: The Kingsmen are a non-governmental intelligence agency with the mission of…doing spy stuff. “Keeping the world at peace,” one character describes it as. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s not supposed to. Kingsman glosses over the details of funding and logistics for an elite international organization that seems only to hire British people to do its dirty work. Instead, it wants to show you a dressing room full of lighter-hand-grenades and umbrellas that act as bullet shields. “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton)is a poor kid who ends up recruited by Hart to join the Kingsmen, and who, of course, gets tangled up in a plot involving a tech mogul with a very Agent Smith view on the human race.
The ultimate plot of Jackson’s character is far too apocalyptic to be believable, but it works on a base level where most other modern spy movies fail: it’s simple, easy to understand. The unfortunate trend in recent entries in the espionage genre is to get so wrapped up in an incomprehensible, overly complex plot that the film spends most of its time trying to explain what’s going on and far less time giving the audience what it wants: the action (we’re looking at you, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). At least this comic-book villain gives clear and uncomplicated motivation to every action and every fight scene without the audience having to pull out a notebook and diagram what’s going on.
In fact believability is the film’s only major problem. It’s hard to buy into Eggsy’s backstory of a tough life growing up on the street when he can leap and jump across rooftops like a ninja (we’re told that he did some gymnastics in elementary school, but I’ve never seen such fluid parkour taught at “Fliptastic” down the street). But at the same time the energetic, exaggerated nature of the rest of the film goes far enough so that believability can easily be forgotten.
The forgetfulness applies to the one female character, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who starts off strong and appears as if she’s going to play a leading role alongside Eggsy for the entire rest of the film. She’s made interesting from the outright, breaking conventions of the sexy lady spy by showing cracks and fears that humanize her beyond the level of the other agents. Nevertheless after the lengthy agent-training section she seems to vanish, taking part in only one comparatively menial task that ends up having no impact upon the story anyway. It’s a shame. As much as Kingsman embraces its spy movie stereotypes, Roxy was the one character with the potential to break things up and add some variety to the cast.
Nevertheless, Kingsman’s fluid combat pulls the film up from the pit. Director Matthew Vaughn creates some of the best fight scenes in recent memory, moving the camera quickly but never falling into the trap of the shaky-cam. Every hit is clearly shown, and Vaughn makes excellent use of Snyder-esque slow motion and quick in-and-out zooms to dramatize and emphasize the most stylish parts of the action. In between the action scenes (of which there are many, far more than most blockbusters of this type care to insert) writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman throw in enough humor to stave off the boredom, and develops the characters enough so that we actually care about the fight scenes because we care about the people in them.
If you didn’t like and never liked the original Bond films, than it goes without saying that you won’t like this either. Kingsman is not a different beast; it just has more teeth. If the prospect of colorfully exploding heads and a legless acrobat with swords for prosthetics makes you cringe with stupidity, then I suggest you go read a book for something more intelligent. For everyone else however, Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of the most memorable big-screen blowhards in the last decade. Let’s raise a martini (shaken, not stirred) to the sequel, in hope that we see far more of the Kingsmen in the future.
One last thing: I’ll concede to the criticism that the scene in which an agent smoothly slaughters every congregant in a church amid a background of rock-and-roll music may have been out of taste. Then again, it was a fictional version of Westboro Baptist, so you have to admit that, at least a tiny bit, it’s a fantasy we’ve all had.