Matthew Vaughn must have been a fun chap to play with on the schoolyard at recess. Many of his recent films have been frenetic and visually appealing, delivered with a joy and imagination that always has that pre-pubescent boy inside of us in mind. Kick-Ass had a sleazy streak of bloody, over-the-top set pieces that poked fun at the superhero genre with glorious attitude. X-Men: First Class was a jet-setting period piece with moments of thrilling action that sometimes strayed toward being a James Bond homage. In his third, and most audaciously entertaining adaptation of a graphic novel or comic book property to date, Vaughn marries the wicked, mindless violence of the former with the latter’s groovy 007 pastiches.
Based on a comic book series from Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a nasty, bloody spy thriller underneath the guise of posh clothes and polite English manners. The undercover British organization from the title, operating in London’s Savile Row, puts their agents in well-tailored suits and expects them to act with efficiency and decorum. Agent Harry Hart, nee Galahad (Colin Firth), is tapped to help recruit new blood for the Service when an operation in South America goes haywire. His chosen recruit is Eggsy (the dashing Taron Egerton, making a suave feature breakthrough), a delinquent without much discipline who lives with an abusive stepfather. Eggsy’s real dad was a Kingsman but sacrificed his life in an awry operation many years ago to save his battalion.
In order to become a Kingsman, though, Eggsy must impress other agents, including logistics expert Merlin (Mark Strong). Michael Caine, of course, is at the helm of the organization as Arthur. (If you couldn’t already tell, the Kingsman codenames pay tribute to the Knights of the Round Table.) Eggsy must also compete among a swath of athletic Brits in their early twenties in a series of tests, hoping to prove his physical mettle in life-or-death scenarios without cracking under pressure.
As Harry Hart mentions in a self-aware conversation about spy movies halfway through the film, the 007 thrillers were only as good as their villain. Kingsman: The Secret Service’s rambunctious energy gets a megalomaniac antagonist to match, and a name to indicate how over-the-top he is: Richmond Valentine. Played by Samuel L. Jackson, who speaks with a lisp, Valentine has a plot to sell SIM cards to the masses that promise free Internet and instant gratification – but there’s a biological hazard attached to the chips that he wants to keep under wraps. Just like a 007 villain, Valentine has a henchwoman (Algerian singer Sofia Boutella) and her legs are spiky, sharp weapons that can slice through skin and bone. Unlike your ordinary spy flick criminal mastermind, Valentine dresses in colored jumpsuits, neon shoes and a baseball cap.