In its transition to the screen, Kingsman had one major obstacle to overcome. Vaughn and frequent writing collaborator Jane Goldman had to create a tone that keeps the drama grounded in the real world while creating an atmosphere that permits widespread suspension of disbelief. (They tried doing that with Kick-Ass and the results were mixed and off-kilter.) They succeed wildly here, but if one is unwilling to accept the inane action movie clichés that the screenplay makes a point of satirizing, then Kingsman: The Secret Service could be a slog. Conversely, if one is willing to embrace the mayhem and enjoy the gratuitous jolts of ultraviolence, this will be a thrilling treat.
The director has crafted a film both shrewd and silly, making fun of the cartoonish spy thrillers – hence Firth’s deadpan utterances of product placements throughout – while giving audiences a raucous adventure with high stakes and hysterical action. (To get a taste, Kingsman features a scene where various characters’ heads explode, yet the blood is replaced with a hazy, purple mushroom cloud.)
To keep the bonkers happenings feel more attuned to the contemporary world, it helps that the cast is marvelously good. Firth seems to be enjoying himself as the debonair mentor who gets to unleash his mean streak in the film’s two fiercest action sequences. Still, the Oscar-winner gets a worthwhile backstory that gives his character depth. Egerton, whose name you should remember, brings sharp wit and bruised humanity to what could have been a bland action hero. If Kingsman: The Secret Service needed more of anything, it would be scenes with the British newcomer and fellow ingénue Sophie Cookson, who plays Roxy, another of the sly Secret Service protégés.
Vaughn is a director who knows how to build momentum and create excitement, even through things as simple as pop culture references and song selections. He opens the film to one of pop music’s most electric build-ups, on Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” and segues into the opening titles by pushing into a young Eggsy’s snow globe. Alongside Goldman, he fills the screenplay with winks and nods to a variety of films, from the action genre or otherwise. (One of Kingsman’s biggest laughs comes from a Trading Places nod, delivered by Egerton with panache, and a set reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove’s war room appears near the explosive climax.)
The over-the-top action is more thrilling and viscerally exciting than anything from Goldman’s prior ventures. George Richmond did the cinematography, and keeps the camera nimbly moving with the characters as they jump, whack, swipe, flip and dodge gunfire. Kingsman also features jaw-dropping aerial photography and stunt work during a sequence when one of the protégés jumps out of an airplane without a parachute. Another big set-piece, a church brawl to the tune of one of classic rock’s best guitar licks, is an instant classic. Despite the frenetic carnage and lots of camera movement, the action remains coherent.
But, the brisk, boisterous violence isn’t all fun and games. The stakes are high, as anarchy could reign if all goes according to Valentine’s plan. While showing the feats of physical heroism we expect from a spy thriller, Vaughn and Goldman make us question our own penchant for violence and provocation. The over-the-top action is magnificent but also mired in ambiguity. Should we be rooting for one of the good guys to abandon his moral high ground and fight an army of dozens of foes? Meanwhile, the victims of Valentine’s plan is a public infatuated with disposable mass media to the point that they threaten the planet’s survival. That deconstruction of gruesome, gratuitous violence makes the subject matter sting in-between the over-the-top mayhem.
During a conversation about spy movies, Harry says, “Nowadays, they’re all a little serious for my taste.” Anyone who agrees with that assessment should get a jolt from Kingsman: The Secret Service, a spy thriller that embraces an anarchic sensibility, showing off mindless violence with glee and enforcing a brash suspension of disbelief on its audience. The finale is shameless fun, knocking on various action movie clichés – evading a cavalcade of bullets, a countdown to zero, slow-motion martial arts – to the point where you expect a kitchen sink to fly through the set. Embrace the illogic. Vaughn has crafted a piece of bloody good fun, delivered with a wink, a smile and, in a few instances, manners.
A brazen, subversive send-up of 007, Kingsman: The Secret Service also has the high-octane excitement to work as a spy film on its own merits.