Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) / Action-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content
Running Time: 129 min.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Edward Holcroft, Mark Hamill, Samantha Womack, Jack Davenport, Hanna Alstrom, Geoff Bell
Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman (based on the comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons)
Review published February 14, 2015

This self-referential spy-film romp bemoans the modern era in which movies about the world of espionage have become too serious, and even contains characters that remark as such.  If there's anything one needs to squash prior to watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, it's the notion that what we're going to get within it's 2-hour plus running time is meant to be taken seriously, even if one might read into it some anti-oppression subtext that reverberates underneath.

The phrase that something is "on steroids" is a trite phrase by this point, but it would certainly be apropos for this latest action film by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Stardust), who once again adapts a Mark Millar comic book to the big screen (after Kick-Ass), and does it with his own inimitable panache.  It's playing with genre tropes throughout, sometimes even commenting upon them as they happen.  We have suave and debonair good guys, maniacal super-villains, hi-tech gadgetry, chase scenes, an arsenal of weaponry, and cheeky dialogue galore.

King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table provides the basis for The Kingsmen, a noble group of intensely trained secret agents who regularly thwart nefarious deeds around the world before they occur, and therefore are invisible to the public eye.  Harry Hart (Firth, Before I Go To Sleep), codename Galahad, is a seasoned pro whose life is saved by one of his fellow Kingsmen, and in return for his debt of life, he gives the man's young son a medal that will grant him a special favor in a time of need.  Over a decade later, the boy, nicknamed Eggsy (Egerton, Testament of Youth), is now a young man, and uses the medal to give himself a get-out-of-jail-free card, and then earns a try-out for the Kingsmen, competing against other young men and women for the honor in fighting for the venerable secret service.

As this is going on, a lisping billionaire named Richmond Valentine (Jackson, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is busy implementing a grand scheme to cure the world of the global warming issue, but his solution puts the life of billions in mortal jeopardy.

Kingsman is a grand escapist action-comedy by a writer-director at the peak of his abilities, at least in terms of putting together an energetic, escapist comic-book lark that one wants to watch time and again for the sheer adrenaline rush.  Its premise is wafer-thin, built entirely on an exhilarating, funny adventure, but for what it is, it's definitely an irreverent, entertaining head-rush worth seeking out for those times when you need that jolt of cinematic caffeine. 

Vaughn smartly crafts this screenplay to squeeze the juice out of any lulls it can.  Another origin story and lengthy set of competition sequences could have proven tedious, but he wisely intersperses the Eggsy-in-training scenes with those in which the main plot is hatching, not only keeping the focus from becoming stale, but also increasing the cumulative momentum and upping the stakes as it goes along.  It also does get us immediately up to speed on the organization and its mission, as well as providing just enough backstory to understand its many off-the-wall allusions to its past while piquing our interest to learn more.

Like the superspies it portrays, Kingsman is cool, sleek, skillful, and bold.  There is certainly an edginess to it that could put off some viewers (it is quite violent, a bit racy, and contains a scene of child-in peril that may turn off a few moms), especially in how it is determined to be so devilishly gleeful in its cavalier attitude towards depictions of violence.  And yet, Vaughn's film moves along at such a brisk clip, whatever unease may occasionally occur doesn't have enough time to settle in before we're given a new setting and situation to mostly take our mind off of it. 

Vaughn rips a chapter from the Quentin Tarantino manual of showcasing ultra-violence by making the victims the abusive-powers-that-be that many people don't mind seeing get their comeuppance -- racists, politicians, megalomaniacs, and the uncaring 1%-ers.  A massacre in a church could have played far more differently had they not already been shown to be a Westboro-esque hate group, and a musical-montage of explosive decapitations might have been far less tongue-in-cheek were the victims not clearly in cahoots to do the same to others before meeting their colorful, smoky demise. 

Smartly cast, with Firth in particular giving a very commanding performance as an action hero, Egerton is a terrific find in the role as the neophyte we're meant to relate to, Eggsy, who goes from punky hooligan to embrace of the role of hero in a way that gets us on board.  Jackson is a bit cartoonish with his hip-hop mogul attire and lisp (shades of Russell Simmons), but his persona definitely is different from the super-villain norm, so it ends up turning a potential miscasting into an asset, especially since he clearly is enjoying himself in the role, going firmly against his Nick Fury archetype.

For as much of a rush as it is, fatigue does start to wear in during the prolonged climax, featuring the aforementioned indulgence of potential forced filicide (given the global stakes, it's a cheap trick to show one prominent toddler in danger) It is also punctuated by an attempt at a subversion of super-spy coital wrap-up that feels a bit incongruous with the rest of the film, and with the character of young Eggsy as a whole.  You already had us, Matthew, so no need to push the boundaries of the characters or narrative beyond the breaking point to get a reaction.  Still, it might have been funny in Bond-spoof fashion if the words, "The End" appeared on the screen in the moment that a bare bum shows up on the screen.

Tonal quibbling notwithstanding, attempts to push boundaries and upend traditional tropes will always ruffle the occasional feather, so even if 10% of the material makes you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, or offended, there's enough solid entertainment here to justify the time spent, even if your good nature gets jostled around a bit.  In what could be the first of a new series (and intended to be), the only question remains when it comes to a film that already has its audacity cranked to 11 is what can it do to out over-the-top itself in a sequel?

-- There is an extra scene shortly following the start of the end credits.

Qwipster's rating::

2015 Vince Leo