Kingsman: The Secret Service is not the movie you probably think it is.
Like many of you, I love that first trailer that’s basically a complete sequence of Colin Firth beating up a gang of pub thugs using beer mugs and his bulletproof umbrella. A whole movie of that would be great, but Kingsman is something very different. And if you’re a comic-book fan, you have the upper hand here, because you know the way Mark Millar works. Though if you’ve seen the movie versions of Wanted and Kick-Ass you have a good idea too – Millar, an almost stereotypical angry Scot, specializes in deconstructing tropes into giant middle fingers pointed right at his readers.
[Some spoilers follow, but my instinct is that they’re not movie-ruining, and it’s tough to properly review the movie without them]
In this case, the trope is of the Roger Moore James Bond, which is taken to an extreme. What if somebody with the gadgets, invincibility, license to kill and charm of Moore’s Bond not only existed, but was part of an organization in which everyone was like him? And what if it were independent of government review and they could do whatever they wanted?
It’s an interesting idea that is insufficiently developed, and part of the problem is that the movie alienated me in its very first scene, set in the Middle East, in which Kingsman agents gleefully blow the shit out of some stereotypical Arabs to the strains of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” then enter their fortress and proceed to comedically massacre everyone inside by implication (we see only the exterior, as the crumbling fa?ade of the building forms the movie’s opening credits). Next up – a torture scene, of course, as the presumably Muslim captive is shot in the legs while tied to a chair…and then turns out to be a suicide bomber loaded with grenades, which I guess justifies everything.
I get that Millar likes to be offensive, but after American Sniper, and the real-life families many of us know who’ve suffered real losses, this oversimplification feels gross and exploitative. Whether you like Chris Kyle or not, Clint Eastwood’s movie about him never reduced our current wars to a kick-ass [no pun intended]cinematic video game.
And it’s just the opening scene of the movie. Wait till we get to the part where a fictional version of the Westboro Baptist Church congregation gets flat-out murdered for kicks, in an extended sequence that I think we’re supposed to love.
Hey, remember when The Interview was all people were talking about, and one of the lines of argument for censoring it was, “What if some foreign director made a movie that depicted our president like that?” Keep that in mind, as it may come up again very soon.
Anyway, the bulk of the story involves a young man who goes by the name of “Eggsy” (an impressive Taron Egerton, in what will surely be a breakthrough role), who is pegged by agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) to be a potential recruit into the Kingsman organization (presumably changed from MI6 in the comics, when it occurred to all involved that outright slandering a secretive governmental organization onscreen would be a bad idea). A large chunk of the film involves Eggsy’s training, while the B-plot involves Hart investigating a series of kidnappings that appear to point to computer mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, in Flavor Flav hat and Mike Tyson lisp) as the culprit.
Either a full-on Bond spoof with Hart, or a movie exclusively set at “Bond Academy” with Eggsy, could have been great by themselves. But combined with an inane villain master plan and a third-act turn into large-scale gratuitous brutality, the thing becomes a tonal mess. By the time a dramatic moment centers on whether or not a mother will kill her baby with a butcher knife, you don’t know whether this is supposed to be funny-disturbing, disturbing-disturbing, or just the work of a disorganized asshole desperate to push your buttons. I tend towards that last one.
The villain’s plot, by the way, is to kill lots of people in order to reduce global warming, and Barack Obama is shown (but not named) as being a willing co-conspirator. Now, we’ve seen our share of idiotic onscreen “right-wing” conspiracies as imagined by liberals, so turnabout is fair play – but it simply makes no sense. From a personal perspective, Valentine has the resources to survive climate change just fine; the only reason to fight it would be a philanthropic one. Yet he wants to kill most of the world’s population, which is not philanthropic at all.
Meanwhile, the tonal consistency is exacerbated further when plot developments essentially defang everything we thought we knew about the training academy, so when shit really goes down and montages of exploding heads happen, it’s extra-jarring – but not in a Hitchcockian, deliberately jarring way. Rather, it’s more like when you’re having beers with the buddies and one of them suddenly starts busting out racist jokes and everything gets uncomfortable. He thinks it’s cool and that you’ll laugh, but everyone wishes he had kept his mouth shut. Director Matthew Vaughn nailed the right black-humor balance in Kick-Ass, but he’s adrift here, and a disappointment for the first time.
That I feel offended also makes me feel old. I’m not calling on anyone to ban the works of Vaughn or Millar, but I do wonder at their ability to “read the room,” as stand-up comics say. I presume the goal was to offend, at least to some degree, but I get the sense that they think only radical far-right dittoheads are gonna hate it, and that they deserve to.
Not so, fellows. As Mr. Firth is fond of saying in the movie, “Manners maketh man.” Please tell me, gents, that you’re being ironic with that line.
Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.)
Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist