As an unabashed lover of spy movies– the James Bond franchise in particular– and an under-30 male who still occasionally daydreams about how to eliminate enemy henchmen if I were ambushed in a supermarket checkout, I feel like I am exactly the demographic that Kingsman: The Secret Service is intended to delight. However, while there are moments in the film I loved, I found it to be a souring experience overall.
After an opening prologue, where a Kingsmen mission in the Middle East ends in the death of an agent, gentleman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) personally delivers a medal to the deceased agent’s wife and son, Eggsy, with an offer of a favor to be named later. The film jumps 17 years, into another opening gambit featuring the attempted rescue of a bewildered scientist (Mark Hamil). The film has two main threads. One follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton), now a troubled London youth, cashing in that favor and subsequently being introduced into the world of the Kingsmen. This requires he compete against other candidates in a series of tests under the guidance of Merlin (Mark Strong). The other follows Harry as he investigates the disappearance from the beginning of the film and how it potentially connects to tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). In true 007 fashion, this all culminates in a showdown at the headquarters of an evil mastermind while trying to stop his plan that would have terrible global consequences.
In the past, director Matthew Vaughn has won me over with well-executed adaptations of source material from comics, but sadly this attempt at bringing Mark Millar’s work to the screen is not as successful as Kick-Ass. While that film is also a hyperviolent romp playing with genre tropes, Kick-Ass at least had Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s titular character as a sympathetic lead with enough of an arc to ground the romp in actual stakes.
Kingsman, however, is all plot, no story. Rather than show Eggsy or Harry develop over the course the film, or reveal anything about their characters, the only thing moving the film forward are the machinations of the plot itself. And sadly, little in the plot adds up to anything. There are seemingly a lot of twists and turns, but few of them actually have any real impact on the story. It moves from point to point almost at random, more piecemeal homage then pointed parody. It has less to say about James Bond than the Austin Powers franchise, and those films actually attempt somewhat of an arc for their hero.
The film does have its bright spots, most especially Colin Firth. Looking equally dapper and spry, Firth really seems to cut loose, embodying the idea of the gentleman spy, and essentially giving the Roger Moore incarnation of 007 a badass makeover. He proves himself in both wittiness and some surprisingly intense action sequences, and carries most of the film himself.
Another positive aspect of the film is Sofia Boutella as Valentine’s henchwoman Gazella. Taking prosthetic “blades” to a new level, she really gives her all, giving the character more personality than existed on the page alone. Roxy (Sophie Cookson), Eggsy’s training rival, also brings a lot to the middle third of the film, and while I applaud the film for not reducing her to a love interest, she is completely sidelined in the film’s final act. Perhaps the most egregious treatment of any character in the film is a kidnapped princess that is shown to be one of the smartest characters in the film, yet it in the end is reduced to a sexual reward for the protagonist.
Vaughn thrives on metatext, but Kingsman goes for it so often it undermines the rest of the film. While even George Lazenby can have a moment of complaining “this never happened to the other fellow” in the otherwise serious On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when the film pauses to remind you, “this ain’t that kind of movie” several times, it undermines the message. The film doesn’t need to tell us, it needs to show us. All of this becomes especially tiresome by the third act, giving the film’s climax an overbearing sense of self-satisfaction rather than fun.
All of this sabotages the weight of anything in the film. Rather than being a fun parody or homage, Kingsman: The Secret Service becomes an exhausting pastiche that is all style and no substance. Truly shaken, not stirred.
Kingsman: The Secret Service opens today in Philly area theaters.