Not to be confused with the United States Secret Service, Kingsman (Kingsmen?) is an elite group of secret agents, headquartered in London but unaffiliated with any government, who save the world from various threats because official bodies can be maliciously influenced.
If I was up to speed with the breathless exposition, they were founded by a group of aristocratic servants who found themselves without masters (but with the money to fund one of the most advanced spy agencies in the world) in the years between the World Wars; now, highly trained agents take the names of those in King Arthur’s court, and use the cover of a London tailor’s shop to hide an underground spy complex so massive that it includes its own airport.
Or something like that.
It’s all a relentless fever-dream joke, and Kingsman: The Secret Service works best as a comedy that subverts the James Bond franchise and doesn’t take itself much more seriously than the Austin Powers films.
This is director Matthew Vaughn’s second adaptation of a Mark Millar comic book, following Kick-Ass; but where that film was a fairly faithful take on its source material, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman have pretty much invented all the loony backstory of Kingsman. The Secret Service, Millar and Dave Gibbons’ original comic, was a somewhat more straightforward Bond homage/send-up that took place in the well-worn world of MI6.
But while the goofball world of impeccably-dressed tailors moonlighting as superhero secret agents is new, plot has been mostly retained: in Kingsman, we follow young recruit Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a street-smart but wayward youth who suffers under an abusive stepfather. His real dad, however, was a former Kingsman who once gave his life to save team leader Harry Hart, a.k.a. Galahad, who’s played exquisitely by a perfectly-cast Colin Firth.
The Ender’s Game-like secret agent training stuff is adequately handled – as Eggsy clashes with his upper-class rivals and sides with the friendly Roxy, we’re reminded of similar ground that Vaughn covered in Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class – but it’s nice to see Michael Caine as Arthur, head of the Kingsman, and Mark Strong as Merlin, their Q-like technician.
The baddie here is a real doozy, too: Samuel L. Jackson chews up his scenes and churns out every line – every word – with an unmythable lithp as Richmond Valentine, a Steve Jobs stand-in who gives the world free SIM cards – with a catch. No film that takes itself even remotely seriously would allow their chief villain to take the kinds of liberties that Jackson does here.
Valentine recoils at the sight of blood, but his right-hand woman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) – an acrobat who has spring-loaded razor blades for legs (?) – takes care of the dirty work for him. Kingsman features a number of well-executed fight scenes – Firth’s barroom brawl with Eggsy’s tormentors is a highlight – but so many of them take place outside of the realm of physical reality that we begin to lose interest.
The script also distances itself from any kind of reality, culminating in a baseball bat scene involving an Obama stand-in that would be shocking – if we took this thing at all seriously.
There’s a point where Eggsy is ordered to kill the pet dog he has been raising for weeks, and because of Vaughn’s flippant approach here I genuinely didn’t know if we we’re going to see the puppy’s brains splattered across the screen. I’m not so sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but I did know, by that point, that I no longer cared.
In tone and pace, Kingsman most resembles Kick-Ass; but where that film tried to send-up the superhero genre by placing familiar tropes in a faintly-realistic world, Kingsman is completely loony from the get-go (in effect, it places familiar James Bond tropes in an over-the-top superhero world).
By the end, I didn’t give a damn about the inevitable fate-of-the-world finale that always ends films of this type; Vaughn has taken it this far, why not go the whole hog and really give us something to remember. But I had an enjoyable-enough time laughing along with the out-there nature of it all that trivial matters such as plot and character were no longer relevant.