Matthew Vaughn has had a consistently great output since his debut with the stylish 2004 crime-thriller, Layer Cake. His work on Stardust and X-Men: First Class is enough to make any director the kind you’d want to keep an eye on. However, it’s his work with Kick-Ass and the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service that fascinates me the most. Both are adaptations of comics written by Mark Millar. I really don’t like Mark Millar. I find many of his original work to be incredibly juvenile, taking otherwise solid set-ups that are ultimately ruined by a smearing of poor humor and a deeply unpleasant attitude that takes away any goodwill or humanity the story could have had. A Millar work has been adapted before with Wanted, though I wasn’t impressed. However, with 2010’s Kick-Ass, Vaughn and his frequent co-writer, Jane Goldman (who doesn’t seem to get enough credit for her work), managed to find the emotional core and genuine thematic nuance from the ugly and trashy comic that it was based on. Vaughn and Goldman are back to adapting another comic by Mark Millar (and Dave Gibbons) with Kingsman: The Secret Service.
The Kingsman are an elite group of spies who are the ones that dabble in conflicts that even MI6 wouldn’t want to be involved in. Following the death of an agent on duty, Harry Hat aka Galahad (Colin Firth) goes to the son of a former agent, who also died during a mission years earlier, Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), as a possible replacement. Eggsy goes through a rigorous training process with other possible recruits. Meanwhile, a threat looms over the world as tech billionaire, Richard Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), seems to be working on a secret project that could only lead to something bad.
It’s impressive enough that Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman were able to take Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass and turn it into something genuinely fun, creative and engaging. The fact that they have transcended their source material yet again with Kingsman: The Secret Service might be what it takes to put them into genius territory. Kingsman is a smartly constructed film that works on a lot of levels and has many things going for it besides being an immensely entertaining experience. There’s so much to praise, I’m not even sure where to start.
I’ll start with the cast, since that is basically the one part where I have a minor complaint: no sign of Jason Flemyng, who has appeared in every other Mathew Vaughn film. I’d say that’s my only real disappointment. Joking aside, the cast in Kingsman is very strong across the board. There’s a mix of some Vaughn regulars and some new faces, all of whom seem to completely be on the same page as to what the film is going for, making the characters a lot of fun to watch. Colin Firth takes part in basically his first action film (unless you’re gonna count that 2007 film that no one remembers called The Last Legion), and he absolutely kills it. His demeanor and deadpan delivery goes from charming to intimidating on a dime and he can rock a suit like nobody’s business. It never would’ve crossed my mind before, but I would love to see Colin Firth do more action films. The other members of the Kingsman include many familiar British actors including the likes of Michael Caine, Mark Strong and Jack Davenport. Sophie Cookson makes her film debut as Roxy, the highest ranking trainee for a position in the organization, and while her role is not as fleshed out as it could’ve been, she still makes for an engaging and likeable presence that is able to keep the audience’s investment. Samuel L. Jackson does one of his best performances in recent memory as the villain and Sofia Boutella does really good work as Gazelle, Valentine’s muscle with bladed prosthetic legs. The standout of the film, however, goes to Taron Egerton, who makes for one hell of a good first impression. His role requires a lot from an actor. There’s the tough kid with a heart of gold, the charismatic action star, the slow transition from aimless hoodlum to dignified hero and he has to have some good comedic and dramatic chops. Taron Egerton manages to do all of this, while making it look easy in the process. I may not have heard of him before, but I’m sure that I’ll see more of him in the coming years.
There’s a lot to like in Kingsman and most of it comes out of Vaughn’s direction as well as his and Goldman’s screenplay. The screenplay is really tight, being able to effortlessly balance the story, characters, tones and themes without feeling bloated or messy. Obviously, the style of the story and the direction take numerous elements from classic spy films and shows, the blatant one being Roger Moore era Bond films. I wouldn’t describe the film as a shallow spoof though because it does many smart things with the influences through clever theming, which shows much more depth under the surface. Yes, it’s very much a tribute to those types of camp-spy romps, but it’s also a deep-rooted deconstruction that also deals in class issues, imperialism in such a pitch black, cynical way that reminds me of how Wolf of Wall Street didn’t even let its audience off the hook. Obviously, given some of the controversy over some material in the film, I can definitely understand why some are upset or offended. I will argue that the film is smarter than it may seem, it is fully aware of everything that it’s doing. It knows how ugly it is, and it deals with it in a direct manner that may not be easy to notice on first viewing. And yes, I think this also includes the gag that ends the film. Let me remind you that this scene basically deconstructs a trope that was played straight in Skyfall just two years ago. Remember the scene where Bond meets Sévérine. She reveals to him her past as a sex slave when she was barely a teenager, which is followed almost immediately by Bond joining in a shower with her. So, yes, Kingsman is a legitimately better deconstruction of James Bond than that actual James Bond film that was meant to deconstruct his iconography. If there’s one clue that I could use, it’s the table at the Kingsman HQ. This could be considered a slight spoiler so read with caution or skip the rest of the paragraph. The whole shtick with the Kingsman is that they are basically modern Knights of the Round Table. The codenames of the agents are the names of the knights, such as Galahad and Lancelot, and their code of ethics reflects many Arthurian ideals. The table that the Kingsman always hold their meetings in is a rectangle. Not a circle, the way it should be, representing equal status, a rectangle. For as much detail put into the film, this would be such a bizarre oversight, it had to be done on purpose, and I believe that it wholeheartedly is. It shows that the Kingsman themselves are severely flawed and hypocritical on a fundamental level. The film uses subtle clues to show us that it doesn’t necessarily endorse everything it presents and there’s honesty to that which I greatly admire.
I could go on about how complex the film might be, but ultimately that element is more of a plus, as I was simply having such a blast watching the film that it almost didn’t need to be as smart as it was. The pacing is quick, keeping the plot straight and to the point. The humor is solid, visuals and soundtrack are fun and the action is phenomenal. Really, if there’s anything that is able to push the film into instant-classic territory, it’s the fact that Kingsman has one of the best action scenes I’ve ever witnessed. It’s “the church scene” as many have put it, and that’s about all I want to give away. It is pure balls-to-the-wall ultraviolence that is as entertaining as the medium of film could possibly showcase. The craft behind it, with the camera work, the editing, the choreography and an amazing use of “Free Bird” puts the scene up there among the best action scenes of all time. At the end of the day, even if you are put off by some elements of the film, it is really hard to deny just how much fun the film is.
Kingsman: The Secret Service could’ve easily been a fairly straightforward old-school Bond riff, but it also manages to be a surprisingly layered and complex film with more under the surface than it might let on. Having one of the best action sequences ever put on screen also helps. The production and costume design, screenplay and direction make for a stylish, witty and impressive piece of filmmaking that is about as rough as it is gorgeous. It’s most certainly not for everybody, especially if you have a weak stomach for violence. Kingsman is easily the best that Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman have been so far, and it places the bar pretty high for every other action blockbuster this year.
Side-Note: There is no official word on what Matthew Vaughn will direct next, though he will serve as a producer for the Fantastic Four reboot coming out this August. Jane Goldman is writing Tim Burton’s next project, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, based on the book of the same name by Ransom Riggs. I would also like to point out how funny it is that Guy Ritchie, a personal friend of Matthew Vaughn who was even a producer for Ritchie’s first three films, is directing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The film is based on the late 60’s show of the same name created by Sam Rolfe and starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. The new film, which is written by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, will star Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, a British as an American and an American as a Russian. Based on the trailer for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. it seems like America’s answer to Kingsman. I’m hoping Guy Ritchie delivers.