Review Date: 06/15/2015
Rating: 3/5 Peanuts.
In a Nutshell:
Though at times displaying glimmers of greatness, copious levels of camp shortchange this gritty spy thriller.
I didn’t see Kingsman: The Secret Service when it was released in theaters, and this was no accident. Upon first seeing the trailer I decided it was nothing more than a lazy, campy spy romp closer to Johnny English than Jason Bourne. With selling points that included a bulletproof umbrella, a lisping Samuel L. Jackson and a henchwoman who seemed like a weird mashup of Oscar Pistorius and Edward Scissorhands, can you really blame me?
But then I heard rumblings that maybe I had misjudged the trailer. The movie held a respectable if unspectacular 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed a modest $404-million internationally, so clearly it had found an audience for itself, and that is exactly the type of performance that’ll get me to pony-up a few dollars on Xbox video to save myself from a Netflix binge-watching session.
It was clear from the beginning that the movie held a certain subversive quality utterly absent from any marketing materials I’d seen. Opening up with a torture-scene, a suicide and a soldier jumping on a grenade, it was apparent I was in for a level of violence more akin to Kickass than James Bond. This dynamic was on display for the remainder of the film. At times campy, at times gritty, at times downright dark and twisted, Kingsman suffers from an identity crisis and never truly seems to find its own voice. These tonal shifts are often sudden and unexpected, such as when a room full of angry parishioners suddenly break out into a gory free-for-all or when a suave, sophisticated father-figure delivers home a life lesson punctuated by a stuffed dog named Mr. Pickles. If you’re looking for a Jason Bourne styled gritty realism or a James Bond styled tongue in cheek romp, as Samuel L. Jackson will tell you, “this aint that kind of movie.”
Further compounding the issue of tone is the distinct feeling that the writers really just phoned in the plot. While the recruiting and training of young protagonist Eggsy Unwin by the dashing Agent Galahad offers some serious entertainment, the movie’s third act where the Kingsman agents must stop the badguy and save the world seem like a relic of a bygone era. Agent Galahad may prefer his villains megalo-maniacal, but Samuel L. Jackson’s lisping, foul-mouthed villain is unconvincing in both his menace and his motivations. Throw in a secret underground lair, a legless henchwoman who kills people with her sword-prosthetics (seriously…) and a plot to end the world ripped from the pages of The Happening (seriously...), and Kingsman really begins to suffer from some serious structural integrity issues. To quote Galahad, a movie is “only as good as its villain,” yet the writers didn't seem to heed their own advice, providing more Dr. Evil than Dr. Lecter.
But despite these shortcomings, Kingsman does have a lot going for it. The cast is top-notch, boasting a veritable who’s who of English acting talent, from the exceptional Colin Firth, the always dependable Mark Strong, a decent appearance from Michael Cain and cameos from Jack Davenport and Mark Hamill, among others. And let us not forget the venerable Samuel L. Jackson, turning in a spirited performance which unfortunately misses the mark. Indeed, the supporting cast is so strong that one hardly notices lead actor Taron Egerton’s merely passable turn as Eggsy, the up and coming would-be-agent with a chip on his shoulder due to his ungentlemanly birth and upbringing. The movie deals with themes such as father-figures, classism (England’s substitute for race-relations), the meaning of gentlemanly conduct, global warming, worldwide celebrity culture, and of course a coming of age story as well. While it fails to give any theme the depth it probably requires, the treatment of most passes beyond mere lip service and leads me to believe the writers gave an honest go of it.
And then there’s the action. Director Matthew Vaughn does a superb job directing frenetic fight sequences with bespoke suit-wearing gentlemen absolutely annihilating crowds of assailants with ruthlessly brutal fighting styles that belong in the Octogon rather than on Savile Row and employing a vast arsenal of kitschy spy toys that would turn Q green with envy. The implementation of long takes aided by steadicam is exactly opposite the shaky fight du-jour sequences we’ve come to expect from Bourne and Batman in recent years, and provides a high-octane energy full of awesome visual spectacles. As I mentioned before, Kingsman doesn’t shy away from blood and violence, and people are killed in all manor of creative ways, - from a flagpole shoved through the mouth to literally being chopped in half - the film provides oh so much of the red red vino on tap.
There’s lots more to unpack, but suffice it to say Kingsman was full of more promise than execution. If you're looking for an entertaining and exciting two hours of diversion, Kingsman delivers, even if it comes in the form of (literally) head-popping action sequences more than anything else.