I’m at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to discussing Mathew Vaughn’s new movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service. This slightly nihilistic, political, violent, high-energy riff on a James Bond movie probably gains a lot extra nuance if you’re even remotely familiar with Bond films. If, hypothetically speaking, you’ve only really seen one non-Daniel-Craig Bond movie in its entirety you’re probably going to be missing some of what’s going on. But I suppose that means I’m here to tell you that it’s okay, it doesn’t negatively affect the movie all that much. Your cultural image of James Bond will probably fill in more blanks than not. Having read a book’s worth of analysis on the Bond series might help with that too. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
Besides, what really elevates Kingsman isn’t the Bond influence, that’s definitely a big part of the movie but it’s not what makes it great. Or maybe it does, I wouldn’t know, but there was enough other great stuff that I didn’t really feel like I was missing much. There’s more than enough meat on this movie’s bones to sustain the Bond-illiterate, and enough surface flair to entertain a casual movie-goer. This is really one of those rare movies that works effectively for a variety of audience goers.
The plot revolves around a London youth named Eggsy. In the movie’s prologue we find out that Eggsy’s father was an agent of the secret organization known as the Kingsman. At this point we don’t really know what the Kingsman’s deal is, other than the fact that they’re so secretive that Momma-Eggsy isn’t allowed to know how her husband dies. Basically Colin Firth, who goes by the codename Galahad, worked with Eggsy’s father. Galahad failed to sufficiently search a prisoner and Eggsy’s dad leapt on top of a grenade to save his fellow agents. As a form of pseudo-retribution, Galahad visits Eggsy and his Mom and gives Eggsy a medal from the Kingsman with a number on the back. He explains that if either of them is ever in trouble they merely need to dial the number and say “Oxfords not Brogues.”
The movie then jumps many years later to a scene in an isolated mountain lodge. There’s a university professor, played pretty wonderfully by Mark Hamill, who has been kidnapped by some tough looking grunts. One of them steps into the back to get Hamill some fancy drink. A knock sounds out the door and the Kingsman agent Lancelot appears. He fights off the men, elegantly catching the drink and suavely drinking from it before it falls. Then there’s another knock on the door. Lancelot opens it and is almost immediately cut down the middle by a woman with bladed prosthetic legs. She catches Lancelot’s drink, then covers up the collection of fallen bodies with sheets before letting in Valentine (Samuel L Jackson). The two leave with Mark Hamill.
Over in London Colin Firth and Michael Caine pour a drink in memory of the now fallen Lancelot, and discuss the need for a new Kingsman. All the current agents get to nominate a candidate for the selection process.
We then cut to a now grown Eggsy and his Mom. Eggsy’s life is quickly established as a living hell. He and his mother share a tiny, filthy apartment. In this opening scene Eggsy quickly bumps up against his Mom’s current partner, Dean, a grimy, sleazy, cruel douche who in this first scene seems to be sending Eggsy away so he can share Eggsy’s Mom with a friend. He blatantly advertises this to Eggsy, and it is exactly as unpleasant as it sounds. Eggsy ends up in a bar with his friends. There he runs into Dean’s son and his friends. The two come close to fighting, but instead Eggsy lifts their keys and takes their expensive car on a joy ride. This gets Eggsy arrested. While in prison Eggsy avidly refuses to fink on his friends. He demands a phone call, then dials the number on the back of his medal. Next time we see him he’s walking out the front door of the police station, where he runs into Galahad. Galahad takes him to a bar for a drink. Dean’s kid shows up and starts to try to pick a fight with Eggsy. They threaten Colin Firth, recommending he leave. He locks the doors to the bar and then beats the shit out of all the thugs. He’s about to wipe Eggsy’s memory when he changes his mind, letting him go, so long as he never speaks a word of it. Eggsy goes back to his mother’s apartment, where he’s immediately attacked by Dean. Dean pins him to the wall, screaming threats. He wants to know who he was with in the car, and who beat up his son. He starts wielding a cleaver and threatening to kill Eggsy. Colin Firth’s soothing voice comes out from a bug on Eggsy’s bag. He threatens Dean with exposure if he does anything, then has Eggsy meet him at the Kingsman tailor’s shop. As Eggsy goes to leave he finds Dean’s goons waiting for him. He pulls of a pretty nifty bit of faux parkour (it’s already been established that Eggsy might’ve made it onto the Olympic gymnastics team, had he stuck with it) as he leaps around the structure of the housing unit he lives in. This really takes the piss out of Dean’s goons.
Eggsy arrives at the tailors where Galahad proposes he attempts to join the Kingsman.
Naturally then there’s a large chunk of the movie devoted to Eggsy’s training, which is designed as a series of trials. The selection process is based around elimination. If you fuck up one of the trials you are no longer eligible. The last one standing at the end of the challenges gets to be a Kingsman; specifically they get to be the new Lancelot. These scenes work together with the continued investigation of the initial incident that led to Lancelot’s death.
It’s this investigation that slowly reveals and leads into the Bond-movie climax. Complete with a world-destroying plot, dynamic super-villain, cool henchmen, hidden fortresses – basically everything you could want from a super-spy action film.
The cast of Kingsman: The Secret Service is all great, and that really helps improve the effect of these Bond tropes. Samuel L Jackson is amazing as Valentine, the movie’s insane Bond-villain. He wants to purge most of the world’s population. One of my favourite things about this version of a Bond-villain is his motivation. It’s utterly convincing to everybody he explains it to. Or at least, convincing to those he invites to weather his apocalypse with him. All the wealthy, privileged world leaders and entertainers are completely comfortable with the idea of purging the world population. Valentine is really a great character, and unlike Jackson’s phoned-in Marvel Movie performances he really goes for it and gets a chance to chew some serious scenery. He’s a righteous super-villain with a hyper-violent and disturbing plan, who’s also nauseated by the sight of blood. He’s playful and occasionally childlike, a lover of Bond movies, and seems to have a legitimate connection with his knife-footed henchwoman. The complexity of his character is really wonderful.
Colin Firth puts in a great Colin Firth performance as Galahad. Basically he just has to be suave and loveable, and he does both those things.
Taron Egerton is great as Eggsy. He breathes a lot of life into what could’ve easily been a bland or insufferable character in other hands. Instead you’re as engaged by the character as you should be. Of course a lot of this is due to the fairly nuanced take on the character of Eggsy. I’m reminded of Attack the Block actually, and not just because both protagonists are lower-class British teens. Both explore the idea that a lower class, dangerous lifestyle frequently leads to the kind of alpha-male heroism we associate with action movies. It makes for a really honest character. Without the context they might seem like assholes, but instead we get a window into how the strife they’ve experienced leads to genuine heroism. It’s an idea that’s fairly true to life and frequently unexplored.
A lot of this movie’s other characters are really secondary, and don’t get a ton to do. Michael Caine pulls off a performance exactly like you’d expect. Seeing Mark Strong play a character who wasn’t completely evil was a nice change of pace, and he was pretty entertaining. Sofia Boutella made for a very badass gimmicky-henchman. Her bladed legs lead to some creative and cool action sequences.
Part of what I really thought worked about Kingsman: The Secret Service was the pacing. It’s a high energy movie that whips along from one set piece to the next quickly as it goes along. Because of the initial window we get into Eggsy life we’re instantly sold on him as a character, and completely willing to follow him through the slightly episodic training sequences. This training actually serves the character’s development, which really does help keep it engaging. Between that and his interactions with Galahad (who’s still investigating the murder of Lancelot) we get to see Eggsy evolve. Basically he gets less and less rebellious and more and more comfortable with the snotty posh vibe of the Kingsman.
Kingsman: The Secret Service knows how to effectively play with the audience. The scenes with Samuel L Jackson never quite unfold how you’d expect for one thing. From how convincing people find his arguments to his choice of meals, he’s a hard character to predict, and that helps make for a threatening villain in a lot of scenes. The other great and unexpected scene comes with the Kingsman trainee’s final test. It’s something that feels like a typical movie trope, but proves to be more complex than that. You really don’t expect Eggsy’s choice to be so admonished, but it is. The movie’s deft manipulation of expectations and tropes and tone really keep it entertaining and dynamic.
The best example of this comes later though.
After Eggsy fails to successfully complete his final Kingsman test, he and Colin Firth have a brief heart-to-heart, something we’ve seen before. Galahad then heads off to investigate a hate church Valentine is associated with. Valentine is monitoring Galahad secretly at this point. Eggsy sits in Galahad’s office watching his investigation through the camera in Galahad’s glasses. Galahad visits the church. There’s a disgusting sermon in full effect, so the building is very crowded. Valentine watches, readying some sort of device he’s implanted in everyone’s phone. In a pretty comedic beat Galahad goes to leave. Then the scene gets significantly less comedic as Valentine activates his device. Suddenly a dizzying and continual fight scene starts as Galahad shoots a woman who has accosted him in the head. Everyone in the church starts trying to kill each other as the camera swirls around following Galahad, the strongest and best-trained man in the room. It’s a brutal fight filled with grey death involving makeshift weapons, knifes, guns, and axes. Colin Firth is a blur, hatcheting women in the neck and impaling people on chair legs. It’s a spectacular scene, but it’s also so graphic when compared to the rest of the movie that it keeps you perfectly on edge. Not only does it perfectly sell you on the threat Valentine’s plan poses, but it keeps you nicely off-balance for the scene immediate following the church massacre – Colin Firth’s death. Which is a scene I really didn’t expect and plays really well.
The best part of the movie is hands down the effective thematic core though. Right off the bat you can tell this isn’t a typical Hollywood depiction of poverty. Perhaps one of the more insidious and annoying Hollywood tropes is the poor character who lives in a spacious New York apartment or many-storied house. Whether this tendency comes from an actual disconnect from normal human life or misguided aesthetic choices it’s common and fairly offensive. Kingsman: The Secret Service makes Eggsy’s life look like a living hell. His home situation is awful, his apartment is tiny, and he’s miserable. This helps clarify the thematic concepts that reframe Eggsy’s attempts to join the Kingsman. This movie is actually about the stagnation of economic stratums. It’s about how hard it is for someone in Eggsy’s situation to even get a job, let alone a good job.
The movie approaches its themes with an anger and satirical bent that bubbles out in unexpected places. You can tell this movie just fucking hates the one percent, eventually pausing its narrative so we can watch a series of wealthy individuals explode in a dazzling fireworks display. (This attempt at satire is also clearly what that last sex joke was an attempt at. There’s a clear attempt at mocking a James Bond trope, but it lands poorly and ends up feeling more offensive than biting.)
Generally though, this anger, nihilism, and dark comedy actually improves the overall effect of the movie’s themes. The movie wants you to get angry about the same things it’s angry about and it does a pretty good job of it. Certainly not all the wealthy characters we meet are evil, otherwise the Kingsman wouldn’t be the protagonist, but almost every entrenched, tip-of-the-iceberg wealthy character we meet is pretty awful. The Kingsman instead communicate this idea of employment, offering Eggsy a job, giving him a chance to improve his life, but still stacking the odds against him.
These themes make Kingsman: The Secret Service a rare movie. Not only is it fabulously entertaining but also it’s resoundingly about something.