In the 1960’s there were two main types of spy movies. There were the gritty, realistic films like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Ipcress File, and Funeral in Berlin (the last two both starring Michael Caine), and then there were the wry and slightly over the top – sometimes very over the top – James Bond films and its imitators like Our Man Flint or the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” films. With the latter movies, it was a short step to camp comedies like The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the World or Modesty Blaise. The spy genre got a kickstart in the new millennium with the Bourne series, which reinvigorated James Bond when Daniel Craig slipped into the tux. Now, in the new movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, we have a paean to those earlier fantasy spy films, though it also has a strong dose of Bourne in its blood.
Based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar (who wrote the comics “Kick-Ass” and “Wanted,” both later filmed) and Dave Gibbons (who illustrated the classic “Watchmen”), the Kingsmen are operatives of a small but well-funded private intelligence operation. They take their cue from the legend of Arthur and his knights, roaming the world to do good, and their aliases are based on the characters from the legend. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is known as Galahad, while its weapons, tech and training officer is Merlin (Mark Strong). The head of the organization is, appropriately, known as Arthur (Michael Caine). When one of the agents is killed during a mission to save a kidnapped scientist (Mark Hamill), the others are called upon to nominate a replacement, who are then all invited to a training class run by Merlin.
Galahad chooses Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), who on the face of it is an uncouth London youth on his way to becoming a criminal. Eggsy, though, is intelligent and capable, and he happens to be the son of a former Kingsman who sacrificed himself to save Galahad, Merlin and others. The training allows for a classic origins story, though with this one it’s like you’ve drunk a full bottle of adrenalin.
With Bond, the good ones have a great villain – something that is referenced in Kingsman. For this movie, it gets both a failing and a passing grade. The main villain, tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), is too prissy and his lisp gets old real fast. What saves the film is his Odd Job, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), whose lower legs have been replaced by knife-blade prosthetics. Her fights are a blend of ballerina and ninja.
Firth gets to cut loose from the proper characters he’s often played while still maintaining a gentlemanly decorum. It’s like he’s followed Liam Neeson and discovered his inner action hero at an age when most action heroes should have retired. Instead the casting works wonderfully. Taron Egerton had done a couple of shorts and TV series back in the UK before 2014, when starred in Testament of Youth and filmed Kingsman. He’s almost too neat at first, but you forget about that once he meets up with Galahad. Mark Strong is wonderful as Merlin, and having Caine as Arthur is perfect, a bridge to the 1960s spy films.
Writer/Director Matthew Vaughn knows how to handle comic book material. He, along with his co-writer Jane Goldman, had done Kick-ass in 2010, and then rebooted the X-Men series wonderfully with X-Men: First Class in 2011 as well as doing the story for X-Men: Days of Future Past. (They also wrote the excellent spy-revenge drama The Debt in 2010, which was directed by John Madden and starred Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain.) In visual style, Kingsman dances along the edge of parody, but it has a giddy time doing it. The movie definitely goes over the top near the end, though it’s nothing to lose your head over. What helps is an intelligent script that has several surprising twists, and one complete shock.
Kingsman is a popcorn movie, an action flick that’s a good waste of time. It’s rare to get one of these outside of summer, when they usually fill the cinemas, and especially not in February where you normally have studios dumping their bombs like Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son. If you enjoy this type of action film, Kingsman does have some delights to offer.