6 Feb 2015

Screen Time: KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
Cast: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Mark Hamill
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Runtime: 129 minutes
Certificate: 15
Release date: 29 January 2015 (UK), 13 February 2015 (USA)

James R: As I sat down to review the latest comic-based movie to grace our multiplex, I was once again reminded of Quentin Tarantino’s maxim regarding reviews: “Ultimately, most reviewing is worthless – the only thing that matters is did you enjoy the movie or not?” Based on this, my instinctive response is 'Yes'. Without doubt, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a slick production, and as Bryan Ferry’s ‘Slave To Love’ played over the closing credits, I didn’t feel short-changed – or that I’d lost two hours of my life that I wouldn’t get back (or, The Amazing Spider-Man Effect, as I like to call it). However, there was an unmistakable feeling that this movie doesn’t quite hit the mark. As to why, well, having reflected on it, I think there are a few reasons…

A young man with a dead-end life and no prospects is picked from obscurity and told that he’s special, and inducted into a top-secret, and well-equipped organisation. Watching Kingsman, I was struck by a powerful sense of déjà vu. Comics writer Mark Millar has certainly mined this idea before with his series Wanted, and as with Kingsman, Hollywood couldn’t resist this old story staple. There’s an awful lot about the movie that will strike the regular filmgoer as familiar. The core plot mentioned above is almost identical to Men In Black and The Matrix – but that’s no real crime. As the playwright Denis Johnson once wrote, there are only seven archetypal plots in fiction, and so the quality of the production should be judged on how well it retells the tale.

In some elements, the film certainly succeeds: whenever Colin Firth is on the screen as Galahad, the movie gains a lot of elegance, humour and fun. Mark Strong is classy as usual, and despite a questionable lisp, Samuel L. Jackson clearly has fun as the megalomaniacal Valentine. However, when they're not on screen there is the distinct feeling that you’re watching a lesser retread of director Matthew Vaughn excellent X-Men: First Class. Part of this is down to Taron Egerton. As Kingsman’s main protagonist Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin, he’s neither fish nor fowl – when we meet him at the start of the movie, he’s not quite delinquent enough to make the Pygmalion transformation believable, and when he takes on the mantle of a Kingsman agent, he’s not charismatic enough as a leading man. In First Class, Vaughn had the fortune of having three terrific leads in James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence. Without the same star-power in abundance here, the movie felt pretty thin in places.

Characterisation was a big problem in the film for me. One of the film’s best scenes features Eggsy facing the final test of his worthiness to join the ranks of the Kingsmen and, without spoiling the movie, the conclusion from that test is then entirely disregarded for the film’s finale. This problem extends to the supporting cast too. The film takes the excellent step of establishing Roxy (Sophie Cookson) as Eggsy’s equal – and to a greater extent, his superior – as an agent, but by the last 20 minutes, she is literally relegated to the role of secretary. “Call my mum!” asks Eggsy. And she does!
There’s been much made of the fact that this is a ‘Bond movie on steroids’, but it didn’t strike me as such. Vaughn definitely handles the action with panache, and there are some terrific one-liners, but just as with Kick-Ass, there’s a definite recourse to the familiar. In Vaughn’s first Mark Millar adaptation, there was a great emphasis on the idea of “real-life superheroes” – for two-thirds of that film, it worked really well… before climaxing in an action scene that so utterly divorced from 'reality', I felt it deflated everything that went before it. In Kingsman, it’s the same story – the intention is to skewer spy movies, and it succeeds (even having the confidence to add a number of post-modern nods to ‘classic spy movies’ and how this is definitely not one of those) before climaxing in a sequence which was utterly orthodox and in keeping with Bond motifs (even down to faceless goons and ‘Secret Lair’ hallways carved from the mountain).

Kingsman should also be applauded for its confidence in putting so many themes into play – along with the notion of spy movies, Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s script tries to say something about class. Running throughout the movie is both the idea that the rich, ruling elite will never accept the poor as equals, and one of the movie’s best moments is when Eggsy faces his distinctly upper-class competition for the chance to become a Kingsman. Sadly, this doesn’t really go anywhere – beyond Roxy, the class are strictly two-dimensional figures rather than more interesting mirrors to Eggsy’s character. For example, there is never any explanation given as to why the Kingsmen feel they have the right to be freelance world super-cops – they just are! That’s certainly not a problem in most action movies, but in one that’s set itself up to be a cut above, it felt like a missed opportunity.

So is Kingsman: The Secret Service worth your time and money? On a depressingly dark and cold Tuesday evening in midwinter, it was certainly a tonic, and fills the blockbuster gap nicely until Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Don't expect a game-changer though, or to be desperate to see it again. 6/10

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