You may not always walk out of a Matthew Vaughn film in love with the movie, but damn if you didn’t have a good time watching it. Sure they can be a little rough around the edges plot-wise, but there is something undeniably charming about the director’s love and enthusiasm for his film’s influences and the contrast with his utter irreverence and willingness to take the audience wherever the hell he wants.
With Kingsman: The Secret Service, Vaughn and his trusty co-writer Jane Goldman (who’s worked on every screenplay Vaughn has directed, save Layer Cake) do for the gentleman spy what Kick-Ass did for the superhero. Some storyline blemishes and strange comedic choices aside, Kingsman is a colourful and modern love letter to Bond at the height of his swagger and zaniness.
Vaughn’s third film based on a comic (and second one written by Mark Millar), Kingsman: The Secret Service follows the troubled Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), who is headed for a life behind bars until he is given a second chance by super-spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Hoping he can live up to his father’s legacy, Hart recruits Unwin into a rigorous initiation program to see if he has what it takes to join his clandestine organisation. As a conspiracy hatched up by maniacal tech genius Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) comes to fruition, the would-be spy must use his training to bring him down and save the world.
Ok, admittedly, that plot sounds pretty generic on paper, and it probably is, but it’s delivered with so much energy and personality you’re really not going to care all that much. Kingsman is totally tongue-in-cheek, playfully pointing out archetypes or taking them to their absolute extremes, but thankfully not so much that they risk turning the film into one big in-joke. There are a couple instances where Vaughn comes close to alienating the more casual members of his audience by pushing the joke too far (especially with some odd choices toward the film’s climax), but these moments are thankfully rare. Otherwise, Kingsman’s free-flowing and at times unashamedly adolescent humour sprinkle plenty of flavour on what could be a vanilla plot.
Despite the energetic pace, there are sadly moments where the film starts to lose its momentum. Kingsman spends a tad too much time running Unwin through his various training drills, resulting in all the bombastic spy-action getting pushed to the side. It’s a shame, because when Vaughn dives in for his big set pieces it is absolutely a thing to behold. Unequipped with the mega-budget of the more four-quadrant comic movies, Vaughn creates a spectacle of a different kind with creative and meticulously planned spouts of adrenaline-fuelled mayhem. Colin Firth’s ass-kicking scene in a church is particularly gob-smacking, giving us what feels like Edgar Wright on coke and perfectly capturing the atemporal nature of comic book action in a way I struggle to recall ever seeing realised in a film. If only there could be just a little more of it.
It’s hard to tell whether he is simply trying to breathe life into inconsequential characters, or if he just loses track of the extended cast, but Vaughn has a tendency in his films to introduce a lot of characters that feel underutilised. While some feel like loose threads, such as Unwin’s fellow recruit Roxy (Sophie Cookson), there are others that you simply wish were more like Firth’s Hart.
Firth fits the world of Kingsman like a glove and it’s quietly awesome to see him get to play the tough guy in the way only he can. It’s perhaps a testament to his performance that you want to spend more time with him, but it has to be said that the movie shines a little less brightly when he’s not around.
Luckily, Egerton is charming enough himself that the film never leaves us without a hero we can root for. The 25-year-old is a born lead, ably carrying the film’s comedy, emotional beats, and ice-cold swagger. From his arrogant lad origins to his transformation into suave gentlemen spy, Egerton ensures Unwin is both a lovable anchor for the film and the perfect eyepiece for Vaughn’s vision of the spy world.
I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention Sam Jackson’s eccentric antagonist Valentine. While he feels a little disconnected from Kingsman’s core focus for much of the film, Vaughn ensures we still spend plenty of time with the would-be mass murderer. Even if Jackson plays three roles like this every day for breakfast before he reads the paper, you do get the sense that he is having a bit more fun here than in many of his similar performances. Valentine is a villain that legitimately believes he is saving the world; he just needs to cause the deaths of millions of people to do so. There is something childishly amusing about his preposterously brutal plan and his geeky, anti-violence persona that gives Valentine an edge over many of the other Jackson creations.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is an absolute blast. A strong cast, great sense of humour, and Vaughn’s uncompromising personality as director easily make it the most fun at the movies 2015 has offered up so far. The humour might not be everyone’s cup of tea and the story could certainly use a bit of refocusing, but as long as you’re able to get on board with what Vaughn has to offer, Kingsman is one hell of a ride.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10