Deep Focus: Kingsman: The Secret Service
The main reason Kingsman: The Secret Service leaves you feeling rooked is that it wastes a once-in-an-actor’s-lifetime opportunity. Casting Colin Firth as a lethal gentleman super-spy and stranding him without elegant derring-do is like catching lightning in a bottle, then opening the stopper and letting it flash out.
Firth plays Harry Hart, code name Galahad, a member of an independent British secret service that patterns itself on King Arthur’s Round Table. (Michael Caine plays the chief, code name Arthur.) Firth is focused, trim, primed for action. In what passes for a master movie strategy, audiences 25 and up are meant to smile at seeing their beloved humanist star take down a pub-full of thugs and mow through a mob of addled fundamentalists. Audiences from 17 to 24 (the movie is R-rated) are led to identify with Galahad’s protégé, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), a bright, strong, goodhearted lout from a North West London housing project. Eggsy is the son of a Kingsman agent who died to save a handful of comrades, including Harry. The agent takes on the lad as a cause, hoping to honor the debt to his dad and to prove that the agency should reinvigorate itself with proletarian blood. In one of the film’s scattered semi-funny riffs, Harry asks Eggsy whether he knows Trading Places, La Femme Nikita, or Pretty Woman. The answer is no—but Eggsy does know My Fair Lady.
I preferred it when Firth’s hyper-rational magician played Henry Higgins to Emma Stone’s psychic Eliza Doolittle in Magic in the Moonlight. In Kingsman, writer-director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman don’t summon the finesse to bring off high-style espionage or the primal pep to make over-the-top action scenes build and then pay off in shocked laughter and thrills (they’re aiming for that combination). The Kingsman headquarters is a Savile Row tailor shop, and the idea of the agency producing gentlemen spies is reduced to bulletproof bespoke suits and tricked-out umbrellas, watches, and signet rings. The only bit of business that’s remotely charming or memorable is Harry using an umbrella handle as a sling to turn a beer glass into a shot glass. A few straightforward scenes promise to be palate cleansers, like Eggsy using gymnastic skills to clamber up, down, and over project rooftops while escaping from a gang of knuckleheads. But even that simple piece of action falls short of the exhilarating get-up-and-go of similar parkour scenes in numerous modest action films (including Paul Walker’s fleet-footed swan song, Brick Mansions). Though cinematographer George Richmond executes intricate, sweeping camera moves, the movie feels sour and slaphappy.
Instead of wit, we get strained, sadistic jokiness. Samuel L. Jackson uses a theatrical lisp to portray a billionaire digital pioneer named Richmond Valentine, while his female assistant/assassin, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), employs her razor-sharp prosthetic feet to slice away at their adversaries. (Vaughn says he came up with the gimmick before the Oscar Pistorius scandal.) If Vaughn had a surer hand with performers and an ease at shifting tones, Jackson’s speech-challenged technocrat could have been a chucklesome routine, like Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa. Instead it becomes an irritant and an embarrassment. Gazelle’s feet offer a topsy-turvy take on Oddjob’s deadly hat in Goldfinger. It’s one of the numerous ingredients culled from vintage Bond films, but Kingsman is more like a poisonous pop-culture potpourri. It’s the kind of cheaply anarchistic action comedy in which an implanted computer chip programmed to release aggression will result in mobs of people tearing each other apart and a mother advancing on her baby with a knife.
In a clunky blend of origin story and apocalyptic fantasy, Kingsman gadget-master Merlin (Mark Strong) puts Eggsy and his fellow recruits through their oddball basic training while Firth strives to solve mysteries related to the disappearance of political, cultural, and scientific celebrities and Valentine’s obsession with global warming (and, it turns out, global genocide). Except for Eggsy, the male trainees are clueless upper-crusters. The females are sympathetic, but even the kind, collegial Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who comes close to resembling a real human being, is ultimately blank. Then again, if the characters were more engaging, we’d be more enraged by a training regimen that’s confused and cold-blooded. (Human and canine life seems to be treated cavalierly.) And Egerton is so callow that when he finally puts on a Kingsman suit, it looks like Merlin is sending a boy to do a man’s job.
Based on the comic-book series that Vaughn and writer Mark Millar co-plotted (with Dave Gibbons as artist), Kingsman: The Secret Service lacks the courage of its own harebrained convictions. It’s composed of gaudy yet also hollow setpieces. It’s promising to see Valentine lead Harry into his dining room past a series of giant panda paintings, but the big joke at their dinner scene is that the butler serves the finest McDonald’s cuisine (Harry picks a Big Mac). Is it racist (as some have suggested) to show a black tech tycoon serving McDonald’s? Or does it appeal to an adolescent boy’s fantasy that the height of “class” is to know which fine wine goes best with which particular fast food? Vaughn has said that he grew up with Roger Moore’s Bond. This homage resembles the worst of Moore’s Bond movies, Moonraker, especially in a frantic climax that intercuts Eggsy taking on Valentine’s personal army at his mountain hideout, Merlin hacking into the billionaire’s mainframe, and Roxy venturing into the exosphere on a twin-balloon rig made while President Reagan was still pushing the “Star Wars” defense system. In the most elaborate and lamest exploding-head sequence of all time, blown-out brains spiral into the air like candy-colored mini-mushroom clouds.
The film is in some ways cruder than the comic book: here Eggsy knows he’s made the grade when a Scandinavian princess who’s been imprisoned by Valentine offers Eggsy anal sex for saving the world. But the original had a shameless melodramatic vitality while the movie becomes numbing. In the comic book, the Kingsman who mentors Eggsy is his uncle. Being an uncle to Eggsy and a brother to Eggsy’s abused mother would have given Firth more to play than the enlightened paternalism of a righteous aristocrat lifting up a plebe.
Before becoming a director, Vaughn trailblazed “laddism” on film as the producer of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (99). You might remember laddism as the British pop and fashion trend that turned mean-streets male rowdiness into a perverse kind of chic. These days Vaughn still evinces a laddist’s view of Firth’s career. He finds it tremendously witty just to drop Galahad into a fight with a bunch of pub rats. How naïve could a hip director be? Of course Firth is polished, handsome, and graceful, yet he derived his special charisma by playing against those qualities, becoming an international TV superstar as the superlative yet off-putting Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (a role that defeated Laurence Olivier in the 1940 movie). Whether embodying Jane Austen’s Darcy or his contemporary counterpart, the forbidding human-rights lawyer Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Firth achieved something difficult—a hard charm, not an easy charm. And as the stammering King George VI in The King’s Speech, Firth never went for simple pathos or poignancy. He intermingled shyness, stubborn pride, and ingrown arrogance whenever his speech therapist (the equally great Geoffrey Rush) overstepped proper bounds. When Firth appeared on Inside the Actors Studio, he told James Lipton: “I got to play Jack Frost in the school play. And it involved little tight satin pants and a blue sash and a billowing white shirt and a polystyrene crown. And I felt like God. I was mobbed and clawed at by members of the opposite sex, it was like, you know… I just thought, next stop it’s cocaine in the back of the limo.” The man who made that statement could have played a super-agent in his late prime with bone-deep irony. Now he’ll probably never get the chance.
As a director, Vaughn has proven more effective at playing off established grooves, in Layer Cake (04) and X-Men: First Class (11), than at staking out supposedly fresh territory. In fact, Layer Cake, another entertaining piece of big-screen laddism, starred the pre-007 Daniel Craig as a GQ-obsessed cocaine dealer, and got far more rueful laughs from a character’s stylishness than Kingsman. Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (10) received tons of publicity as a would-be pop-art milestone that “redefines the superhero movie genre,” but it didn’t redefine anything. It merely took the base appeal of a certain kind of superhero movie—a bloody revenge of the nerd—and used an 11-year-old girl to push the violence level to 11. When Vaughn thinks he’s creating new subgenres, he tends to concoct novelty numbers that he varies only by making them more hyperbolic and frenzied.
The one time he displayed a touch of the pop poet was in his Neil Gaiman adaptation Stardust (07). Vaughn is able to rise to the level of his source book. He just needs to choose better material next time.