Sunday, April 5, 2015

"Kingsman: The Secret Service" (2015)

Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson
Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Rated R: Violence, strong language
Running Time: 129 Minutes

Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton) is a young man with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, Eggsy squanders it by tooling around with his friends and not accomplishing much of anything except pissing off his mother's abusive boyfriend and getting into scrapes with the law. One day when one of those scrapes ends up involving a stolen car and a high-speed chase, he calls the number on the back of an old pendant given to him years earlier when his father died. He's soon in touch with Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who Eggsy learns is actually a secret agent working for a covert independent agency known as Kingsman. Years earlier, Eggsy's father had been on a mission with Hart and saved the man's life.

Hart, codenamed "Galahad," introduces Eggsy to the Kingsman service, run by "Arthur" (Michael Caine), and Eggsy soon begins his training under "Merlin" (Mark Strong). Meanwhile, Hart investigates the death of another Kingsman agent, "Lancelot" (Jack Davenport). Lancelot's last transmission leads him to a climate change professor named James Arnold (Mark Hamill), who is killed before he can tell Hart what he knows. But soon enough, as Eggsy continues to impress his training masters, his new skills will be put to the test as Hart uncovers a nefarious plan by billionaire philanthropist Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) which has the potential to destroy the entire human race.

I have a rather up and down history with comic book writer Mark Millar. I've often enjoyed his work for Marvel, especially the first "Ultimates" mini-series, but his original, creator-owned material I've struggled with. "Wanted," in particular, left a sour taste in my mouth. It's a comic, I thought, with an excellent premise that is marvelously produced... but is ultimately soulless and morally repugnant. If that's the joke, then I didn't get it. So I often approach projects with his name on it with a bit of trepidation. Fortunately, my fears regarding "Kingsman" were (mostly) wiped away.

One of the most important aspects of any film of this type is whether anyone is having any fun. Fortunately, it seems the talent behind and in front of the camera are all having a blast. Of particular note, of course, has to be Mr. Colin Firth, known mostly for playing gentlemanly types in romantic films or dramas and the like. Here, of course, he playfully subverts that by playing a man who is perfectly capable of being an absolutely lethal badass. Director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman play that up for all it's worth, allowing Firth to switch from behind a kindly, well-dressed British gentleman into a vicious killing machine at the drop of a hat. For his part, Firth never looks down on the role; he embraces it and is clearly having a ball doing so. And, thankfully, he proves himself quite adept at handling all the complex hand-to-hand combat asked of him.

Taron Egerton, with only a couple of TV roles under his belt before this film, does pretty well, though his performance can be a little inconsistent. There are times he nails it and times where it feels like he just wasn't in the same rhythm. Most of his better scenes are the ones he shares with Firth, and who can blame him — you'd want to step up if that was the man sitting across from you, too. Another newcomer, Sophie Cookson, plays Roxy, another potential Kingsman member. Although she doesn't have much to do, she does pretty well with what she gets, which more often than not seems to be to be more in line with the damsel in distress.

Samuel L. Jackson is clearly having fun as Valentine, the film's central villain. He talks with a weird lisp and the movie has a pretty solid running gag about his aversion to seeing blood. His henchman, humorously named Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) has two prosthetic legs that are actually lethal cutting blades. She's fantastic, let me tell you, and her fight sequences are eye-poppingly cool. The film hints that there may be more to her relationship with Valentine, but doesn't do any more than hint.

That's both one of the strengths and weaknesses of "Kingsman." It moves at a blistering pace, which serves to both amp up the fun and entertainment but sap the script of a lot of depth of its characters. Instead, there are a lot of gags poking fun at the old-school Bond movies that the film both skewers and emulates quite successfully. From set and costume designs to plot beats, "Kingsman" shows its inner Bond nerd on its sleeve. Most of the time, these are fun little nods that help with some of the parody and satire aspects of the film. Occasionally, it gets a little too heavy-handed: Hart and Valentine actually do talk about their favorite old-school Bond movies, beating the audience over the head with the punchline, har-har-har.

Problematically, another gag in which a woman offers anal sex to Eggsy as a reward for saving the world is a bit too crude. I can see where they were going with it, but... meh.

But, with its inventive photography and great action choreography, "Kingsman" totally delivers as an action movie even with these minor hiccups. Vaughn constructs some really excellent fight sequences; there's not a single fight in this movie that isn't cool as hell to watch. He often humorously contrasts the brutality of the violence by pairing it with popular songs from the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and KC and the Sunshine Band. The effect is bizarre, but always entertaining. One scene in which Firth takes on dozens of enraged Kentucky hate-group members plays out almost entirely in long takes, and it stunning to behold.

Though its characters lack depth, "Kingsman" is inventive, funny and entertaining. It's loaded with sight gags and some excellent action sequences and moves at a brisk pace so it's never boring.

See Also
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Kick-Ass (2010)