“It’s a bulldog, innit?”
I’m all for Matthew Vaughan continuing to jump from comic book property to comic book property. That’s not to say his debut Layer Cake was bad—on the contrary, I liked it a lot—he’s simply had a very successful run afterwards in the graphic novel realm spanning Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. Collaborating with Mark Millar hasn’t hurt either with his latest Kingsman: The Secret Service coming from the Kick-Ass creator’s pen. The pair plus screenwriter Jane Goldman have found a synchronicity for fun, entertaining action that really gets the pulpy, campy feel of the source material down pat. And they do it with exposition-heavy, world-building introductions too. No offense to Wanted or Kick-Ass 2, they’re just not of the same caliber.
There’s a lot going on in Kingsman, so much that I couldn’t believe how smoothly it plays. Not only does the “Secret Service” fashioned after King Arthur’s round table need to be explained, we must also meet prospective recruit Eggsy (Taron Egerton), watch as he and seven other candidates are whittled down to one in training, and experience an apocalyptic-level crisis reach its boiling point. This means knowing and understanding around ten disparate characters’ motivations, strengths, and weaknesses before the finish. It means learning to like and/or hate each only to have a handful die the moment you finally do in order to make room for the next. Such ambition should conjure a sense of boredom or confusion and yet I felt neither. Everyone is crucial and everyone proves expendable.
This is key because Millar and Vaughn are attempting to supply us a James Bond escapade for the contemporary world. I don’t mean a somber Christopher Nolan type style either—I’m talking off-the-wall, vulgar, violent, and cartoonish with a hard R-rated tint. Just like Galahad (Colin Firth‘s Camelot-inspired code name) hopes to bring the antiquated Kingsman fraternity into the twenty-first century and away from Arthur’s (Michael Caine) conservative tradition by throwing a hard-nosed “pleb” into the Ivy League mix, the creators look to revamp the meaning of camp in action flicks. They go a little heavy on telling us this goal through their characters’ dialogue, but for the most part it works. The white hat/black hat dynamic remains intact, but dated silliness is replaced by unhinged taboo.
It doesn’t take long to grasp what the Kingsman are and how they survive. Watching one earn a code name before losing it in death succinctly portrays the constant opportunity for new blood. Rather than follow the generic A to B to C method of origin tales where the first half is recruitment and the second mission, however, the filmmakers sprinkle a bit of everything at once. So despite Eggsy, Charlie (Edward Holcroft), Roxy (Sophie Cookson), and others stealing ample screen time to discover his/her worth under drill sergeant Merlin (Mark Strong), Galahad isn’t lost in the background. Luminaries and celebrities are disappearing around the globe, a hostage (Mark Hamill‘s Professor Arnold) from a botched rescue attempt leaving a Kinsgman agent dead strangely roams free, and the lisp-toting billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) seems up to something.
That something is a master plan starting with the free dissemination of internet access and ending in a potential reality only a crazed megalomaniac like he can dream. With his paraplegic crony Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) and her death-dealing blade limbs in tow, Valentine searches for who the Kingsman are just as Galahad unearths his ulterior motives. Both cases are handled in the open with a mutual understanding of cautious acknowledgement between them, feeling each other out as we make our own judgments. Eggsy gets stronger and more resourceful as the days go on and an inevitable standoff concerning the lot looms on the horizon. While the result does prove obvious in its genre homage—and sadly so since the script feeds us promises of originality—it isn’t without some welcome surprises.
There are a couple shocking deaths, the prolonging of foregone conclusions for additional suspense, and a ton of hilariously over-the-top villain subversion on behalf of Jackson’s unique Valentine. He and Egerton deliver the comic relief in their psychopathy and blue-collar chip respectively as the “straight man” collection of Firth, Strong, and Boutella let them play. Some heart gets involved with the relationships between Egerton and Firth on one side and Jackson and Boutella on the other evolving from teacher/student and boss/employee to equal footing, always enhancing the fight scenes by making everything personal. And boy is each extended battle a delightful treat of inventive choreography and gruesome aesthetic. I could watch a rage-filled Firth single-handedly dismantle a church of bigots over and over again. It’s an invigorating sight.
That sequence’s burst of energy coupled with the instant gratification of a few others and a gloriously bombastic mass genocide to classical music and organic fireworks are enough to warrant Kingsman worthy of a look. To be honest, I enjoyed them so much that I forgave more than a handful of glaring issues on behalf of the storytellers. Sometimes entertainment value overshadows any concept of realism or intelligence, though. There’s a comforting quality to an actioner that doesn’t take itself too seriously in an age of dark and brooding melodrama. Give me broadly cartoonish characters exchanging self-referential and quasi-meta conversations any day if the results are similar to this. The severity of post-9/11 cinema can get tiring. This type of throwback is welcome medicine.
 Harry (Colin Firth), an impeccably suave spy, helps Eggsy (Taron Egerton) turn his life around by trying out for a position with Kingsman, a top-secret independent intelligence organization. Photo: Jaap Buitendijk – TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Harry (Colin Firth) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) meet Richard Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a tech billionaire with devastating plans for the world. Photo: Jaap Buitendijk – TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Eggsy (Taron Egerton) meets Arthur (Michael Caine), the head of the Kingsman spy agency. Photo: Jaap Buitendijk – TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.