Matthew Vaughan’s Layer Cake was a pleasant diversion, destined to rise to the top of the $5 Walmart DVD bin. His Kick-Ass worked, but was a rare case of the parts being worth more than the whole. With “Kingsman” he gains full admittance as one of the premier action directors of this generation.
First there’s a secretive organization, the Kingsman. Unaffiliated with any government or private enterprise, they spy out of philanthropy. Their agents are fearsome fighters though imbued with a wonderfully British sense of restraint. All of whom are impeccably dressed creatures of means.
Next there’s the megalomaniacal villain. Samuel L Jackson as Valentine, a Steve Jobs in stature and a Mike Tyson whenever he opens his mouth. A wealthy self made man, he reacted to climate change in a way familiar to many of his ilk: the problem is there’s too many poor people and not enough planet for them all.
Navigating the two is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a low-born Briton with natural parkour inclinations. He’s recruited to the Kingsmen by Harry Hart (Colin Firth) partially to repay a debt but also due to the desire to see the organization adapt with the times. For Eggsy the appeal is aspirational. The Kingsmen is an opportunity to break out of the cycle of dead-end poverty and its squabbles over drugs and respect. He finds however that the organization despite its aims is just as susceptible to the elite’s hubris.
For all of the gleeful violence and repudiation of authority, Kingsman has a large measure of respect for the classic spy movies, especially the Bond series. The elder characters took inspiration in their career choice from the old movies. Part of the joy of training new recruits is the possible hope that they too would be devotees. When Eggsy names a dog “JB”, one of the instructors gushes: “for James Bond?” and isn’t too hurt when the answer is “Jack Bauer”.
On a meta-level, this allows the characters to contextualize their roles in film against the spy films past. But at the same time the production is very careful. After all the James Bond franchise just yielded “Skyfall” by many accounts the most successful film in the series measuring by box office gross and critical reception (in terms of ticket sales Thuderball remains the most popular). Over the 50 years of constant releases, dozens of challengers stepped in to lay claim to the world’s most famous spy. Some of whom were quite successful. Two different satires were successful enough to extend into trilogies (Mike Myer’s Austin Powers and James Coburn’s Derek Flint). Mission Impossible’s going strong through four films. Even critically maligned XXX earned enough at the box office to merit a sequel. Yet despite all Bond remains.
Kingsman knows its place and is happy enough to play in the same sandbox. If there’s any great surprise here, its that the production favors the Roger Moore era more than Sean Connery. The goofy, pretentious villains, their oversized ambitions, and the clear eye of a visual designer coordinating the spectacle.
Things are just more fun the more you can tweak reality. Much of Kingsman hinges on a surgical implant that can explode a target’s head. It’s not enough for a simple explosion, instead a small light show that leaves a pool of blue and red goo on the poor target’s neck. Of course if you get enough such targets in a space you could conceivably use such a display in the service of a piece of music...
Coming on the heels of Interview that not just featured Kim Jong Il but also depicted his fiery death. The response for this insult was state-sponsored corporate espionage that greatly damaged Sony.
It’s probably just a quirk in scheduling that Kingsman features the assassination of the current sitting US president. Rather than boast about the sequence or hold up the film as a prime example of free speech the lead actors all demurred in interviews. Given the staging, it occurs far away from the main action of the plot with none of the stars present.