Saturday, February 14, 2015

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Because I ain't paying eight bucks to see erotic Twilight fanfiction brought to the silver screen.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content

Is it possible for me to enjoy a film that I found to be morally objectionable? Because, try as I might, I could not help but enjoy Kingsman: The Secret Service. This film, based on the Mark Millar graphic novel, is a fun, if insubstantial, February diversion. Its plot is stupid, its values are questionable at best, its politics are quaint, and it goes on for about fifteen minutes too long, but when it works, it's a rollicking good time that's elevated by very good and creative action scenes, great performances, and a sense of humor that's sorely missing in recent spy movies. Overall, as long as you shut off your brain (particularly the part responsible for examining subtext) at the door, and don't go in already tired (ahem, James and Mary), you'll enjoy yourself watching this film.

Kingsman is about an independent spy agency formed and funded by British "old money" aristocrats after World War I. Using a tailor on Savile Row as a front, they undertake the missions that MI-6 and the CIA can't due to bureaucracy and politics, saving the day with high-tech gadgets and a very British charm, like classic James Bond in the twenty-first century. The protagonist is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a bright young man and son of a slain Kingsman agent who, thanks to poor decisions and upbringing, fell into a life of crime. After getting arrested, Eggsy, with nowhere else to turn, makes a call to the folks who presented him and his mother with a medal for his lost father seventeen years ago, telling him that, if he ever needed help, he should call the number on the back of the medal. And so Eggsy is introduced to the Kingsmen and begins his training, competing with several other candidates (most notably Sophia Cookson's Roxy) to fill the Oxford shoes of a recently deceased agent. That man had lost his life investigating Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), an Elon Musk-esque figure who ticks off all the items on the list of things the Kingsmen hate: he's American, he's proudly boorish and uncultured (speaking with a lisp and serving McDonald's with wine to his guests), he's "new money" who got rich in technology, and oh, he's a megalomaniac who believes that the only way to stop global warming is to wipe out 99% of the human "virus" while he and a hand-picked group of world leaders, dignitaries, celebrities, and other members of the upper class ride it out in their bunkers.

One of the biggest problems with the film is with the story. For the first half, Valentine is essentially a background presence as the film focuses on the training of Eggsy, Roxy, and the other Kingsman cadets. At their best, these earlier scenes were quite entertaining, a hilarious sendup of Bond with the culture clash between the working-class Eggsy and the highbrow culture of the Kingsmen, represented by a great Colin Firth as Harry Hart, codename Galahad. Harry, Eggsy, and Roxy all share a great chemistry with each other and the other cadets, and both the jokes and the action-filled challenges the cadets go through fly fast and furious. However, as the film goes on, it's the same problem that ultimately kept Big Hero 6 just shy of greatness -- the story of Valentine's mass-murder scheme never gets any more than the barest amount of time devoted to it until a pivotal moment more than halfway through. Had the film been purely about Eggsy's training, with a "kill some bad guys for real" final exam for the third act rather than a supervillain plot, it would've been a more coherent film. Likewise, if it wanted to be a conventional, James Bond-throwback action spy movie, it would've been better off trimming many of the training scenes and giving a larger early role to Valentine and his plan. As it stands, though, the film is 129 minutes long and doesn't really do much to justify its length.

Furthermore, even when the film did pick up towards the end, nagging plot concerns kept coming up in the back of my mind. While I was able to enjoy the spectacularly violent climax (and this is a film that earns its R rating) on a purely visceral level, the global fallout from what had happened in that scene should have been catastrophic. The body count would realistically be in the millions, including a large number of people in positions of power, making 9/11 look like a fizzle in comparison. As infamous as Man of Steel already is for its orgy of consequence-free destruction in the third act, at least that was limited to one city. Half the world should be in ruins, with the Kingsmen having objectively failed their mission, yet at the end, life goes on as though nothing had happened. It's ironic that this film displays the exact same callousness towards the loss of human life that its villain does, only caring when it's happening right in front of us in all of its R-rated glory (a running gag is that Valentine is squeamish around blood). When the bad guys kill people, it's horrible, but ain't it awesome?!?

(Y'know, one of these days I want to see a movie where a supervillain actually succeeds at his evil plot. That way, I'd get the bloodthirsty action without the cognitive dissonance of the film trying to claim that the good guys still technically won.)

This attitude towards others also informs the film's more questionable elements. As much fun as this film is (and I must reiterate, I had a fun time watching it), it plays the upper-crust British elitism of the Kingsmen completely straight as an ideal to aspire to. In the world of Kingsmen, the working class are lowlifes to a man, capable of elevating their station and occasionally being sympathetic individually (as we see with Eggsy and his mother) but held back less by their circumstances and more by their lack of culture and their being lazy, good-for-nothing bums. When that culture is allowed to go unchecked, you get this film's greatest cultural bogeyman -- the Americans, who are represented by a supervillain who tries to destroy the world and by a fundamentalist, bigoted Kentucky church that exists only so they can all be murdered in a spectacularly violent and cathartic action scene. Make no mistake, if it's American, it gets mocked in the least subtle terms. This film's underlying themes aren't just conservative, they're rooted in old-school British Toryism, suggesting that gentleman aristocrats like the Kingsmen are the only thing standing between the world and total chaos, and that things would be better off if they were allowed to run it. Eggsy's entire arc revolves around him throwing off the shackles of his working-class lifestyle and adopting and internalizing the values, culture, and fashion sense of the Kingsmen, trading his hoodie for a sharp suit. The line between their dignified paternalism and Valentine's cutthroat social Darwinism is superficially clear, but when you get down to it, it's really a matter of how much they scorn the little people -- merely looking down their noses at them while claiming to have their best interests in mind versus wanting to kill them all. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised given that the film is based on a comic by Mark Millar, a writer whose stock in trade is pitch-black nihilism and whose previous cinematic adaptation, Kick-Ass (which was also directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn), had to be heavily edited from his original comic in order to give us any characters who were remotely likable.

So yeah, there was a lot about this movie that I didn't just not like, but which I found to be extremely off-putting and mean-spirited. But at the end of the day, I still can't bring myself to say that I didn't like this movie. It reached into the most base, reptilian part of my brain, grabbed on, and did not let go until the very end. Matthew Vaughn, after Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, once more delivered some great, balls-out action that, thanks to the R rating, at times approached the sadistic glee of a Troma flick. From the aforementioned church scene to the antics of the scene-stealing Gazelle (played by French dancer Sofia Boutella), Valentine's acrobatic henchwoman with bladed prosthetic feet, to the most literally mind-blowing moment I've ever seen in theaters, the action in this movie delivers on all levels. Taron Egerton knocks it out of the park selling his transformation from a street tough to a modern James Bond, looking and acting nearly unrecognizable from how he started by the end of the film; he is certainly a guy I'll be keeping an eye on in future movies. Colin Firth makes a great foil for him as the refined yet badass secret agent Harry Hart, Sophia Cookson proves herself a capable (if underwritten) action heroine as Roxy, and while Samuel L. Jackson is basically playing his usual BMF character (albeit with a lisp), it's clear that he was absolutely relishing the role and the chance to play a supervillain. And when the film was able to tone down its borderline-insufferable attitude, it was more than capable of being an outright hilarious romp that both sent up and paid loving tribute to a lot of the James Bond iconography. The gags came as thick as the action, again adding to the feel of a beefed-up indie flick that's allowed to go wild with all the crazy ideas the writer and director had.

Score: 3 out of 5

It's an adaptation that made me leave the theater assuredly not wanting to read the source material, but one that I was able to have a great time with once I was able to brush aside its troubling subtext. Easily worth a matinee.

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