D: Matthew Vaughn / 129m
Cast: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella, Sophie Cookson, Edward Holcroft, Mark Hamill, Samantha Womack, Geoff Bell, Jack Davenport
1997. While on a mission in the Middle East, Kingsman secret agent Harry Hart (code named Galahad) (Firth) makes a mistake that costs the life of his protege. He visits the man’s wife, Michelle (Womack), and their young son, who is known as ‘Eggsy’. He gives Eggsy a medal and tells him if ever he needs a favour, to ring the number on the back of the medal and say the phrase, “Oxfords not brogues”.
Eight years later, one of Harry’s fellow agents, Lancelot (Davenport) is killed while trying to rescue a kidnapped professor (Hamill). As the membership of Kingsman demands a continuous number of agents, Hart and his remaining colleagues are tasked by the service’s head, Arthur (Caine), with finding a replacement for him. Meanwhile, Eggsy’s home life hasn’t improved. His mother is in an abusive relationship with Dean (Bell), and he and his friends are bullied by Dean’s gang. When Eggsy steals one of the gang’s car he ends up being arrested. Remembering the medal, Eggsy calls the number and repeats the phrase. Soon after he is released and finds himself in the company of Harry.
While all this is going on, the kidnapper of the professor, tech-billionaire and radical environmentalist Richmond Valentine (Jackson) is blackmailing or kidnapping important world figures in order to support his scheme to reduce the world population through the free dispersal of SIM cards adapted for use in any mobile phone. With Kingsman becoming aware of his activities, Eggsy agrees to undergo the training required to become a Kingsman agent. While he competes against the other candidates, including Roxy (Cookson) and Charlie (Holcroft), Harry pays Valentine a visit to find out more about his plans and eventually discovers that the billionaire is planning a test of his SIM cards at a church in the Deep South.
Eggsy does well enough in his training to reach the final stage where it’s between him and Roxy for the position of the new Lancelot. But his confidence and commitment is rocked by the task required of him, and in the Deep South, Harry’s infiltration of the congregation leads to an unexpected and shocking development…
If Matthew Vaughn only ever made comic book adaptations from now until the end of time, it would be a wonderful outcome for movie lovers everywhere. Following on from Kick-Ass (2010) and X-Men: First Class (2011), Kingsman: The Secret Service is a razor-sharp, highly entertaining spy spoof that retains enough drama to give it the edge it almost doesn’t need. It’s a movie that is both self-referential and iconic, and shows just how this sort of material should be handled: with obvious love and affection.
Adapting Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book The Secret Service, Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman have created a world where the notion of a “gentleman spy” is still very highly regarded – by the spies themselves, and by the villain of the piece – and where a certain level of style is a necessity. It’s an Old Boys network, run as an elitist organisation that works so far behind the scenes no one’s ever heard of them. With its agents named after characters from Arthurian legend, and its adoption of high-tech weapons to back up each agent’s physical prowess, the Secret Service is a potent mix of the old and the new. From its bulletproof umbrellas to its poisoned knife tipped shoes to its underground hangar full of jets and helicopters and APC’s, this is an organisation that is serious about what it does, but also knows how to have fun while doing it.
The plot is straight out of the Sixties, with a megalomaniac threatening to destroy the world unless his demands are met, his ultra-dangerous sidekick – here Boutella’s artificial limbed killing machine, Gazelle – a variety of ingenious gadgets and some of the sharpest outfits this side of a Milan catwalk. As befits a Bondian villain, Valentine has a mountain lair with enough rough-hewn corridors for Eggsy to kill dozens of his henchmen, and he has a turncoat (or two) within the Kingsman organisation. It’s all presented with a splendid amount of panache (and above all, style), and Vaughn never loses sight of how important these aspects are in the grand scheme of things.
The director is more than ably supported by a first-rate cast that sees Firth cast entirely against type (but boy is he a great choice for the role), Jackson use a lisp to underline the absurdity of his character’s ambitions, Egerton grab the opportunity of a lifetime with both hands, Strong reinforce his status as one of the finest actors around (even if his Scottish accent wavers a bit), Caine provide gravitas and just a pinch of arrogance, and in a minor role as a kidnapped Scandinavian princess, Hanna Alström almost steals the movie with an offer Eggsy can’t refuse.
But what Kingsman: The Secret Service is most likely to be remembered for is the scene at the church, a technically impressive, devastatingly violent, gratuitously vicious, and brutally in-your-face sequence where the full effects of Valentine’s plan are felt. The camera swoops in and out and around the action, keeping its focus on Harry and never once letting up on the audience, as every blow and gunshot and stabbing movement is choreographed to furious perfection. It makes the night club sequence in John Wick (2014) look anaemic by comparison, and is all the more startling and effective by being almost balletic in its blood-soaked aesthetic.
Of course, while the violence is as bone-crunching and quasi-sadistic as you might expect from Vaughn, there’s also a great deal of humour, along with the underlying theme of finding your place in the world. It’s a rich mixture of pointed comedy and heightened violence, and as with Kick-Ass, Vaughn succeeds in ensuring neither element overwhelms the other, leaving the movie to find its own level throughout and proving an exhilarating mix of both. He’s further supported by dazzling cinematography by George Richmond, and there’s a terrific score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margetson that uses various motifs from other spy movies and still sounds fresh. And of course, special mention must be made of the costumes by Arianne Phillips, her bespoke suits and accessories all now available for the gentleman spy in your life.
Rating: 8/10 – a little too long, with the final showdown in Valentine’s lair proving an unnecessarily two-part affair, Kingsman: The Secret Service is still a stylish, uncompromising action thriller that delights at every turn; Firth is simply superb, and Egerton is a rising star with bags of ability – and then some.