Though Kingsman: The Secret Service is ultimately two entirely disposable hours of nonsense, spoofing the most obvious elements of James Bond while largely lacking the winning silliness of Mike Myers’ Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, it does at least fizz along with regular sparks that just about keep interest alive. Chiefly this is because writer-director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman have added to the (already substantial) levels of swearing and cartoon violence that were contained in their previous collaboration (and Mark Millar adaptation) Kick-Ass; as with that earlier film, it’s all delivered with relish by the actors, most notably in this case Taron Egerton as young spy-in-the-making Eggsy and Colin Firth as his suave mentor Harry Hart (aka ‘Galahad’).
The Bond franchise is low-hanging fruit; an easy and oft-abused target, though its prevalence as a subject for satirists is understandable given its many familiar and recurring tropes, character types and scenarios. It’s interesting to note that the films lampooning Bond’s dafter moments are usually equally happy to steal its better ideas too, and Kingsman is no different. It does make some attempts to distance its world from that of Ian Fleming’s spy hero; the self-aware characters repeatedly riff on the fact that ‘it’s not that kind of movie’, for example, while there’s also a (failed) attempt to bring in an urban, streetwise edge via the young hero’s background, which unfortunately suffers from inauthentic-sounding dialogue. However the film cribs far more than it innovates: the gadgets, the upper-class debonair Englishness, the preposterous villains, the hollowed-out mountain lairs and several other motifs are all present and correct, and they’re not actually being spoofed all of the time.
‘The Kingsmen’ is a secret service, a near-invisible collection of spies, and its members operate out of a tailors in London. (Of course they do; why wouldn’t they?) Agency boss ‘Arthur’ is played by Michael Caine, who excels in The Michael Caine Role once again, delivering a performance of such exquisite Michael Caine-ness it’s impossible to stop thinking ‘That’s Michael Caine’ whenever he is on screen. A drive for new Kingsmen recruits results in Eggsy, sponsored by Hart, enrolling in the agency’s brutal training programme; under the watchful eyes of Merlin (Mark Strong, enjoyably deadpan) Eggsy must compete against a number of one-dimensional foppish rivals for a place at Hart’s side, and the film hits its stride as the candidates are cruelly put through their paces in a series of perilous boot camp training scenarios.
Eventually Eggsy and fellow new recruit Roxy (Sophie Cookson) are allowed to join the old hands in tackling mobile communications magnate Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), a megalomaniac with the usual large-scale nefarious intentions who has the ears of many world leaders. Jackson affects an exaggerated lisp throughout to let you know he is evil, which is as annoying as it is ridiculous, although he is at least gamely playing against type here as a squeamish nerd. On Oddjob / Rosa Klebb-style sidekick duty is Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), a vicious killer with bladed prosthetic legs.
For the most part Kingsman: The Secret Service fails to break any new ground with its satire, and the co-writers becomes increasingly reliant on swearing and violence as the film wears on; there’s more than a hint of desperation, for example, in the now-infamous scene in an American church. This sequence sums the film up perfectly: there is a palpable kinetic energy at play as Colin Firth does his best impression of Jason Bourne, but the extreme violence on screen simply serves to distract attention away from the fact there’s little originality or substance here, even in the laughs.
There’s nothing new in the film’s depiction of class differences, either, which pits the ‘haves’ against the ‘have nots’ in a disappointingly unoriginal fashion (thereby fitting in with the British film industry’s dictat that 90% of all working class characters must be criminals and everyone else must be the kind of toff that fa-fa-fas their way through life with an accent that makes Keira Knightley sound as rough as a badger’s arse). Naturally, wealthy Kingsman agents wear tailored suits and drink fine scotch, while Eggsy’s London is the direct opposite: all car crime, tracksuits, afternoon lagers and domestic abuse. Even EastEnders writers wouldn’t stoop so low, a fact unfortunately emphasised by the presence of EastEnders actress Samantha Womack (née Janus) as Michelle, Eggsy’s mum.
Still, the film isn’t intended to be taken particularly seriously, so I’ll concede it’s a little unfair to criticise it for failing to enlighten, and perhaps unrealistic of me to expect anything other than a stereotypical picture of two supposedly opposite classes in a film largely designed to amuse through its offensiveness. (Plus I’ve seen enough to have low expectations when British writer-directors from more privileged backgrounds head toward the inner cities with cameras and scripts in hand.) Childish final shot aside there are a few half-decent jokes in Kingsman: The Secret Service and, in fairness, it does crackle along at a rollicking pace; Firth’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek throughout and there are similarly knowing cameos by Jack Davenport and a barely-recognisable Mark Hamill. If you’re not sick to death of spy spoofs by now then you might well enjoy this but, considering it’s a satire, for me it ends up relying on 007’s idiosyncrasies more than it ought to.
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar
Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella
Running Time: 128 minutes