Matthew Vaughn has been making the same movie for the past few years. After breaking into films as a producer for Guy Ritchie, and then going on to mimic his collaborator with his own directorial debut, Layer Cake, the British auteur tried adapting Neil Gaiman’s Stardust for the big screen before discovering his now familiar formula. It’s an approach that’s worked for him in both X-Men: Days of Future Past and Kick-Ass. It’s applied equally well in Kingsman: The Secret Service, though by this point in the process, Vaughn’s variety act is growing a tad too familiar.
For example, his installment of the X-Men franchise finds the characters coming of age, all being guided by older mentors in deference to a villain who wants them dead — or on his side. Similarly, Kick-Ass sees a group of teens attempting to be superheroes, led an older mentor making sure that his talented daughter is well-prepared while an evil gangster targets them for termination. In each previous example, wisdom works against and for the novice, while the newbies struggle with their sense of identity and purpose. By the end, they are either all working together, or fragmented and facing off.
The same goes for Kingsman, which makes a bit of sense, as Kick-Ass‘s Mark Millar co-wrote the source material as well. We are introduced to Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) when he is a small boy. He’s lost his father, and a family friend named Harry Hart (Colin Firth) has shown up to lend support and a secret medallion. Years later, our young hero is on the wrong side of the law when he gets the chance of a lifetime. Harry offers him a position in the Kingsmen, a freelance espionage agency that serves as the new “knights” of the British Empire. Eggsy is initially skeptical, but with little keeping him at home, he decides to try out.
Along with a few other recruits, they are put through rigorous testing by the Kingsmen’s leader “Arthur” (Michael Caine) and instructor Merlin (Mark Strong). In the meantime, Harry is following up on the death of another member of the organization (Jack Davenport). That agent was trying to rescue a professor (Mark Hamill) tied to a tech billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) who has been a vocal activist against global warming. After digging a bit deeper, it turns out that Richmond Valentine (Jackson) plans to use specially designed SIM cards to send a signal around the world, a tone which produces violent behavior and will result in global genocide. It’s up to the Kingsmen and their new recruit to stop him.
So once again, we are going from rookie to royalty, a complete and utter failure into a wholly unique and gifted hero. We get training, travails, the tricks to prove mantle, and the timing which offers a last act redemption for an already deflated lead. It all flows together with minimal bumps along the way, and Vaughn elevates his game visually, turning all the action scenes into eye-popping pronouncements of the value in high tech CG imagery and rapid-fire editing. The visual side of this film is frisky and fun, including a moment when a microchip malfunctions and a whole room of dignitaries has their minds mushroom cloud blown — literally.
But there is also a lot of the same here, situations that Vaughn’s desire to twist and tweak convention don’t come into play. Yes, there is a stunning moment where the usual “talking villain” trope is tossed aside for a more straightforward resolution, but when Valentine’s sidekick (Sophia Boutella) steps in to defend her boss, her sword-like prosthetic limbs become a more perfunctory version of Kill Bill‘s Gogo Yubari. Vaughn borrows a lot from Tarantino, trying to use the entire James Bond series as a stepping off point into a revision of the spy specifics. Sadly, he was already beaten to the punch by Sam Mendes’ far superior Skyfall.
Again, Vaughn violates his own rules. He uses traditional cinematic means to make his supposed to be anarchic points. For example, Eggsy was a gymnast in his youth, so you know that comes in handy once he has to take on dozens of Valentine’s flunkies. If Vaughn were really true to his intent, he would have used said skill as a joke (say, Eggsy tries one of his patented moves, and fails horribly). Similarly, because he has an ongoing row with his hateful stepfather and his gang of glorified street thugs, you know a previous pub brawl will play as a preamble for a post-credits beatdown. Convention is Vaughn’s safety net, and he relies on it over and over again.
Luckily, his actors are aces. Firth is fine as an aging agent, even if stuntmen and carefully crafted computer images make up for his lack of action hero abilities. Similarly, Strong and Caine are old hands at such material; they make it look dead easy. Luckily, Egerton is also excellent, his cocky cockney attitude providing just enough cheek to remind us that Eggsy is supposed to “struggle” to be better. The real letdown here, however, is Jackson. He is usually a spectacular villain (see his work in the underrated adaptation of The Spirit to see what we mean), but here, he’s just a lisp and the list of eco-terrorist buzzwords. Instead of being fantastically over the top, he’s measured, and therefore, mediocre.
Still, he’s not bad enough to knock Vaughn and his various quirks off their game. Kingsman: The Secret Service could have been an out-and-out masterpiece, a genre-redefining work that set the stage for all spy efforts to come. Instead, it’s a cut above the usual winter fare, flummoxed by its inability to maintain it subversive tone.