'Kingsman: The Secret Service' Pushes the Spy Spoof Only So Far

Kingsman is a cut above the usual winter flicks, but it's also flummoxed by its inability to maintain it subversive tone.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Hamill
Studio: 20th Century Fox
US Release Date: 2015-02-13

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.






'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.