At a time when our superhero movies and action films are often dressed in dark tones, the gleefully sarcastic and proudly hyper-violent Kingsman: The Secret Service ought to be a relief. Eschewing the trend of brooding characters nursing mournful back stories, this adaptation of Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons' 2012 comic book exists in a world where its main characters have seen those movies and, frankly, have had enough. About halfway through this film, our hero, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), shares a meal with soon-to-be-nemesis Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), and they both reminisce about the old James Bond movies with their ridiculously egomaniacal supervillians and convoluted plots. Bond's gotten so serious now, Hart laments, and the audience chuckles, because we see that Kingsman is meant to be the wise-ass antidote to all that modern-day event-movie gloominess.
So why did this film actively annoy me as much as it did? As a fan of The Raid 2 and Dredd, I'm always down for some good old ultra-violence, and one of the reasons why the Marvel movies of late have blown away their DC competition is that they've figured out the right mixture of playfulness and gravitas: They're massively entertaining without succumbing to the self-conscious seriousness of, say, Man of Steel. But the difference between those great Marvel movies and Kingsman is that the Marvel hits don't spend most of their running time congratulating themselves for how clever they are. Directed by Matthew Vaughn (he of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class), this is world-class action filmmaking at the service of a smug, soulless story. Sure, it's consistently exciting, but that doesn't make it any less irritating.
The movie introduces us to a secret, London-based spy organization led by Arthur (Michael Caine)—everybody in the group has a codename based on the King Arthur legend—that takes care of worldwide threats that MI6 or the CIA are too slow and bureaucratic to stop. Dressed in sharp suits and connoisseurs of gentlemanly alcoholic refreshments—martinis and whiskey all around—these men are meant to be a throwback to a more dignified age, like the knights of old.
Therefore, it's meant to be freakin' awesome that the Kingsmen, and especially Firth's refined Hart (who goes by Galahad), are knuckle-busting, gun-shooting, gadget-using badasses. And for a while, it is. The image of Firth, one of our most dashing and impeccably demure actors, in the thick of frenetically choreographed hand-to-hand fight sequences (and taking out five or six baddies at a time) is giddily thrilling, like discovering that your classy, erudite uncle is secretly a ninja. He plays Hart just right, rarely winking to the audience or otherwise telegraphing the film's showy self-awareness. The actor knows that Kingsman is meant to be ludicrously over-the-top and preposterous, but he plays it all straight, which makes it funnier and his character even cooler. Deep down, Hart believes in the Kingsmen's all-for-one/one-for-all gallantry, even when he's doing his James Bond routine.
But the rest of the film isn't nearly as elegant or clever. Vaughn made his name with 2010's Kick-Ass, which was itself a violent, almost nihilistic comic-book movie redeemed by its characters' genuine teenage angst. Having made a relatively buttoned-down, intelligent X-Men prequel the following year, Vaughn seems to relish the carnage he gets to unleash here, except now, any sense of pathos has gone by the wayside. The film's emotional center involves Hart taking a young, unpolished protege under his wing in the person of Eggsy (a bland Taron Egerton), the son of a former Kingsman who died saving Hart's life. The film takes a stab at getting us invested in their relationship—Eggsy is from a poor family and feels out of place amongst the other, well-heeled Kingsman recruits—but it's almost shocking how little resonance Kingsman elicits. Everything moves with kinetic precision and a superficial exhilaration, but you won't much care about anything (or anyone) you're watching.
Of course, that's even harder to do when the filmmakers keep slapping you on the back and elbowing you in the ribs to be sure you notice what they're doing. Aside from Hart and Valentine's nostalgia for old Bond movies, there are also references to the creakiness of spy-movie conventions: villains who tell the hero their entire evil plan rather than just killing them, the lame quips delivered by the hero right before besting his enemy, etc. Alright, we get it already: Kingsman is cooler than Thunderball, great, fine, whatever. But the old movies this new one is mocking at least had a breeziness to them; for all its whirling energy, this thing sure isn't much fun. Plus, it's not all that consistently funny. The movie's idea of a running joke is giving Valentine a heavy lisp, which at first I feared was meant to be a homophobic indication of the character's sexuality, but instead turns out just to be aggressively stupid. (On the whole, this is not one of Jackson's finest hours: His super-rich, totally evil media baron—just like in those bad Bond movies, get it?!?—plays like a slightly more menacing version of his Capital One pitchman persona.)
Complain about a snotty, violent, achingly hip movie like Kingsman: The Secret Service and you're sure to be accused of having no sense of humor. Why can't I just lighten up? But it's hard to do that when you're watching something so monstrously inhuman. A major character gets killed ... the fate of the world hangs in the balance ... it's suggested that even President Obama is in the pocket of the nefarious Valentine ... none of it triggers much of a response. And even the film's supposed strengths—its overkill and irreverence—start to become major bummers. You'd be better off with Thunderball.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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