When Skyfall came out in 2012, I came out with a firm sense of satisfaction and a flare of patriotic pride, which is unusual for me who usually flits between Irish and British origins whenever it suits. In my opinion, James Bond had become increasingly irrelevant in a post cold-war world, but Skyfall did much to reconfigure the character within a modern context by focusing on a Bond who had, for all intents and purposes, ‘lost his mojo‘. He was broken and couldn’t even shoot his gun accurately, in many ways it reflected the situation of the 50 year old franchise. Far from being the suave secret agent of yore, he had become well… a bit shit.
One of Skyfall’s standout scenes is when Judi Dench gives her speech in front of a public inquiry, in which she addresses about how the balance of power has shifted and the enemy has become harder to identify and more dangerous within a digitally transparent world. All the while the very enemies she talks about are advancing to take her out disguised as members of the British police, whilst Daniel Craig’s ailing Bond struggles to keep up. He only just makes it as the enemies kick the court doors open, but it’s a great entrance. He strides in to save the day, creating a smokescreen by shooting out a gas canister, filling the room with smoke causing the terrorists to flee in terror. It’s a fantastic moment and statement, returning the secret world of espionage back to the shadows out of view of the public. It acknowledges that Britain and the world may have moved on, but Bond is back baby.
Like most long running pop cultural icons, Bond has developed over so many years and iterations. He can be defined at once by the dark and serious tones of the earlier films, or the camper more playful tones of the Roger Moore era. Though Daniel Craig has set the tone for a more relevant and complicated incarnation in the vein of the two other JBs (Jason Bourne and Jack Baur) there isn’t much of the playful streak anymore. Austin Powers did much to poke fun at the genre but over recent years the spy movie has become a serious affair. Thusly, Kingsman: The Secret Service attempts to fill that ‘gap in the market’ as a return to the more absurdist nature of the campier Bond movies, a regain of that old fashioned spirit, where secret agents could identify a fine whiskey by smell and wear a concealed blade in their shoe.
Kingsman has a starry cast which includes Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Hamill and Sir Michael Caine whose presence is clearly a nod to his turn as Harry Palmer in the Ipcress Files during the 60s. James Bond may be the big name whenever British spy movie heritage comes up for discussion, but there is perhaps more of John Steed and Harry Palmer in the actual makeup of the Kingsmen themselves. The agents themselves wear finely tailored suits with Palmer styled horn rimmed glasses and Steed’s umbrella.
Kingsman is based on the comic of the same name written by Mark Miller. Miller of course is a prolific comic book writer famous for peppering his stories with pop cultural references and a casual approach to scenes of over violence which has been the subject of controversy. Having already had Kick Ass adapted in 2010 by director Matthew Vaughn and producer Jane Goldman, Kingsman sees the same creative team return, doing for the British spy genre what Kick Ass did with the superhero genre.
In this age we live, where people have become increasingly wary of the actions of a rich white elite and the practice of spying is linked to the NSA and Orwellian ideals of government monitoring our every move in secret, the quirks of the British spy movie have become slightly outdated. Though we may rally behind the Queen’s twitter for ironic reasons, the genre relied on a world where Great Britain was still a dominant world power and the threat of nuclear annihilation lingered ahead of the public conscious and foreign policy. It relied on times where the British character was defined as being reserved, resolute and chivalrous. Kingsman seeks to marry the old with the new – an action packed spy comedy celebrating the old grounded sense of British gentility and linking it with a more modern protagonist that is perhaps more representative of Britain today.
The focus of the story is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a London youth living with his mum and infant sister. Eggsy spends time getting into trouble with the law and local thugs, whilst tolerating his mother’s abusive scumbag boyfriend. He has no direction or discipline in life and things appear to be at a dead end for him, that is until Colin Firth’s genteel superspy Harry Hart enters with an enticing proposition – to become a Kingsman. The Kingsmen are a top secret collective of esteemed British gentleman spies, the ranks of which Eggsy’s father was once a part of. Hart endearingly believes Eggsy has what it takes to become one of them and so he undergoes vigorous training in which he must compete against a parade of Etonian toffs. All the while Samuel L. Jackson’s Zuckerberg styled super villain attempts to eradicate global warming by eradicating all of humanity in a rather unceremonious manner. A menace to which only the agents of Kingsman can stop.
The film is best understood as a coming of age tale in which an ASBO youth learns the manners and conduct of a true gentleman whilst training to become a super spy. Instead of the jedi robes, it is the finely tailored Saville Row suit that serves as the point when true manhood is achieved. My Fair Lady is name checked in one of the film’s better gags, and that’s probably a good way of looking at the film. It is a story where a rough and ready youth is guided by a figure of landed gentility to become a better version of themselves.
That figure is represented by Colin Firth as Harry Hart. Firth was always a little too genteel to play James Bond, and so it really is a joy to watch him fulfill the role of super spy, a role he clearly is having a lot of fun with. Bond is typically aloof, as the apex male who answers to nobody, but Firth’s Galahad is present to provide a more fatherly presence. He is here to show Eggsy that he doesn’t need to be born with a silver spoon to be a gentleman and that true heroism often goes unnoticed. The relationship between Taron Egerton’s and Colin Firth’s character provides Kingsman with it’s warm beating heart and some of its best moments. Unfortunately some of the film’s tonal inconsistencies do much to work against some of that wholesome sentiment.
Let’s talk about these inconsistencies, because I feel the film really lets itself down in more than a couple of instances. Though Kingsman is attempting to tie the old established English order with the modern urban lifestyle of Great Britain, this is strictly a boy’s own adventure. This is despite the film going to great lengths to create Roxy, a key female agent who is given nothing to do in the third act apart from get a bit scared as she ascends on a platform into the upper stratosphere to destroy a satellite. Once she comes back to earth she sits most of the final confrontation out and generally cheers on the boys from the side as they complete the real business of saving the world before finally allowing the real hero to get his end away in an ‘exit’ shot that would make Roger Moore shake his head. The British spy movie has always had problems with its representation of women, and despite Kingsman going to great lengths to build a potentially interesting lady spy character, it ends up feeling like a wasted opportunity.
In addition, there is a problem with the violence and fight scenes. Like the first Kick Ass film before it, Kingsman includes snappy fight scenes that are lavishly edited to convey the feeling of neckbreaks, stabbings and head shots. Whilst Kick Ass revelled in the splurt of blood and gore, Kingsman is rated as a 15, so much of the blood goes unseen. Whilst some scenes are fantastically done, such as an early exchange over a glass of fine whiskey, later scenes become overblown and uninspired. One scene in a church felt a little bit too overkill and nonsensical, with multiple stabbings happening for no real reason.
The premise of Kick Ass centred around the question of why no one has really thought to don a costume and become a super hero esque vigilante to clean up the city streets from the scum of humanity. This was a pure and wholesome question, if a little idealistic and starry eyed as a call for general do-gooding in the community. It was neatly answered and juxtaposed by the film’s radical almost artistic display of extreme violence. Whilst you were left empowered and dazzled by Hit Girl making mincemeat out of an army of evil doers. Violence still had the power of shock especially when Kick Ass’s enemies were so readily capable of cruelty towards it’s array of wannabe superheroes. By contrast, the violence in Kingsman felt both over the top and boring at the same time.
Kick Ass also had villains, hateful characters you wanted to see go down. In Kingsman, whilst Samuel L. Jackson tries his best in his role as evil genius. His minor character quirks, such as his lisp and complete abhorrence for blood are overshadowed by the sheer stupidity of his master plan – to brainwash the majority of the earth’s population into killing each other via a ‘mind chip’ that is implanted into their brain, all in attempt to stop global warming. Scenes of the world tearing into each other in a frenzied state of loutish behaviour felt very contrived. Of course this is a state of being that is the exact opposite of what the Kingsman stand for, but still. The scene of Eggsy’s mother trying to break down a door to kill her own child, may sound terrifying on paper, but in Kingsman it just felt out of place and I couldn’t help but laugh at how stupid it had all become. Especially at this stage of the plot, when the hero is casually doing Bond smirks left, right and centre whilst rolling through the one liners. Usually, I’m able to overlook the lunacy of a movie’s plot, (see all Fast & Furious movies) but the tonal inconsistencies of Kingsman routinely took me out of the experience.
You can’t blow up a shark with a tank of compressed air, but by the end of Jaws you’re so absorbed in the drama, you’ll believe anything that happens. The same cannot be said of Kingsman and by the time of the film’s big musical number, most people cheered on patriotically, but I just couldn’t help roll my eyes.
In the end, Kingsman: The Secret Service has a solid core that shines through most of the film’s shortcomings. Colin Firth and Taron Egerton hold the film together, marrying old and new England together in a manner that feels refreshing, witty and nostalgic. Though it is a return to the lighter more absurdist nature of the British spy movie some of the comic book absurdity can become a little overbearing and spoil what is, for the most part, an entertaining night out at the movies.
Kingsman has it’s heart in the right place, it’s just a shame that sometimes it thinks with the wrong organ.
Also Mark Hamill is in it, sporting wise old jedi facial hair. So that’s something to get excited for.
Thanks to www.showfilmfirst.com for giving me the opportunity to attend a prescreening! If you want the chance to see the latest movies first, you should sign up!