The image that comes to mind when I think about Kingsman: The Secret Service is an over-ambitious juggler. When the film is focused on telling its breezy, snappy spy story, it’s a rollicking, entertaining yarn. But when it starts to veer towards being a parody of spy films, or when it tries to be too much of a parable about class conflict in the United Kingdom, or when it pulls out a gritty ultra-violent aesthetic in its action scenes, or when it adopts an overly cartoony style for its big set pieces (and these are all balls that Kingsman puts into play at various points), the entire thing starts to come apart at the seams. It is a fun film, but it also reaches far beyond its grasp.
The story centers on Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), an aimless London teenager who seems about to fall into a life of petty crime and delinquency. After he lands in trouble with the local police for the umpteenth time, he’s contacted by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), an operative in a secret intelligence agency called the Kingsmen. Turns out that Eggsy’s father, deceased since our protagonist’s very early youth, was also a member of this organization and actually died saving Hart’s life. As luck would have it, the Kingsmen are looking for a new recruit, and, partly as a way of repaying his fallen comrade’s sacrifice, Hart offers to mentor Eggsy through the selection process.
From there on, the film focuses on two main story threads. On one hand, we see Eggsy and seven other prospective youths (all of whom, unlike Eggsy, are crème-de-la-crème candidates culled from top prep schools and the Oxbridge University sphere) go through a series of punishing trials and training regimes designed to whittle away the weak until only one remains. While that happens, we see Hart, organization head Arthur (Michael Caine), and the team’s Q equivalent Merlin (Mark Strong) investigating a series of high-profile disappearances and their connection to multi-millionaire technology tycoon Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Needless to say, before the final curtain falls these various threads will all come together with explosive results.
The rule of thumb with Kingsman is that when it’s trying to tell a fun, lighthearted spy story in the tradition of something like From Russia With Love it’s very solid – great, even. But when the film instead focuses on parodying the specific surface aspects of From Russia With Love and other Bond films by blowing up their excesses and exaggerating their idiosyncrasies, it becomes too silly to take seriously. It’s a shame that so much of the film tends towards that second camp (and downright tragic that the climatic final half hour dives into it completely) because the parts of the film that don’t are well grounded and fantastically thought out.
The advertising for the film has been selling the film as an anarchic, “Old British Superstars Beat People Up!” romp, but there’s a lot more to Kingsman than that. Eggsy, for one, is far better developed as a character than he could have been, invested with a sympathetic backstory and a plethora of personality-defining flaws. The chapter that focuses on his training, one of the film’s highest points, is full of creative, suspenseful, and surprising tests, but what makes it really fun is how real the teenagers feel. It’s the sort of care for character development that Guardians of the Galaxy had in spades, and which gave weight and gravitas to that film’s sillier proceedings. Sadly, only parts of Kingsman have this focus on its cast’s unique personality, and the farther into the global conspiracy the film goes, the more it seems to forget its characters’ more human traits in favor of stock shoot-outs and cartoony explosions. The film suffers from a massive inconsistency of tone, one that leaves you unsure of how to take the thing as a whole.
For proof of this, you need look no further than how the film uses Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson. Both actors turn in good performances, but they belong in different movies. The big defining character joke with Jackson is that he’s the world’s most unassuming Bond villain: an immature nerd kid with an overpowering lisp, an overriding concern for the environment, and a crippling phobia of blood and violence. There’s no genuine threat to be had from this guy – he’s about as scary, and only slightly less of a caricature, as Austin Powers’s Dr. Evil. Firth, meanwhile, brings a real sense of dignity, world-weariness, and restraint to Harry Hart. In one of the best scenes in the film, he shows Eggsy his collection of newspaper clippings from the days after he’s prevented a major disaster. They go through dozens of front pages covering mundane tabloid news stories, with the journalists ever-oblivious to how close they came to massive destruction. Firth plays the scene with a stiff upper lip, letting just the slightest hints of both massive pride and resentful bitterness flash through. They’re both good performances in their own right, but they push the film in opposite directions.
The men behind the camera aren’t much more helpful. Director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) reunites with comic book writer Mark Millar after their 2010 film Kick-Ass. The big operational conceit in that film was to make a superhero film with a more realistically violent edge, showing just how brutally messed up real people would get if they tried to act like superheroes do. That’s what part of Kingsman aims for too, depicting some of its secret agent violence with more heft and gore than what you normally see. The rest of the time, however, it stylizes its violence and makes it even less physical than what you see in standard PG-13 action sequences. This comes to a head in a horrendous montage sequence at the film’s end, when a series of explosions and color-coded smoke stand in for the blood and gore of a mass murder. The combat scenes in Kingsman are far and away some of the most underwhelming parts of the film…
… except for one fight scene, which is one of the greatest displays of cinematic violence you will ever see. About halfway through the film, Colin Firth’s Hart finds himself in a church that suddenly erupts into violence. At the drop of a hat, the secret agent snaps into action and takes on an avalanche of adversaries. What follows is nothing short of jaw dropping, as we get to see a relentless take on how someone with the skills and gadgets of a James Bond would take down a room full of opponents. The choreography is absolutely stunning, the violence is brutally intense, and the entire fights plays out in a continuous tracking shot perfectly timed with the guitar solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” It’s a triumph of cinematic violence, and it firmly plants Colin Firth (of all people) as a serious contender for Liam Neeson’s title of Senior Badass-in-Chief.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Is Kingsman fun? Very much so, and the parts of it that work are really engrossing. It’s just a shame that it meanders off into so many unnecessary avenues, and by the time it finally pulls into its cartoon parody finale it has begun to unravel badly. Still, there is quite a bit of entertainment to be had, and if you are a connoisseur of fight scenes don’t think twice about this – you need to see this church fight, and you need to see it on the big screen. Even that, though, can’t redeem the worst cinematic sin Kingsman: The Secret Service commits: it’s just good enough to make me angry at the fact that it’s not better.