25 February 2015
I’ve never had much of a taste for the modern James Bond films. The subpar Brosnan films, followed by the latest batch of serious and cold Craig films, have left me with little interest in the franchise. In fact, most action spy thrillers have a tendency to take themselves a little too seriously and never really just haul off and have some fun. That’s the one word I would use to describe Kingsman, fun. Actually, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
That’s the main issue with the critically acclaimed latest era of Bond films: they’re never just fun anymore. But I will vouch for any of the real classics. Personal favourites of mine, like Goldfinger and Octopussy knew that the real entertainment in the series lay in playful dialogue, over-the-top action sequences, hilarious villains and their specially-abled henchmen, and, most importantly, a Bond with wit and charm. A lot of blame goes to The Dark Knight (as much as I like that movie). Having a cold and overly-serious hero in a film that was such a major critical and commercial success has unfortunately left us with a decade of straight-jawed, no-nonsense action heroes with plagued minds.
Kingsman is the outlier that aims to turn things around. It’s pretty obvious that this film is an attempt to pay homage to the glory days of 007, campiness and all. That becomes pretty obvious early in the film, but especially later when the characters straight-up reference the classic series and state outright that they’re emulating the old movies. The dialogue between Galahad (Colin Firth) and Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in that particular scene may be one of my favourite moments in the film.
But, I’ll try not to get ahead of myself. While Kingsman is a Bond homage of sorts (albeit with more excessive graphic violence and language), it does have one particular twist. That is, where English spy films always feature a hero who is posh, debonair and refined, our hero, Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), is a cockney roustabout from a broken, lower class family. This adds a bit more relatability to the character (for those of us who weren’t raised in lush mansions like the Kingsmen training grounds) and plays to the class warfare themes that come up later in the film.
Eggsy has had it rough for quite a few years. His father died in service to the Kingsmen (although he has no real knowledge of it) and his home has apparently devolved from a livable flat into wretched squalor. This is assumed to be partly due to the influence of his new, abusive stepfather. To avoid his woes one night, he hits the town with his mates (can’t help it, the dialect can be addictive at times) and gets himself into a spot of trouble when he robs a car from some smug bullies. After the police pick him up, he uses a get-out-of-trouble-free card that he received from Galahad as a child and, shortly after, is recruited by him.
The remainder of this part of the film revolves around Eggsy’s training amongst others his age to replace a recently-deceased member of the Kingsmen. The others all come from elite backgrounds and are obviously far more prepared for the training than he is. Eggsy quickly makes a strong alliance with the affable Roxy (Sophie Cookson) while dealing with the other pompous trainees. As well, Eggsy continually interacts with the serious veteran Galahad who has the utmost confidence in him, despite his attitude and upbringing.
So now the movie is obviously borrowing from not only classic Bond films, but also from Men In Black (I mean, hell, the agents even use amnesia on onlookers). I’d complain about a lack of originality, but Kingsman successfully blends these films into something all its own. Plus, I’ll also reiterate that the old Bonds and the original MIB are a lot of fun, and this movie takes the best elements of both to create something that is a hell of a lot of fun.
Now, if you’ve seen the film already, you know I’m already at the halfway mark, but I’m leaving out the most important part. Alongside Eggsy’s training, Galahad is dealing with a conspiracy that led to the death of a Kingsman agent. For some reason, someone is kidnapping rich people, politicians and intelligentsia (like the first kidnapped character, Professor Arnold, played by the under-utilized Mark Hamill). After an interrogation with Professor Arnold blows up in his face, literally, Galahad is put out of commission while Eggsy’s training proceeds.
Once Galahad is back on his feet, Eggsy offhandedly shows him a video where lisping, billionaire, computer genius Valentine describes how he will be giving the world free SIM cards that will allow everyone to have free internet and mobile connectivity. After noticing a scar on Valentine’s assistant’s neck that is similar to the one concealing an implant on the Professor’s, Galahad is on Valentine’s trail. Unbeknownst to him, Valentine is also aware of Galahad’s identity and is expending all his efforts to find out whom he works for.
So on one side of the film, we have Galahad and Valentine playing some high-tension cat and mouse with each other, while Eggsy trains under the no-nonsense Merlin (Mark Strong). I’d really like to avoid completely spoiling this film (which I’m getting close to doing, considering that my summary has described over half of the movie) but I don’t think I can fairly give my closing remarks before I describe what I think is the best part of this film. So, if you really don’t want to have too much given away, I’ll tell you now that the movie is definitely worth your time so that you can stop here and go see it immediately.
Kingsman pays homage to the Bond films incredibly well, and it’s clear that they spent their efforts on getting the villain just right. Sammy J does an amazing job as the megalomaniacal villain Valentine, all while playing him with a never-once-referred-to lisp. In the 007 tradition, he is assisted by a female henchman who is as cartoonish as he is with her special fighting ability. To be more specific, Gazelle is an amputee who has retractable swords hidden in the heels of her metal legs.
Considering that this movie has turned tradition on its head by making its main protagonist a poor cockney kid, it does the same with its villain by making him evil by accident. Valentine’s conspiracy does not come from a quest for power, money, or to do evil. In a confused way, our main villain is actually trying to save the world.
He has determined, over the course of years, that no matter how much money he throws at the issue, global warming has inevitably doomed society. He has come to the conclusion that the only chance of survival is a massive culling of the population. The SIM cards he is giving out transmit a rage-inducing signal that will destroy the majority of the earth’s population, aside from the chosen survivors.
This plot is actually a little scary, considering that it comes right out of illuminati conspiracy theories. The fear of societies’ superiors (the rich, famous and powerful) secretly killing everyone else without warning in order to save themselves has been a terrifying narrative believed to be true by conspiracy theorists for years, and is used effectively here. The thought of plutocrats running some game against everyone else in the background is an anxiety that at least 99% of us have a little of, so it makes the issue very relatable and terrifying for most audiences.
Another thing that gives Valentine an added layer of depth to his cartoonish characterization is his refusal to think of himself as a villain. He abhors the sight of blood and feels legitimately awful the one time he kills someone. The rest of the movie, he refuses to view any type of violence and continually insist that his deed, done out of necessity to save the world, is not the killing people by his own hands, but rather the population killing each other.
I absolutely love this about the character, because to me, instead of making him seem like a better person, these pretensions of being a saviour actually make him feel even more insane than villains that he is emulating from the old spy movies. As an audience, we can understand Valentine’s motivations, but it is the mixture of his lack of sympathy, the amount of influence he has, his unopposed belief that he knows what is best for the world and that he ultimately gets to choose who lives and who dies, that makes him so sinister.
Once all of these elements come into play, it becomes pretty obvious that the underlying theme of Kingsmen is a narrative of class warfare, and considering the poor protagonist and the final outcome of the film, it is built to appeal to the losing classes. This is a movie that all of us lower-income paupers can revel in. We can cheer for Eggsy when he effortlessly manages to best the rich bullies and opposing trainees, we can quake in fear as the politicians we have voted in agree to Valentine’s mass genocide without a second thought and we can squeal with joy as the all the heads of the entire upper class that have turned their backs on us explode in a mass of delightful purple fireworks.
Despite some of the heavy political undertones, as well as the immature revenge fantasies it allows everyone to live out, Kingsmen never gives up its sense of playfulness. It pulls off a few melodramatic moments without really screwing up the tone of the film, and it manages to constantly crack wise and find humour even in the moments when the entire world is falling apart. One of the most fun sequences in the film occurs when Galahad is in his most dire moment: Valentine tricks him into investigating a church and enacts his rage signal while he is inside. Even though his life is in danger, and he is killing people that he doesn’t actually want to, the filmmakers cleverly allowed the audience to enjoy the scene guilt-free by making Galahad’s victims members of a white hate church.
I’d include a comparison to the book here, but I have not yet read Mark Millar’s comic The Secret Service. This is the second team-up between director Matthew Vaughn and comic book writer Mark Millar; their first collaboration was Kick-Ass, and the similarities definitely show. Both movies had an aim show their particular genres that, far too often, they take themselves too seriously and need to learn how to enjoy themselves.
I personally think Kingsmen is far more effective, because Kick-Ass had a fair share of downsides. Too many of the book’s themes, such as the notion that crime fighting not only hurts loved ones, but is also somewhat of a mental instability, were cut from the final picture. In the original book, you had fun watching the glorified violence, but you did not look up to the heroes like you did in typical superhero stories; more likely you felt sorry for them.
Instead of breaking the typical rules of superhero stories like the book did, Kick-Ass bent them slightly but changed major moments in the book to remain appealing as a mainstream movie. A big part of that was a major toning-down of the gore in the comic, which was used to show the real and disturbing after-effects of vigilante violence. The one assumption I am making here is that this unfortunately happens again in Kingmen. No question, there is far more blood on the screen than you will see in most spy films which often avoid showing any injury. But Millar’s most graphic panels often drip with blood and broken bones so I’m guessing a lot of that was tapered down.
When I went back and read Kick-Ass (slash when I saw Super, which did what Kick-Ass tried to do far more effectively) my subsequent viewings of the film suffered immensely. I still enjoy the film, but not nearly as much as I originally did. While I am afraid to read the comic Kingsmen is based on because of this (although I almost certainly will), I feel like this one will fare better than Kick-Ass did.
For one, my initial reaction to this movie was even better than the one I had for Kick-Ass. Second, where it was apparent what Kick-Ass was trying to convey in its runtime, it was also easy to see that it gave up trying to convey its themes and ideas so that it could go ahead and just have fun… and a jet-pack. Kingsmen has its cake and eats it too, because it not only fully gets across its themes of class and homages to classic spy films while insulting modern ones, it also has a hell of a lot of fun doing it.
While I doubt everyone would agree with me (in spite of my earlier comments about Kick-Ass), I officially find myself being an outright fan of every film that Vaughn has directed (yes, that does include Stardust). I am also extra- impressed here because Vaughn has improved on a team-up that I ultimately soured on, in a genre that I haven’t particularly liked in years. I am fully onboard with Vaughn continuing his adaptations of Millar’s work if they keep improving in this general direction.
Like I said earlier, Kingsman’s main objective is to have fun. It provides lots of laughs and thrills throughout and has some really enjoyable characters. The story and characters may be based on old clichés, but that’s part of what makes this film so enjoyable. If Bond films were able stop taking themselves so seriously and realize their inherent silliness like this movie does, I’d be first in line for every installment. Unfortunately, they’re not this kind of movie.