Abandon all thought, ye who enter here. And squeamishness as well. If you share any such distaste for bloodshed with the film's villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), best to check that at the door. The body count is steep in Kingsman: The Secret Service, although the violence is increasingly cartoonish as the film proceeds giddily through its 129 minutes of mayhem. At the helm with a steady hand, an iron stomach and no qualms apparent is Englishman Matthew Vaughn.
Surprisingly, "Kingsman" is loosely based on a comic book. Not on a Chekhov short story, as one might assume. The comic series in question is The Secret Service, by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar. Early in the graphic proceedings, an environmental scientist, Mark Hamill (yes, the same) is kidnapped. The real Hamill, looking a bit like Eddie Izzard's ill-used older brother, is present in "Kingsman" too, as climate scientist James Arnold, held in Argentina by Valentine and his blade-footed minion, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), When Hamill makes his exit early in "Kingsman," he goes the way of many a scientist. You know...via an exploding head. The unfortunate Agent Galahad (Colin Firth), who had been confronting the scientist, is sprayed across face and glasses with something that looks more like an exploding blue die pack from a bag of stolen loot than projectile grey matter. Eventually, countless other heads will explode in "Kingsman," skulls bursting like colorful fireworks while Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" is heard in stately irony. Like all such forays into irony in "Kingsman," the spray is a mile wide and about an inch deep.
As with the later panoply of colorfully-bursting heads to Elgar, there's every potential for rich irony here, as with the lampoon of the OSS 117 film adaptations, Jean Dujardin playing a culturally (and in most ways) clueless French agent in the manner of James Bond. Alas, "Kingsman's" main target of parody is itself, even though Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman don't seem to have suffered that realization. There's a coursing energy that sweeps one through the film's two hours, but it's hardly an intelligent energy. But this is a kind of punk rock, some reviewers have claimed on behalf of Kingsman: The Secret Service. Not so fast, gushing critics and bloggers. The best punk songs meld sonic fury and intellectual focus into a truly formidable weapon. "Kingsman," meanwhile, fires loud, if sometimes colorful blanks.
Colin Firth as Galahad/Harry Hart brings a gravity to his role that the film doesn't nearly call for. But at least he's not winking his way to the bank to deposit the sizable check for services rendered in "Kingsman." Cashing in a good bit himself these days (he's one of three Brits featured in those recent Jaguar television ads), Mark Strong is Merlin, another veteran Secret Service operative. Strong too, works hard enough for the money in this case, adopting a Scottish burr and providing refreshing moments of drollery amid "Kingsman's" fireworks and monsoon of bullets. The Knights of the Round Table conceit, apparently, not part of the nomenclature of the comic series, is the creation of Vaughn and Goldman. As with much about their script, it lazily evokes some big thing for effect and doesn't bother to do much with the idea.
On the rare occasion when one of the Kingsman agent falls, as when the unfortunate Lancelot is sliced neatly top to bottom by the lethal Gazelle, the agents gather in corporeal or virtual form and toast their fallen comrade with a glass of Napoleon brandy (although it's actually referred to as "Napoleonic brandy," which gives you some idea Vaughn and Goldman's attention to detail, or their limited sense of humor). The virtual agents are made visible when their comrades in bodily attendance sport special Kingsman spectacles, which makes them look rather like a 1960's Michael Caine, as in his far superior cloak and dagger film, The Ipcress File (1965). And wouldn't you know it - Sir Michael himself presides over the unround table, quaffing the old Napoleonic as Agent Arthur.
Galahad has a chance to atone for his early career blunder by helping the son of the agent killed due to his mistake. This Gary, "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), sunk into a kind of lower class purgatory with his mother (Samantha Womack), after his father's death some 17 years prior. Mom's replacement husband is a brute, and poor Eggsy gets it coming and going, having to dodge the stepdad (Geoff Bell) at home and his young cronies at the local pub. Eggsy ultimately is arrested for stealing the car of one of his tormenters. When he calls in the favor owed to the family by the Secret Service, Galahad arranges Eggsy's release and offers the possibility of a very different life.
From here, the plotting in "Kingsman" proceeds, half Harry Potter, half seemingly every young adult novel published in the past decade. Like the now immortal Harry, Eggsy is given the chance to flee a troubled home life and realize a potential he didn't know he had, reporting to Saville Row instead of Hogwarts. As with the Hunger Games books and several other such warmed over series, young Eggsy gets to engage in a seemingly life and death struggle for the privilege of representing (very possibly dying for) the state.
The nimble Eggsy manages to better many of the other would-be Lancelots II, posh types who look down on the boy from the housing estate. Ultimately, he loses out to friendly female candidate, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who's able to complete a last test at which the tender-hearted Eggsy balks - turning a gun upon the puppy that had been placed in his charge for the duration of his training. Don't worry - no fictional hounds are harmed in "Kingsman." Intelligence, sure. Irony, absolutely. But not the dogs; they get out unscathed.
Eggsy's banishment from the Secret Service is short-lived, once he's pressed into duty to avenge the death of his mentor. Galahad is unceremoniously dispatched by Valentine after what one might call "Kingsman's" signature scene.
The crazy billionaire Valentine offers the world a lifetime a free texting, yammering, gaming, what have you, if they simply queue for one of his SIM cards to be inserted in their cell phones. Of course, the world responds enthusiastically. But these are no ordinary SIM cards. No. When activated via satellite, the cards and phones render their bearers uncontrollably violent. Valentine decides to test this in a rural American church whose parishioners are already rather inclined toward a bit of the ultra violence, riled as they are by a preacher who spews hate from the pulpit. As with the earlier title card, we're simply told this is "Kentucky, USA," as if the state name alone tells us all we need to know. What is not explained is why this foaming at the mouth congregation would have the cards in the first place, as they seem as likely to take something from a black entrepreneur as they are to subscribe to The Advocate. Apparently hateful folk love free stuff as much as anyone else.
As he probably learned at Psychopath Academy, Valentine believes humanity in need of a purge. His particular angle is that we're ruining the planet, oblivious to climate change and have to be stopped. All very true, but still....Even more than its gleeful comic violence, "Kingsman" should be held accountable for attaching climate change to fringe lunacy. It's not bad enough that we have a dipshit legislator walking into the Senate chamber with a snowball in hand to prove global warming is a myth, now the menacing issue is the playground of brightly-clad super villains. Mr. Jackson, like Messrs. Firth and Strong does add some unique energy to the proceedings. His lisping, violence-averse madman is a welcome departure from his usual one-and-a-half note intensity.
So well do the SIM cards from hell work that even Agent Galahad, on the scene to stop Valentine, is swept into the orgy of violence. And quite a brawl it is, played out to the uptempo chorus and guitar free-for-all of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." Yee-haw! Say what you will about Vaughn and Goldman, they don't lack conviction; they do throw a lively hoedown. And Vaughn the director choreographs this Appalachian danse macabre with about as much clarity as seems possible. Colin Firth was apparently required to train six months to be ready for the physical demands of the extended scene in which his character manages to dispatch every crazed Kentuckian who comes at him.
Here, as with that other classic penned by the Vaughan and Goodman, Kick Ass, the director is like a poor man's Edgar Wright. Wright's films, the "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy - Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End - and Soctt Pilgrim vs. the World teem also with comic violence. But the body count (be it human, zombie or robot) is hardly the point. The "Cornetto" trilogy also pulses with wit and a sharp satire of twenty-first century England. Wright injects that same wit (visual as much as verbal) into seemingly every frame of "Scott Pilgrim." elevating what is another otherwise flimsy story derived from a graphic series. At least with "Kingsman," Vaughn and Goodman have progressed from the near kiddie porn of Kick Ass, but that's a rather dire accomplsihment. The film falls well below the mark of the one good film the writer/director has produced for adults, Layer Cake.
The word subversive also generously appears in reviews for "Kingsman." but the film's only brief flirtation real irreverence occurs when Agent Galahad details some of his exploits, including the foiling of an assassination plot against Margaret Thatcher. Not everyone would thank him for that, says Eggsy. Ah, out of the mouth of babes. Mainly, Kingsman: The Secret Service plays like a Masterpiece Theater production of Grand Theft Auto, complete with its own small roster of British acting nobility. Shame we couldn't work in Dames Maggie or Judy, although there's clearly no room here for women unattractive or over the age of 30. As Eggsy says to the finally vanquished Valentine, "This is not that film, bro."