I see it now. There are two Matthew Vaughns. In one corner, we have Good Boy Matthew Vaughn, the British director who brought icy control and a flair for action to Layer Cake and X-Men: First Class. In the other, we have Bad Boy Matthew Vaughn, who collaborated with comic-book author Mark Millar and let his sick, twisted sense of humor come out to play in Kick-Ass. The bad boy has returned in a major way with Kingsman: The Secret Service, and I’m happy for it despite all of my issues with the film.
The hero is Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), a dead-end London petty criminal who’s always pissing off both the cops and the crime lords in his neighborhood. When his latest hijinks land him in serious trouble, he remembers the phone number given to him by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a Savile Row tailor who visited Eggsy years earlier when his dad was murdered. Ringing Harry up not only gets Eggsy’s criminal charges dismissed but initiates him into Harry’s real job: working for a secret multinational anti-terrorist spy organization. The impeccably groomed Harry offers Eggsy a spot as an agent — and some tips on how to dress and behave in social situations — if he can survive a boot camp that’s designed to kill its recruits, most of whom are tossers from expensive schools who laugh off this street hooligan.
This movie is savvily cast, especially when it comes to Firth and Michael Caine, as the head of the Kingsmen. More than for what these actors can do, the movie uses them to cheekily refer to the way these two stars have served as icons of British masculinity in their time. You don’t associate the 54-year-old, Oscar-winning Firth with action thrillers, but he proves to be a lean, efficient fighter in an early scene in a pub where he polishes off six gun-toting thugs who want a piece of Eggsy. (Actually, what really makes the scene is the bit afterward, when he goes back to his booth and oh-so-properly sinks back down into his seat to finish his Guinness.) Firth’s comically polished performance is matched well with Samuel L. Jackson as a lisping American telecom billionaire named Richmond Valentine who dresses like a 1990s b-boy, replete with oversized tracksuit and askew Yankees cap, and is funnily squeamish about violence given that he wants to exterminate 80 percent of the world’s human population as a way of reversing global warming.
Vaughn works with his habitual writing partner Jane Goldman here, and once again they improve on Millar’s source material — the female recruit (Sophie Cookson) competing with Eggsy for the agency job is entirely their invention. They conjure up some nice action set pieces, like a training exercise in which Eggsy and his fellow recruits wake to find their barracks rapidly filling up with water. These are cut with funny bits of dialogue like Valentine musing on how nobody knows the name of China’s secret service. (“Now that’s a secret.”) There’s also a highly self-referential conversation between Harry and Valentine where they praise old, unserious Hollywood spy thrillers while also calling each other out as the secret agent and supervillain that they are.
Still, you’ve got a bunch of white people here trying to take down a black man and his Arab henchwoman (Sofia Boutella) who has steel prosthetic blades for legs. How hard would it have been to make one of the younger heroes a person of color? Worse, the scenes of mayhem feel irresponsible here like they didn’t in Kick-Ass. The most spectacular sequence is set in a white supremacist church in Kentucky, where Harry is caught up in the bloodshed when Valentine’s weapon turns more than 50 churchgoers into homicidal maniacs. You get the feeling that the identity of the victims is the source of Vaughn’s glee in it.
Filmed with a similar glee, the global carnage wreaked by Valentine near the end — which the film doesn’t need — is intercut with Eggsy’s mum (Samantha Womack) trying to break through a locked door to kill her new baby, and Vaughn gets the contrasting tones all wrong. The ending, too, with Eggsy having sex with a hot Swedish princess (Hanna Alström) as a reward for saving the day is a throwback to the sexism of the old James Bond movies that was better left in the past.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is puerile entertainment done with great energy and technical skill. A little more conscientiousness would have served this movie well, though.
[box_info]Kingsman: The Secret Service
Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, based on Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book. Rated R.[/box_info]