Action movies by and large lately have gotten way too serious. Even the really stupid ones, or ones that attempt humor, are generally way too po-faced to have anything approaching much of a good time. There was an age way back, however, where these action spectacles were absolutely bananagrams wacky and people ate them up like éclair cake. Matthew Vaughn’s newest film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is a throwback to the kind of spy movies they were making in the 1970s, specifically the Roger Moore James Bond movies, only with the same kind of foul-mouth and over-the-top violence he employed in Kick-Ass. It is based on another Mark Millar comic, after all.
Spy movies are silly. Even when they’re done with as much Oscar-prowess as possible, like Skyfall, we have to realize just how ridiculous they are. They depict a world where megalomaniacs with untold resources can hire an army of mercenaries and get immeasurably close to ending life on Earth, but one man or a small team of people thwart it just in the nick of time. That’s insanity! And part of Millar’s book, The Secret Service, which he wrote along with artist Dave Gibbons, deals with taking things we take for granted in popular culture and showing us how silly they are by ramping them up to 11.5. Unlike Kick-Ass or the earlier adaptation Wanted (which I really hated), Kingsman: The Secret Service doesn’t have any didactic mission statement; it’s just ultraviolent fun.
Going down similar streets as things like both Wanted and Men in Black, Kingsman follows a seemingly aimless young person, who nevertheless has skills in certain areas, as he is recruited into a mysterious world the rest of the population knows nothing about. In this case, our young ruffian is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a London lad without many prospects besides criminal activity who calls in a favor that a friend of his long-deceased father bestowed upon him. That friend turns out to be “Galahad” (Colin Firth), a dashing and dapper member of a highly-secret covert ops unit called the Kingsmen, spies who have tons of crazy gadgets and always wear the bespokest of bespoke suits. After the death of one of their top agents, the Kingsmen hold tryouts for a new recruit and Eggsy’s name has been submitted.
While that’s happening — and Merlin (Mark Strong) is administering the tests — Galahad begins to investigate what happened to their agent. That trail leads them to a supposedly kidnapped scientist (Mark Hamill) whose specialty is population growth, and a billionaire technology magnate named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) who is giving away free SIM cards that will give everyone free internet and phone calls for life. That seems pretty suspicious, doesn’t it?
Now, movies like this have a pretty cut-and-dry sense of plot and Kingsman: The Secret Service certainly follows Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to a tee. However, friends, it’s not the destination, it’s the ride, and this has easily got to be the most fun you’ll have watching wanton carnage in a long time. There is a surplus of people being shot, and Jackson’s right hand lady has a pair of leg prosthetics which are blades with which she lops off arms and legs, and even cuts rends torsos asunder. In one particularly memorable stretch of time, the camera follows Colin Firth around a room where he kills no fewer than 100 people in the most impressive ways possible. It’s a sequence that reminds me of those stick-figure Madness Combat cartoons from a decade ago. It’s absurd and yet completely brilliant. Vaughn directs the action in this movie like a mad genius, forcing us to look on with glee at all the carnage.
Firth is perhaps the most perfect casting choice in years for this movie. While he’s probably not the first name that comes up when people think “action star,” he pulls off the action he does (there’s clearly a stuntman for a good chunk of it) quite admirably. But what the character is more than that is a suave em-effing gentleman. He’s not a brute like James Bond; he’s rather more sartorial than that, and the standard-issue glasses hearken back to Michael Caine’s turn in the 1960s as nerd spy Harry Palmer. Caine also appears in the movie, by the way. As good and funny as Taron Egerton is, and his smirk becomes like waving flag of this movie’s greatness toward the end; if Firth wasn’t as grounded and believable a mentor as he is, the movie wouldn’t work.
Kingsman: The Secret Service already has the albatross of a cumbersome title around its neck, and I fear the “What exactly is this?” factor will play against it, but I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun watching a movie, one that’s good ol’ R-rated action romp that in anyone else’s hands would be a tepid PG-13. The plot is ludicrous of course, but that’s entirely the point. So was the plot of Moonraker or The Man with the Golden Gun. You don’t see a movie like this for the plot. Do yourself a favor and check this movie out at your earliest possible convenience.