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Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

February 13, 2015

By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

Kingsman PosterDirector Matthew Vaughn clearly aspires to reach the level of greats like Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino with Kingsman: The Secret Service.  But instead, the filmmaker has firmly planted himself as just another wannabe, delivering an awkward mix of silly spy spoof and sadistic violence, with a sexist cherry on top.

This sure as hell isn’t James Bond, and yet it can’t even reach the level of Austin Powers.  I might be in the minority on this, but Kingsman: The Secret Service is a film that never really gels together and simply didn’t work for me, the sort of time wasting blockbuster fare that we could have just as easily gotten from any too jittery for his own good Hollywood director.

The story is built around the Kingsman, an elite group of English spies, all named after the Knights of the Round Table.  There’s Arthur (Michael Caine), Merlin (Mark Strong) and Galahad, which is the codename for Harry Hart (Colin Firth).  When the time comes for them to find a replacement for the fallen Lancelot, enter new recruit Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), a tough teen who knows how to fight and seems like an ideal secret agent.

But no spy movie would be complete without an evil billionaire planning world domination, which this film offers in the lisping form of Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), an eccentric tech genius masterminding a despicable plot involving climate change and mind control.  Equally dangerous is lethal henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who does his dirty work with the help of her prosthetic legs, which function as razor-sharp blades.  You get the idea.

By attempting to satirize the spy movies of yore for current audiences, classic James Bond being chief among them, Matthew Vaughn has instead delivered a film that takes the worst tropes of modern blockbusters and video games, borrowing far too heavily from superior sources.  This is all wrapped up in a slick package that will no doubt convince people of finding something worthwhile in the proceedings, but I simply did not find much to enjoy here, despite there being some generally decent scenes.

The characters do have some good interactions together, and there are moments that hint at a better movie.  An early bar fight does boast some clever choreography, and there is a skydiving sequence that is admittedly well done.  But in the end, these moments hardly matter, because there is a sourness to the entire film that overshadows even the most lighthearted scenes.  Many sequences also feel derivative of Matthew Vaughn’s superior previous efforts like X-Men: First Class and the first Kick-Ass, movies that worked for the precise reasons that Kingsman: The Secret Service does not.

I like Colin Firth, and I’m sure he had some level of fun with the role, but his Oscar-winning talents are largely wasted here.  His take on a gentlemanly spy should have been suave and charming, but this character ultimately becomes anything but that, with a thankless turn partway through that is impossible to recover from.  Samuel L. Jackson delivers what is essentially a one-joke performance as the caricatured villain, and it’s kind of embarrassing to watch.  The real star here is Taron Egerton, a relative newcomer who shows great promise, and therefore deserves a better movie.

For a film that uses the line “manners maketh man” more than once, Kingsman: The Secret Service is pretty tasteless stuff, and not just in terms of offensive content.  This is flavourless junk food that offers nothing substantial, and seems entirely unsure of what audience it wants to attract.  From the cartoonish villain to the mostly cheesy training montages involving the younger characters, pretty much everything about the film feels like it was tailor made for tweenagers, akin to Agent Cody Banks.

But the gory violence will prevent the hordes of moviegoers young enough to actually buy into the idiotic plot from seeing it on their own.  There are many scenes where blood splatters with every gunshot, stabbing and dismemberment of limbs, and the bursts of red are so clearly added in post-production, that they could have easily nixed many of the impact shots to get a more accessible rating.  When heads start exploding in cartoony fireworks that are hardly believable, this becomes a film that can’t even decide whether to show violence as realistic or ridiculous, and there’s something disturbing about that.

You could argue that this is all meant to be harmless fun, only Kingsman: The Secret Service is far from innocent.  The images of guns and walls of artillery being fetishized like extensions of male sexuality, in ways akin to first person shooter games, are often offensive and in poor taste.  The film ends on a highly sexist note, with the sort of cheap male fantasy that will only excite pubescent boys.  Becoming the literal butt of a crude joke, a female character is sourly degraded to a damsel in distress and disposable object of sexual desire, merely a prize to be collected by the hero at the end of the game, after he saves the world.

Also troublesome is the scene at a racist and homophobic church, where our mind controlled “hero” gleefully murders the parishioners in bloody and over the top ways, a sequence that is not only gratuitous, but also needless to the overall plot.  At this point, I went from being bored to actively disliking the film, and this extended sequence is wrong on multiple levels.  By setting up the victims as people with whom it’s impossible to agree, the film takes pleasure in trying to force us to enjoy the images of senseless violence being inflicted upon them, coming dangerously close to condoning this sort of massacre.

I’m not criticizing this scene to defend to bigoted words of the congregation, but to condemn the violence depicted within, which the film seems to glorify as a sort of cathartic release.  By showing the supposedly progressive “hero” as being capable of such acts, the scene becomes inherently counterproductive to the causes that he is supposedly trying to defend.  Because it’s still murder, no matter what the religion or beliefs of the people getting slaughtered happen to be.  The completely misguided use of Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird,” one of my favourite songs, is just another reason for me to question this sequence.

What an ugly film this is, a deeply sexist and uncomfortably violent insult to any of the progressive ideas it pretends to defend.  Yes, I suppose Kingsman: The Secret Service is meant to be taken all in good fun, and there is no doubt an audience that will get a kick out of it.  But I just didn’t get any enjoyment out of the film, and at a bloated 129 minutes, I simply couldn’t wait for it to be over.  Like a constantly winking teenager who thinks they’re being funny even when they really aren’t, this is a film that pretends to be clever and subversive, but actually becomes quite backwards, often in the most obnoxious ways possible.

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