Bright Lights Film Journal

Watch It Again! Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

The scriptwriters and fortune tellers have so cluttered the rest of the film with wild and haphazard injections of in jokes and outlandish gags … that it becomes repetitious and tedious. And since it’s based more on slapstick than wit, with Bond cliché piled upon cliché, it tends to crumble and sprawl.

* * *

This could easily be said of Matthew Vaughn’s very American approximation of British suavity in Kingsman: The Secret Service. But actually the critic Bosley Crowther said it of 1967’s Casino Royale, the original anti-auteur spy spoof that Vaughn seems to emulate, or at least to spoof to the power of two. A well-acted sheen polishes the surface of Vaughn’s bubbly visuals, but like a Christmas fruitcake, what goes into it doesn’t nearly seem to justify the end result. Even re-evaluating the excessive indulgences of its fragmentary ’60s inspiration as a curio more than a treasure, Colin Firth, while he may be a peach, is no David Niven.

The film begins with Mark Hamill kidnapped by Samuel L. Jackson. A James Bond-esque hero, codenamed Lancelot, takes down the armed guards with gentlemanly grace, spilling not a drop of his ’42 something-or-other Scotch. The camera shakes a lot (get used to it). Blood and bone spurt for the camera, not on Tarantino’s level of breathless glee but still more at home in Hong Kong than London (get used to it). As he’s predictably established with actional clarity, Lancelot is about to enjoy his drink when Vaughn makes a move that right this second I’ll call subversive. A henchwoman with swords tucked into her prosthetic legs (Sofia Boutella) slices Lancelot clean in half with one swish, a feat more at home in Noboru Iguchi’s The Machine Girl series, about a Japanese schoolgirl with a chainsaw for an arm, than any of the Bond films (Goldfinger’s Oddjob notwithstanding). Importantly, there is now no Bond in our Bond film.

You’ll notice that I refer to some of this and later stuff – such as Jackson’s digital world domination plot identical to that of Skynet’s in Terminator: Genisys – as not “at home” in a film even ostensibly about James Bond. This gets my point across but isn’t quite accurate because I don’t know what “home” is for Kingsman. Its elements seem to scatter sporadically into new shapes and tonal combos, grasping at parody one minute and matter-of-fact-ness the next. If it were more serious, this confusion would be distressing and noxious. As a comedy, innocuity numbs the pain, but like morphine it doesn’t make things much clearer.

The fights, for instance, are fast and Kung-furious, whether between a stunt double of Colin Firth and some misbehaving blighters at a local pub or between a stunt double of Colin Firth and a church full of backwater Southern Baptists. But the jarring rapid-fire editing doesn’t match a Bond film any more than the gore does, and the situations don’t seem to perceive a difference between a comedy kill and a straight-faced bloodbath. Vaughn switches between these without warning, almost as though disjunction was the whole point, like the loose-fitting plot was his permission to be kooky. The crime is less that the film wears it than that it tries to pass it off as evening wear.

Young Eggsy (Taron Eggerty) auditions for the Kingsman agency under the auspices of his trainer, Galahad (Firth), who takes him from the holding cell of a police station to show him a secret underground world of laser pens and monogrammed hankies, like an effeminate Agent K via Men in Black. Eggsy embraces the white-collar underground and seems to validate values like teamwork and compassion with pure street-spunk. When they let him go because he refuses to shoot a pug puppy when ordered to (as though a Kingsman can only pass the final test if he’s a sociopath), I figured he and Vaughn were codifying a real stand against senseless action flicks.

Yet, it doesn’t take him long to be murdering aristocrats with a machine gun like one of the good ol’ boys. He becomes a suave-contra-suavity gentleman who rescues a literal princess from a dungeon because she offers to “do it up the ass” if he saves the world. But then he slow-walks toward the camera adjusting his cufflinks like a suave-pro-suavity jerk. Kingsman gives and takes too much to have a point, like the anaphylactic tone in the Austin Powers films but without the actual groovy ’60s to resuscitate it. “Manners maketh the man,” says Galahad, who also says “fuck” a lot.

Now back to that little word “subversive.” Unless Kingsman aims to subvert tonal consistency itself, its parodies are more like Crowther’s references to Bond tropes than true commentaries on a genre. It’s more talent agent than secret agent.

Let’s look at a moment it does right, a particularly effective jab at tradition. As Galahad describes the traditional arsenal of an agent, from poison-laced pens to blades in the shoe, Eggsy asks what makes the cell phones on the armory wall special. “Nothing,” Galahad replies, “That technology has caught up with the spy world.” It’s a moment of such thematic clarity that it doesn’t fit with the slow-motion camera and skewered Baptists. In here is a kung fu film, zombie epidemic film, spy film, spoof film, war film … for it to grasp for a moment at a truism seems terrifically out of touch, especially if you already know that we’re careening toward an ending that would be more at home in Mars Attacks! and that secretly, Jackson and Go-Go Yubari and all, wishes it was Kill Bill.

Samuel L. Jackson

Some people believe that Samuel L. Jackson is a good actor, a problem I’ll leave to the archaeologists. But even those in his camp would not cite Kingsman as an example. His lisping YouTube prodigy won’t earn him or Kingsman any awards, but like his character in Unbreakable he’s there more for contrast. He has the line that seems to strive at the point of all this.

“Now I’m going to tell you my whole plan,” he says, “and then I’m going to come up with an absurd and convoluted way to kill you … and you’ll find an equally convoluted way to escape. Well, this ain’t that kind of movie.” There’s another part where they mention James Bond and I’m still not entirely sure why. Is it to ensure the audience gets the parody? Or is it to establish Bond as the fake version of the reality of the Kingsman? If that’s the case, why all the fighting and parkour that’s scores more convoluted and artificial than Bond is, even in his video games? Isn’t Kingsman really that kind of movie anyway in the end, when the young spy kid takes down the blades-for-legs schoolgirl in the megalomaniac’s underground lair? The movie that wasn’t that movie was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), the quiet paperwork drama about real-life spy George Smiley. The movie that made fun of that movie was Austin Powers, which pointed out the convoluted death chambers even while it delighted in using them.

Kingsman would very much like to both hide its devices and delight in pointing them out. This is its essential contradiction. When Jackson says, “This ain’t that kind of movie,” he’s admitting that Kingsman is a movie in a world in which people know James Bond and can see the cameramen cataloging their lives. But the world of Kingsman is not one in which this passes for humor like rewinding the tape in Space Balls, or for sinister awareness via the film-cutting scene in Fight Club. This kind of rhetoric cutting into the fourth wall should be purposeful, as a person should only endure the emotional turmoil of looking at their x-ray if there’s something they need to see. Otherwise, the quiet existential crisis of pointing out someone’s insides really just sends the wonder of the movies into a coma. I suppose like the agents themselves, Kingsman believes it can do what it wants and never explain itself. It can proclaim to know it’s a movie even while it only operates within the confines of the movies that it already knows. Is that what it thinks Bond was about? This is the rare adaptation that doesn’t so much miss the design of its source material as congratulate itself for spray-painting over it. As far as I can tell from the promotions for Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the gentlemanly self-accolades are in no danger of letting up.

Michael Caine is also in it, but bless you if you think that’s a mark of the film’s quality, a ship that hasn’t so much sailed as circumnavigated the globe and returned with three exotic concubines and a whole case of ‘42 something-or-other Scotch.

 * * *

Images are screenshots from the DVD of the film.