Kingsmen: Secret Service is a clever idea; a few steps from brilliance; at times an inspired mix of superhero origins with James Bond-style Secret Service agents. Director Matthew Vaughn embraces the English gentleman, British high culture and even throws a few jokes out of there to Peter Sellers fans, but forgets to create a compelling, funny, coherent action adventure.
The film starts off with a pre-credit sequence with Kingsmen member Galahad/Harry Hart, (Collin Firth) losing a member. Feeling guilty, he visits his widow and promises to help his son in any way he can. 17 years later, the kid is arrested and calls for help using the number given to him as a kid. Gary, “Eggsy” Unwin, (Taron Egerton) a troubled, but talented young man is told of having potential and asked to join the exclusive spy organization. Hart wines, dines and tries to smooth out the edges of the young man, while bad guy, Richmond Valentine, (Samuel L. Jackson) has announced a world-wide giveaway of SIM cards that allow free phone calls and internet access to everyone. It seems like a noble gesture– excerpt there’s a catch. Valentine later explains his views to Harry, stating that humanity is akin to a virus, and that global warming is the Earth’s equivalent of a fever and the virus must be eradicated.
The film looks good and establishes a very cool mythology; Kingsmen are not the states official intelligence gatherer, but work in secret to give information to the proper authorities. Cool eh? Not really- it feels more like a Kick-Ass sequel than a truly original creation. The film claims to be a Bond fan, yet none of Bond’s DNA is really exploited properly. The most frustrating part is for a film so desperately in love with the Bondian spy milieu, it buggers it good by not fully embracing the absurdities of the 007-style of secret agents by having fun. It trades crude ordinary humor for truly funny jokes.
This movie very much felt like Dark Knight Rises, it’s refusal to embrace the material, own it, enjoy it and go balls-deep crazy. It goes overboard where it shouldn’t but it is surprisingly restrained in most other ways. My biggest grumble with the film is its refusal to have fun. Had the film embraced more of the Bond tropes it would have succeeded. It tries, but it never takes off and the humor falls flat, the action worse and the leaden-paced narrative is unacceptable. There are glimpses and fleeting moments of high style and culture with the secret service, but it’s traded in for graphic violence and crappy editing. The action is over-edited; the fights sped-up and shot like a music video draining out any style; certainly nothing to compete with real Bond style of action.
To be fair, there are some fun bits; the whole recruitment/training/gadgetry lighthearted tone reminds me why I love Roger Moore as Bond. The hench woman with the blades for legs and uses them to kill people, The battle with the Calvary throng at the villain’s lair are great fun, but other moments felt out of place with a hint of desperation as in the Church scene with the hate group with Harry massacring everyone while Skynerd’s Freebird plays over the happenings is DOA. The graphic violence fit great with Kick-Ass universe, but here, it sticks out and the CG enhanced violence sticks out far worse and never looks convincing. Call me a grumpy bastard, (YOU GRUMPY BASTARD!) but CG violence, gunshots, headshots- whatever shots should never be digital, it looks terrible. This could be Vaughn’s most violent yet, but it’s CG violence so does it really count?
I hated it.
The worst part, the film is badly paced, things never pick up and Eggsy never gets into character of a Kingsmen until the last 20 minutes, but by then it’s too late and we are bored to tears. He is supposed to feel something when Harry (Firth) is killed, but you never get a sense they ever established much of anything. Harry acted as his mentor/surrogate father, but the pay-off is a dead end, just like the sub-plot of Eggsy’ shithead stepfather. For as smart as Harry is, Valentine defeat of him is a little too quick. Eggsy’s showdown with Valentine is a waste of time and doesn’t amount to anything. The kid never becomes suave or dashing, he goes from Eggsy the punk to Eggsy the Kingsmen, and besides donning glasses, nothing changes; he still has the mouth of a sewer.
Despite all that, Egerton is quite good, he carries the drama and the humor, what little there is, quite well and his few action moments. His performance was never the issue, but how the character unfolded.
Listen up, Marvel. I think you found your next Peter Parker/Spider-Man!
If there was a lesson the James Bond films have taught us, is that without a good, well-realized villain, Bond is left with not much to do. Kingsmen forgets that and suffers for it, instead of a bad guy who enjoys himself being bad we get an effete Samuel L. Jackson who vomits at the sight of blood and speaks with a strange lisp and doesn’t like violence. I’m not sure of the point of this- Kingsman is not an Austin Powers/Naked Gun type of comedy, so why ruin the story’s narrative possibilities with such a lame villain. In fact, I can’t think of one film that has adopted this style of performance and it having worked without it being an outright parody like Dr. Evil. Jackson’s performance reminded me of those early incarnations of Lex Luthor from “Superman: The Movie,” before Donner was on board where he was written much like Valentine as a wimpy, neurotic tool. Sounds dumb right? So is Jackson, he single-handedly ruins the film for me-cartoonish, buffoonish and a boring forgettable villain. People can talk shit on Roger Moore all day, (they would be wrong of course) but he was never given a weak villain, even Christopher Walken had some menacing heft.
The rest of the cast is excellent- Collin Firth is his usual suave self, Michael Cain gives solid support and Mark Hamill in his brief role is fun. Mark Strong as Merlin- all good. Yet this is just not enough. It never gels, it never picks up and it never soars and comes down for a perfect landing.
While wallowed in my disillusionment, I was reminded of a better, similar film that played up the Bond elements, but created its own fun too, “If Looks Could Kill,” starring Richard Grieco, not a classic by any stretch, but a fun movie with a nasty, effective villain, in the form of Linda Hunt. It’s a sad day in Cinema when Linda Hunt out bad-guys Samuel L. Jackson, but it’s true… but that film knew how to have fun and knew what to parody and when to wink.
Kingsmen tries, but for some reason loses its way. Many might forget that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was an ode to a disrespected film genre- it took B movie material and made an A class classic. Perhaps that’s unfair, Kingsmen is not even close to being that good, but it should have aimed a little higher and took itself a tad more serious, not too much, but enough to make Jackson a credible villain and Eggsy a hero we would want to see again. Too many of the jokes are just swear words or unfunny one-liners. There is a mean-spiritedness, a cynicism that doesn’t work for me. However, the films final shot is a classic, I just wish the film as a whole had been more inspired.
It sucks to write this, I dig Vaughn, he will hit again I’m sure, but as a whole, Kingsmen: The Secret Service needs to be discharged. I love the ode to Roger Moore-era Bonds, but this feels like a Bond movie for the ignorant fools that do not like Bond and that sort of thing is not my bag, baby… I just wish it had been smarter, leaner, slicker and wittier.