The spy genre is one that I have great affection for. I was raised on James Bond, as well as dabbling in the Harry Palmer franchise, seeking out other classics from the likes of David Niven, even delving in to The Man from U.N.C.L.E (which is the MOST of its time of all old spy properties). Kingsman: The Secret Service and its director Matthew Vaughan seemed to exude a similar affection for the genre in its tonality, which is somewhat akin to a Roger Moore era-Bond. But what Vaughan has produced is a juvenile mess with only fleeting moments of excitement.
Eggsy (Taron Edgarton) is a young and aimless Londoner, who has great potential but is not willing to apply himself to anything more worthwhile than pissing off the local gangster who is sleeping with his mother. However, when he calls upon the assistance from an old friend of his deceased father, Eggsy enters a world of espionage. Taken under the wing of veteran spy, Harry Task (Colin Firth), Eggsy undertakes his spy training, but soon must save the world from a meglomaniac (Samuel L. Jackson) hell-bent on cleansing the world of its impurity; mankind.
Vaughan successfully pastiched the superhero franchise with Kick Ass, but much of that film’s success relied upon actually containing an interesting story, with well-developed characters, stylish action, and a consistent tonality. Most of this is lacking in Kingsman, a comic-adaptation which seems to be more aligned to Mark Millar’s sensibilities than it does Vaughan’s and his screenwriter Jane Goldman. This sensibility is sadistic and sour, often leading a bad taste in the mouth. Kick Ass was certainly in bad taste at certain corners, but it seemed much more invested in its characters. The characters here, although well performed, are simply too un-engaging to make the proceedings all that worthwhile.
A main issue that affects how this pastiche lands is that Vaughan stylises the movie completely wrong. Much of the action and cinematography seems more akin to a superhero movie, which while makes the movie bright and lively in terms of its colour palette, but does little to stylise it as a spy movie. This throws the tonality completely off. The presence of Firth allows for the Bond vibe to resonate at moments, but is once again thrown off when the overly-kinetic action sequences begin.
Many of the action scenes seemingly want to copy the stylings of Kick Ass, in having a pop song over much of the chaos. While this worked in Kick Ass to convey the outrageous scenario of having a 10 year-old girl exacting violent justice, the moments which attribute pop songs to scenes this time around undermine any dramatic potential a scene may have had. A scene in a Church, which has a devastating amount of violence, has all of the dramatic heft drained from it by having the Classic Rock stylings of Lynard Skynyrd accompanying the gory scenes. The OTT action scenes only continue to grow in their ridiculousness, which only goes to ensure that most of the scenes contain very little tonal resemblance, amounting in a film which is mess on a level of tone, narrative, and style.
That being said, there are moments which demonstrate the talent that Vaughan does have as a rather kinetic film-maker. The training segments allow for a vibrant sense of discovery, and it is when the film feels most tonally stable. Edgerton is a charismatic screen presence and does his best to keep the momentum up in these moments. Firth, also, gives the film a nice level of energy, playing both on-type and against it, and evidently having a great time. Likewise, Jackson enjoys himself as the ridiculous villain, clearly given free range to develop a snivelling character that is at least somewhat memorable.
The problem with this film is it is incredibly smug, It thinks it is hilarious, when in fact it is eye-rollingly juvenile (the final ‘big laugh’ relies on objectification and anal sex being ‘funny’). It thinks it is sleek, when in fact this is easily Vaughan’s most shoddily shot movie to date. A few stand-out set pieces and fun performances keep this film afloat, but there is simply no getting over the disparity of tone and the bitter taste many of the scenes leave in your mouth. It results in something that resembles Austin Power’s deranged, ADHD-suffering brat of a cousin. It is a disappointing mis-fire from Vaughan, and it further proves that perhaps a young-spy movie simply cannot work. Still, I’d take Agent Cody Banks over this any day.