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Non-Review Review: The Kingsman

The creators of The Kingsman either really love or really hate the classic Roger Moore Bond films. Probably both.

Another creative collaboration between Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Mark Millar, The Kingsman is just as juvenile, crass and ultimately charming as Kick-Ass. There is a sense of mischievous and cheeky fun to this classic spy film homage. It is effectively an update of those seventies and eighties spy films with a more cynical and self-aware attitude. There is a sense that The Kingsman is simply more transparent than its inspirations in its infectiously juvenile and borderline offensive sensibilities.

Sound and Firthy...

Sound and Firthy…

It is hard to tell how much of this homage is genuine nostalgic affection, and how much is witty subversion. The Kingsman is a spy film that not only uses outdated (and occasionally insensitive) spy movie tropes, it practically revels in them. Although the third act occasionally feels a little too mean-spirited in its riff on classic Bond sensibilities, The Kingsman has enough boundless energy and raw enthusiasm to keep the audience watching. The script is well-observed and the direction is tight. A superb central cast helps to anchor the film.

The Kingsman is an odd beast. It is that rare homage that seems quite likely to shock and offend many fans that otherwise share its nostalgic inclinations. However, those willing to be a bit more adventurous will find much to love in this updated spy caper.

Matthew Vaughn's fingerprints are all over this...

Matthew Vaughn’s fingerprints are all over this…

“You like spy movies, Mister DeVille?” the villainous Richmond Valentine asks his guest over an unconventional dinner. Harry pauses to bemoan the state of the genre. “Nowadays they’re all a little bit too serious for my tastes,” he admits. “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.” It feels like a statement of purpose from The Kingsman. The movie could be accused of many things, but it certainly favours “far-fetched” and “theatrical” over “serious.” In fact, it feels like a relic from some strange world where Timothy Dalton never took over from Roger Moore.

The Kingsman wears its influences on its sleeve. The movie’s poster is one gigantic homage to the iconic poster from The Spy Who Loved Me. With its emphasis on British class and effortless style, The Kingsman harks back to the day when “James Bond” was the only iconic spy around. Discovering that young Eggsy has named his dog “J.B.”, spymaster Arthur tries to figure out the spy reference. “James Bond? Jason Bourne?” Neither is the correct guess. “Jack Bauer.” Those last two names seem somewhat alien to The Kingsman.

Sink or swim time...

Sink or swim time…

The Kingsman carries over a lot of the look and feel of those classic James Bond films. The soundtrack pulls from the seventies and eighties. The score from Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson even features a number of delightful music stings that feel almost quaint and old-fashioned. The heroes of The Kingsman are an old British institution dating back to the First World War. They wear tailored suits and travel in black cabs. There are only twelve of them at any one time, and they all use aliases. In this case, the aliases are drawn from the legend of King Arthur.

“The tailored suit is the armour of a modern knight,” Harry reflects to his young charge at one point in The Kingsman. While Skyfall featured a Q department that would no longer “go in” for gimmicks like exploding pens, The Kingsman is populated with bullet-proof umbrellas, electric shock rings and lighters that double as hand grenades. Coat hooks in fitting rooms activate secret elevators. Even their transportation system is designed to be of one with the London Underground.

The name's Firth, Colin Firth...

The name’s Firth, Colin Firth…

A large part of the joy of The Kingsman is how it revives the classic spy movie tropes – tropes that are largely outdated. Some elements of the film – such as the emphasis on class or the spy gimmicks – have simply fallen by the wayside due to larger cultural shifts. However, The Kingsman also draws attention to a number of the classic spy movie tropes that have been disregarded for other reasons. There are a whole host of elements of The Kingsman which seem designed to offend the modern audience, but would not even cause Roger Moore to arch an eyebrow.

The most obvious example is Richmond Valentine himself, the “larger than life supervillain” of this particular adventure. Valentine draws from a number of different elements that would feel rather awkward in the contemporary Bond franchise, exaggerated to a ludicrous degree. In many respects, Richmond Valentine is a self-aware version of Scaramanga, the archetypal Roger Moore Bond villain played with the awareness of how ridiculously politically incorrect such a villain must seem in 2015.

Take five, guys!

Take five, guys!

As with most Bond villains, Valentine has a disability or disfigurement. Scaramanga had a third nipple, in perhaps the most delightfully absurd example of the trope. Richmond Valentine has a speech impediment, modelled by Samuel L. Jackson on his own lisp. As with Scaramanga, Richmond Valentine is associated with progressive politics; both Scaramanga and Valentine are effectively maniacal environmentalists. As with quite a few Bond villains – like Scaramanga or Goldfinger – Valentine is portrayed as the most crass sort of wealthy individual; all money, no taste.

Valentine even has his own henchwoman with her own disability. With the suitably henchwoman-y name of “Gazelle”, Valentine’s right-hand sidekick is a double amputee. Her legs have been replaced with razor-sharp blades that inevitably become a part of the movie’s kinetic choreography. Again, Gazelle represents a decidedly old-fashioned James Bond archetype, one that would seem quite outdated and offensive in a modern context. The Kingsman seems to acknowledge and play with this – especial in the character’s final sequence.

Will he be a washout?

Will he be a washout?

That said, The Kingsman is perhaps not as cynical and crass as it might want its audience to think. For all that Valentine and Gazelle feel like self-aware throwbacks to a very shallow and offensive style of character archetypes, the narrative treats both characters with considerable respect. Most notably, the two seem capable of genuine affection and understanding towards one another. The roles might be drawn as broad outdated archetypes, but the script does acknowledge them as characters in their in own right.

As with Kick-Ass, The Kingsman carefully balances its mean-spiritedness with a surprising sense of earnestness. The script is fascinated with the class issues that bubble beneath these classic Bond narratives, as gentleman spy Harry Hart recruits street youth Eggsy Unwin to join the Kingsman. Eggsy lives in a flat in a dead-end part of time. Showing up for training, his colleagues wonder where he came from. “Oxford or Cambridge?” Early on, Eggsy tears into Harry for his sense of privilege and superiority for presuming to speak to working-class existence.

It's never clear if they operate under the umbrella of British intelligence...

It’s never clear if they operate under the umbrella of British intelligence…

The Kingsman is fascinated with the idea of the gentleman. Harry repeatedly suggests that this form of “genuine class” is quite distinct from the more rigid class definitions the permeate British culture. “Manners maketh man,” he quotes at one point, observing that dignity and decency are not unique to those who have the luxury of wealthy parents or expensive schools. Harry quotes Hemmingway, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

This distinction is important to The Kingsman, a movie based on ideas of class and society. Richmond Valentine’s plot is designed to emphasise the traditional divide; his top secret super weapon is ultimately tied into the themes of the movie. It is possible for Harry Hart to be reduced to a mindless thug, just as it is possible for Eggsy Unwin to elevate himself to the status of gentleman spy. In that way, The Kingsman plays as a commentary on the class discussions that surround these sorts of cult classic British projects – from The Persuaders to The Avengers to Bond.

A role tailor-made for Firth...

A role tailor-made for Firth…

Ultimately, The Kingsman seems to suggest that it is entirely possible to construct a classic gentleman spy story in the midst of a more class-conscious society; it is possible to make a stylish and suave secret agent adventure without feeling elitist or exclusionary. For all the sex jokes and gratuitous violence, The Kingsman seems to genuinely engage with its genre. If Kick-Ass was an affectionate-yet-subversive exploration of superhero fantasies, The Kingsman does something similar for the classic spy film.

Still, there are points where it feels like Vaughn and Goodman are being a little too pointed and mean-spirited. As the film enters its final act, the script becomes a lot more heightened. The violence becomes more gleeful and absurd, the jokes become more crass and juvenile. The final act plays like the climax of a Roger Moore Bond movie on acid. There is a lot more blood splatter and choreography, but the beats are all familiar. Once again, this feels like sly and almost subversive commentary on the source material.

A working class hero...

A working class hero…

The Kingsman is definitely juvenile. There are a number of touches at the climax that seem particularly excessive. However, these elements simply take the sort of storytelling devices associated with those classic Bond movies and amp them up to eleven. There are gloriously gratuitous references to the death of Mr. Big in Live and Let Die and the sorts of cheesy cringe-inducing “Bond gets laid” codas to those sorts of movies. These are elements of the Bond franchise that are fondly remembered, and The Kingsman simply asks the viewer to look at them in another light.

There was a decidedly sophomoric attitude to many of those Bond films, albeit one disguised by the posh accents and sharp suits. Nostalgia tends to gloss over lines like “I think he’s attempting reentry” or the borderline misogynistic cameo from “Margaret Thatcher” or names like “Holly Goodhead.” The final act of The Kingsman riffs mercilessly on these awkward set-ups, often stripping the romance or the class from them in order to play them as absurd black comedy. It is a move that doesn’t always work, and occasionally goes too far, but lands some valid points.

Adopting a hands-on approach...

Adopting a hands-on approach…

The style and design of The Kingsman is striking. George Richmond’s cinematography is beautiful, it is rich and vibrant. It feels more like a colourful seventies spy film than many more recent Bond films. The costuming by Arianne Phillips and the production design by Paul Kirby are both impressive. As much as The Kingsman is obviously a gigantic homage to classic spy films, it does have its own unique aesthetic. The Kingsman occasionally feels like a live action cartoon, and is all the better for it.

Matthew Vaughn’s direction is as energetic as ever. There are a couple of pulse-pounding sequences shot in long takes that demonstrate the director’s knack for visceral action. One of these distinctive and memorable sequences serves to demonstrate that Colin Firth is just as much an action hero as Liam Neeson. There is a rare pleasure in seeing Firth cut completely loose; an Oscar-winning actor with Firth’s history rarely gets a chance to play an action lead, and The Kingsman has great fun with this contrast.

The casting is superb. Firth plays very well with newcomer Taron Egerton, providing a delightfully odd-couple repartee with the young man. The Kingsman builds up a top-notch adult cast around its younger characters. Samuel L. Jackson brings a delightfully larger-than-life megalomaniac to the screen. Michael Caine is mostly there to class up proceedings, and he does with aplomb; in fact, Caine provides one of the movie’s better gags at the end of an otherwise tense scene. Mark Strong suggests that perhaps Q should be recast as angry and Scottish.

The Kingsman is undoubtedly going to be polarising. Like Kick-Ass before it, it is a movie that hopes to be provocative. However, there is a sense that The Kingsman is never quite as mean-spirited and ruthless as it would like the audience to think. The movie has some interesting and thoughtful things to say about its inspirations and its influences. While it might be critical of those films, it is also deeply affectionate. Those occasionally pointed observations come from a place of genuine appreciation.

2 Responses

  1. It’s an amazing movie that pays homage to the old spy productions through James Bond, Get Smart and up to 24 hours.

    I have to comment on the action scenes that demonstrate exciting fights. And if you have a continuation’ll watch without thinking twice.

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