Starring: Taron Edgerton (Testament of Youth), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella (StreetDance 2), Michael Caine (Get Carter)
Director: Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class)
Writers: Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass)
Runtime: 2 hours 9 minutes
Release Date: 29 January (UK), 13 February (US)
As Kingsman: The Secret Service points out, spy movies have been quite serious as of late. Gone are the days where plots hinged on crazy gadgets and world domination, and in its place are government conspiracies and leaked documents. That’s not to say that the modern spy movies are bad, films such as The Bourne Identity and Casino Royale helped revitalize the genre, nor am I exactly pining for the days of such ludicrous nonsense as xXx or Die Another Day. What is needed, however, is something to balance the scales. Kingsman is that much needed balance, and you need to see it right now.
Based on the comic book by Mark Millar, Kingsman is similar to Matthew Vaughn’s other adaptation of a Millar series, Kick-Ass, in many ways. Not only does it have the same irreverent, self-referential tone and humour, but also it also similarly treats the source material as more of a guideline than a blueprint. It takes the broad strokes of the story, changes up certain key details, cleans off the excess and creates something that is both recognizably Kingsman but also very much Vaughn’s own film. In general terms, the film’s plot is very simple and takes a lot of cues from both classic spy movies and typical hero’s journey stories, but is surrounded by so many of Vaughn’s flourishes that it feels fresh and new. The plot moves at a brisk pace, jumping between the stories of Eggsy (Edgerton) and Harry (Firth) swiftly to tell the whole story and balancing time between character bits and brutal action sequences. It is unapologetically ridiculous and crude, but it also has a solid core to it and knows when to pull on the heartstrings. Additionally, in the midst of all the espionage action, Kingsman also manages to be a movie about something relatable and timely: classism. Whilst neither the rich nor the poor are painted in a bad light, it does touch on the injustices of the class system and creates a hero in Eggsy that shows that greatness can come from any walk of life.
Whilst the marketing has played up Colin Firth as the star of the film, who is excellent in his role as he effortlessly pulls off the gentleman spy routine, he is neither the main character nor the standout performer of the movie. Those honours belong to relative newcomer Taron Edgerton, whose role here may well define his career. Gary “Eggsy” Unwin is a very typical protagonist, but also unique enough to stand out from the crowd. He’s an aimless chav who wastes his talents doing stupid things (kind of like a South London Will Hunting), but behind that tracksuit are a witty mouth, a sharp mind and an honest heart. He’s a hero for the common man who sees through the elitism of his fellow agents, and Edgerton pulls it off with flying colours through genuine charm and strong comedic timing. He’s a wonderfully entertaining protagonist, and also an actor certainly worth keeping an eye on for the future. Among the rest of the Kingsmen, Michael Caine plays a very typically Michael Caine role but does it as well as you’d expect, Mark Strong surprisingly doesn’t play a villain and is very amusing as the mentor Merlin, and fresh face Sophie Cookson is charmingly pleasant as fellow new recruit Roxy (major points also for teaming her with Edgerton and not having a romantic subplot). Samuel L. Jackson plays villain Valentine very atypically and creates a bizarrely appealing and memorable antagonist, whilst his henchwoman Gazelle is played coolly by Sofia Boutella and certainly stands out as the film’s most visually appealing character.
Matthew Vaughn’s fingerprints are all over this movie, which means plenty of humorous violence and seamless blending of old school trappings and modern techniques. The film’s action sequences are entertaining to the max, not only thanks to wonderfully inventive and intricate fight choreography but also effective cinematography and editing. Vaughn shoots the action with longer takes and fewer cuts, instead using rapid camera movement and sped-up footage to increase pacing and impact rather than relying on cheap tricks like shakycam and fast cuts. The overall effect creates action that is just as gripping as any fight from a Bourne film but without losing comprehensibility, and action directors should really take notice of how it’s executed here. Vaughn already showed his love of 60’s cinema in X-Men: First Class, and that same sensibility shines just as brightly here in Kingsman. From the colourful set design to Henry Jackman’s score that very clearly evokes the work of John Barry, it’s a film that owes a lot to the past but is also very much of its time. The film’s soundtrack is also put to great use in several scenes, including what might be the best use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” in anything ever. My only real complaint is that the visual effects look a bit naff at times, but that is a very minor issue in what is otherwise a fantastically executed picture.
The real sign of a great movie for me is that it gets me to smile. Kingsman: The Secret Service managed to do that for me before the opening credits were even over, and that smile sustained for the next two hours. Matthew Vaughn does it again as he takes another good comic book and turns it into a fantastic movie, and is the start of what could be a potentially amazing franchise. The story is simple but effective, mainly thanks to Vaughn’s energetic direction and Edgerton’s endearing performance, the action sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory, and it wraps it all up with an effective message about the nature of class. It may seem hyperbolic to declare a movie one of the best of the year when the year has barely even started, but I’m calling it now: if Kingsman doesn’t make my top ten of 2015, it will have been one bloody great year for cinema.
FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!