Kingsman: The Secret Service is yet another hyper-violent and uber-stylized action porn based on a comic book co-created by Mark Millar. So why did I have a blast watching it and am now singing its praises when I despised 2008’s Wanted and was thoroughly underwhelmed by 2010’s Kick-Ass? The reason can be given with a single, simple yet vital word. And that word, ladies and gentlemen, is "Tone".
Wanted offered similar wanton, cartoony violence while becoming firmly wedged up its own ass as it tried to sell a morally corrupt life philosophy with a straight face and a severely off-putting grimy approach. Having a seizure-inducing show-off as a director didn’t help much either.
Kick-Ass, which was Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn’s first attempt at adapting a Mark Millar comic, was at least visually more coherent while showcasing some impressive action set pieces. Yet it fell apart on the story front as it tried to sell both a stylized cartoon and a misguided attempt at depicting the real life consequences of being a superhero. Unfortunately there wasn’t an ounce of realism to be found in Kick-Ass, and the whole thing barely held together thanks to Vaughn’s assured direction and his infectious love of narrative mischief.
On the other hand, from the first couple of seconds of Kingsman, where the debris of a castle being destroyed by a chopper forms the opening credits as Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing beats our eardrums into submission, we know that we’re in for an extremely bloody live action cartoon for juvenile-minded adults. As opposed to Kick-Ass, Kingsman never falters from the tone set up by its first minutes, as it offers a proudly colorful and goofy send-up to 60s and 70s over-the-top spy films and TV shows, with late Sean Connery and the complete Roger Moore Bond movies as its primary target.
In fact, it’s not hard to look at Kingsman as a self-aware, gloriously R-rated Bond movie (It proves once again that no film will ever get an NC-17 rating because of violence alone, no matter how extreme), complete with an eccentric villain conspiring his evil plan in his gaudy evil lair, hordes of interchangeable henchmen in single color jumpsuits, and a hefty amount of bad guy ass kicking administered by gentlemanly Brits with good taste. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to get the typical ending of a Bond movie, where our protagonist bags a hottie, only this time directly and crudely referencing anal sex instead of trying to sell the audience a family-friendly lame pun, like Q’s awful "I think he’s attempting re-entry" from Moonraker.
Vaughn pulls off a delicate balancing act as he attempts to bring a Scream-like meta commentary on old-school spy movies while infusing the characters and the story with enough unique charisma and motivation to fit the bare necessities of the genre, hence avoiding comparisons with full-on spy parodies like Austin Powers. Kingsman has its fair share of dialogue lamenting the loss off over-the-top spy movies in favor of gritty 21st century action heroes like Jason Bourne and even Daniel Craig’s Bond, while bring in a fresh new millennial take on the genre’s old tropes. The characters metaphorically wink at the audience while never really breaking the fourth wall.
Kingsman follows pretty much the same story as Wanted, or any other blockbuster hero’s journey for that matter. Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a thug with a broken family life, who’s wasting his high IQ and fighting skills committing petty crime just for the hell of it. In comes Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a deadly gentleman who’s part of an extremely secret organization of spies called The Kingsman, operating from a giant lair hidden under, what else, a high end tailor’s shop. Harry picks Eggsy as a possible replacement for a Kingsman who recently died in an absurd way reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch, so he throws him into an arduous training regiment that involves late night near-drownings, parachutes that won’t open, and taking care of puppies.
Meanwhile, our Bond villain, the crazy billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who dresses like an extra from a 1992 Reebok commercial, hatches an evil plan that, wait for it, might destroy the world as we know it. And wouldn’t you know it, Kingsman is the only organization that can stop him. I loved how the motivation behind the evil plan was firmly planted in the 21st century, revolving around climate change, while its implementation came directly from the 60s. During the obligatory dinner scene where the good guy confronts the bad guy while maintaining an utmost level of civility (Although I don’t remember a Bond movie where Blofeld served Bond Big Macs), Harry tells Valentine that a hero is only as good as the villain.
As Harry and his crew successfully represent a wholly violent version of gentlemanly morals, lending some class to the film’s wantonly distributed cartoony blood and gore, Jackson creates a fittingly ridiculous villain who suffers from a lisp and an ironic aversion to blood and violence, while still believing wholeheartedly that his farts smell like roses. To say that he steals the show would be an understatement.
Vaughn is a versatile and inventive director, who can expertly construct a high tension, blood-free action set piece like the aforementioned parachute sequence, as well as an insanely violent love letter to broken spines and eye stabbings in the shape of the soon-to-be-infamous church scene. If there’s a better use of the solo from Free Bird in any other movie, I’d like to see it. The same goes for the movie’s use of Pomp and Circumstance.