I had one big question going in to Kingsman: The Secret Service. Can lightning strike twice?
The last time we had a Mark Miller comic adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn it was Kick Ass. Against the odds that that movie was an uncompromising, exhilarating, satirical, frenzied, ebullient, bold and irreverent masterpiece. Is there a chance, I wondered, that this film could be as good?
The potential was there. Kick Ass arrived in cinemas at the perfect time, just as superhero movies were at the start of their current resurgence, and somebody needed to take the mick. Similarly spy films are now back in a serious way, with Bourne and Bond setting a gritty tone, and this genre is equally ripe for a ribbing.
Perhaps inevitably, Kingsman is not as good as Kick Ass but while we may not have lightning this time, there is one hell of a storm.
In some respects the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, without the Kick Ass comparisons, but this is almost impossible to do. For good or for bad Kingsman: The Secret Service is built heavily on the successes of this other film. Like Kick Ass it is directly referential to other films in the genre, it is broadly comical, it is colourful (both in its design and in its language) and it is extremely violent. Once again the fights are brilliantly choreographed, very bloody and staged against up beat cheesy pop tunes. The whole thing is also a lot of fun (if you’ve got the stomach for it). It feels less reserved than Kick Ass though (the fact that I’ve just referred to Kick Ass as reserved should tell you something). Last time it felt like the director was pushing things as far as he felt he could and having got away with it before he is now prepared to go that little bit further. Sometimes this is audacious but at other times it feels a little misjudged. Some scenes are over long, some gags are laboured and a few of the characterisations are hackneyed or fatuous.
It is pointless to be specific in my criticisms because whether or not you think something works will depend entirely on your own sensibilities. If you are offended by sex and nudity you might not like those bits, if you are uncomfortable with knife and gun play you might take objection to that and if you don’t like seeing heads blowing up this will be when you look away. Samuel L. Jackson’s bad guy is certainly little more than a cheesy grin and a silly voice but generally it is easier to detail where the film is successful.
First off there is the casting of Colin Firth as a gentleman spy which is just inspired. I am sure it wouldn’t have taken them long to decide who they wanted for the part of the male, middle aged, British, well spoken, debonair, super secret super agent but still you will be surprised by how well he suits the part. His portrayal of Harry Hart is both similar to and totally unlike anything he has done before. (You certainly won’t look at that flappy fight he has with Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones in quite the same way again.) Relative newcomer Taron Egerton is also very good as the unpredictable, unsuitable WillSmithinMeninBlackesque new recruit, Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin. It isn’t quite the career guaranteeing calling card of Chloë Grace Moretz’s Hit Girl but it isn’t too far off.
Speaking of Hit Girl, Matthew Vaughn has also given us another combat sequence reminiscent of, and possibly even superior to, that character’s first epic smack down. There is a scene where Firth takes down a group of guys in a pub that features in the trailer but this is nothing to what we see him do later. Much of the impact of Hit Girl was clearly down to her being a twelve year old girl but actually seeing a guy in his mid fifties tackle a room full of crazed people with similar levels of energy is just as memorable. The direction of this big battle is also technically excellent. It looks like one long shot, as assailants come from every angle and while there will be hidden cuts it doesn’t matter. Much has been made of the way Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is edited together into one single shot but in that film it felt like a directorial showcase. Here it feels more organic and adds immensely to the action.
Vaughn’s film also succeeds where others fail. A few movies such as Sin City and The Spirit and 300 have tried explicitly to mirror the look of a comic book but Kingsman manages this in a more fun and natural way. It feels like the drawings have come alive here in the same way they did with the original St. Trinian’s films or Adam West’s Batman and it is less jarring than those other overly stylised films.
In the end it feels as though Kingsman: The Secret Service comes largely from the Airplane and Naked Gun school of film making. Not in the way it parodies genre but in the way it throws absolutely everything up on the screen, happy in the knowledge that not everything will stick for everyone. As with those comedies there is more than enough here to amuse and while you may have reservations watching it, you should also have a lot of fun. Unless you are at all squeamish or morally straight laced. If you feel you might be even a little puritanical then I suggest you stay away.
The Ripley Factor:
It is here, in my analysis of the film from a feminist standpoint, that those reservations need to be explored. There are four main females in the film, each bringing with them their own problems. Let’s start with Eggsy’s Mum played by EastEnder and one time Eurovision Song Contest contender Samantha Womack (nee Janus). Womack is playing a victim, stuck in an abusive relationship and waiting to be rescued. The character is a huge stereotype and potentially offensive to anyone who is in that situation for real.
More empowered but no less of an archetype is henchwoman Gazelle. It is possible that this character is intended to present a positive image of disability as she has no legs from the knee down yet is an incredible fighter. She has blades that are actually blades and is certainly a formidable foe. However she is thinly drawn and has very little personality to go with the look so is not particularly inspiring for anyone.
Then there is Roxy, the token female in the spy gang. Smurfette or not she is a reasonably positive character. She needs a bit of saving but ultimately she is a strong woman who bravely plays a key role in the final mission. At one point it looks as though she is going to be required to kiss another woman but fortunately they steer away from this. Unfortunately the inclusion of neither Roxy or Gazelle justifies the terrible, misogynistic characterisation of the fourth woman.
Swedish actress Hanna Alström appears in the film as ‘Scandinavian Princess’. Despite her totally nondescript title she is a forthright woman. She stands up against the villain, showing brave defiance and strength of will. All of this is then undone by her final scene in which she is suddenly and inexplicably submissive in the most demeaning way. Presenting a strong female character and then reducing her to little more than a sex object for the sake of a cheap gag is not the film’s high point. I think the script, written by a woman don’t forget, is trying to make a statement about how the old James Bond films always had the female lead bedded by the hero at the end. As it is though the unnecessary close up of her naked butt pretty conclusively undermines any satirical intention.
Is this one for the kids?
Kingsman: The Secret Service is rated 15 but there is an argument that this is a lenient certification. The film is gory and bloody but gets away with it due to the comedic tone. Funny or not the film has a pretty amoral approach to human life. The BBFC website refers to strong bloody violence and strong language but that doesn’t quite do justice to the racial slurs, multiple stabbings, impaling, shootings and decapitations.
As I said then, fun if you can handle all of that.
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