Saturday, February 21, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Dir. Matthew Vaughn

4 out of 5

The titular organization in Kingsman: The Secret Service is an international spy agency that's not MI-6, even though everyone involved just happens to be British.  Nor are its gentlemen agents who wear fine suits, deploy lethal gadgets, and infiltrate underground lairs supposed to be any kind of stand-in for a certain type of spy who emerged in the golden age of cloak-and-dagger during the Cold War.  (Their origin has something to do with tailors and the fortunes of wealthy casualties in World War I.)  Indeed, Kingsman borrows as many of its cues from modern fairy tales like Star Wars and Harry Potter as it does from spy movies.  Consider its protagonist: Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), a poor London youth whisked away from his troubled home life to audition for an espionage program that tests the limits of his physical and psychological capabilities; whilst his mentor, top agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), investigates a flamboyant tech billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) for a litany of suspicious behavior, including but not limited to employing a personal assistant (Sofia Boutella) who sports razor-sharp foot prosthetics.

That last flourish is typical of Kingsman, a stylish spy thriller and love letter to the James Bond film series that does what many of the Bond films themselves cannot: land on the right side of the homage-parody divide.  Of course, this is the old-school '60s and '70s Bond we're talking about, the movies stuffed with outlandish megalomaniacs, gimmicky henchman, and grounded gadgetry.  But Kingsman is most intriguing in its attempt to best Bond in the personality department.  From their tony headquarters on Savile Row to their emphasis on expertise and teamwork, these guys (and gals) take their self-appointed status as gentlemen quite seriously.   It's a not-so-secret jab at the idea of a violent, vengeful Bond serving as a symbol of masculine cool; the Kingsman way is practically the opposite, according to Hart, who quotes Hemingway to his young protege: "True nobility is being superior to your former self."

It's another way of saying that you must be comfortable in your own skin, as director Matthew Vaughn certainly is.  With Kingsman he finally combines his visual panache and cheeky sense of humor with thematic heft, as the film's the out-of-nowhere commentary on wealth, class, and privilege is a vast improvement over solipsistic missteps like Kick-Ass.  This being Vaughn, the film is none too subtle, and several of its winks to other spy films are rather clunky.  Yet it succeeds all the same by taking a different tack than lesser Bond imitators, which so often try to declare their importance by either symbolically murdering or pantsing Bond in a fit of desperation.  Kingsman is the anti-anti-Bond film, working on multiple levels for many audiences: those who will recognize its tango with the history of the spy genre, those who appreciate a subversive product slipping through the Hollywood system, and those who simply want to sit back and enjoy the buoyant confidence of a movie that knows exactly how to find its own groove.