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Film Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015; Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

Simultaneously transgressive and reactionary, Matthew Vaughn’s Britside spy action romp is a heck of a good time but leaves one feeling more than slightly troubled as well as entertained. For a film that quite purposely sneers at the snobbish Toryist classism that underscores the James Bond movies which have dominated the mainstream of the British espionage genre for decades, Kingsman: The Secret Service cannot resist the stylish glamour and the soothing appeal of those same underlying tropes. It also cannot help but sneer likewise at the scrappy commoners that it purports to valorize in the form of its hero, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton).

This putative hero lives in a London council estate with his mum Michelle (Samantha Womack) and stepdad Dean (Geoff Bell), an asshole two-bit crimelord whose gang of toughs the principled but undisciplined young Eggsy clashes with. He’s sprung from police custody after nicking and crashing a car belonging to one of the thugs, calling in a mysterious, long-owed favour related to his dead father. We see daddy’s valourous end in the opening scene, a tense standoff following an unsettlingly glamourized aerial assault on a Middle Eastern fortress set to Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” in which the debris from detonating payloads bounces whimsically to form the onscreen credits. It’s a sophomorically clever throwaway visual gag, but it gives a strong indication of the lightly ironic manner in which Vaughn will approach violence in Kingsman.

Anyway, the life of one Harry Hart (Colin Firth) was saved by Eggsy’s dad, and so the nattily-attired apparent tailor not only gets the kid out of jail free, he also balletically reduces Dean’s threat-spewing gang to a bloody pulp in a pub. No mere tailor, he. Hart then asks Eggsy, conveniently an Olympic-level gymnast and Royal Marine dropout, to become a candidate for a position in the super-secret, distinctly gentlemanly, quasi-Arthurian independent intelligence agency which Hart as well as Unwin, Sr. belong to: Kingsman (no, not Kingsmen, but singular and monarchically unconnected; precisely the sort of grammatical irregularity that British aristocratic wags relish in naming their fraternal organizations).

From here, Kingsman begins to shoehorn a bit too much into a single universe-introducing movie, balancing Eggsy’s Kingsman training alongside various Oxbridge upper-cruster rivals at a palatial country manor with the devious planet-controlling plotting of a lisping, eccentric tech zillionaire named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is protected by the sinister and acrobatic Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), whose prosthetic legs are surgically-sharp bladed weapons. Still, Vaughn keeps all of his juggling balls deftly in the air while unleashing several fight sequences of glibly amoral elegant slaughter. A generally misanthropic tone predominates and renders these scenes that much more inventive in their application of inhuman violence. Kingsman has the forebearance to look askance at the crude, abusive yobs of Dean’s gang as well as at the privileged elitists who think they know what’s best for the entire human race, be they charismatic new-economy faux-populists like Valentine or hereditary aristocratic snobs like head Kingsman Chester King (Michael Caine).

There’s a touch of the equal-opportunity offender to Vaughn’s film, which he co-wrote with Jane Goldman, adpating the comics by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. It carries through spectacularly with its distaste for upper-crust superiority, literally exploding the heads of every single hand-picked number of the privileged elite, Valentine’s select few collaborators in his new world order, in a multichromatic choreographed sequence of overtly subversive glee. But it also includes a brutal, magnificently-arranged battle royale between Harry Hart and a church full of fanatically hateful religious nuts in Kentucky. The massacre that unfolds therein is orchestrated by Valentine and is proof of his unscrupulous villainy, but it’s also scurillously pre-justified by the backwoods parishioners’ embrace of the genocidal fantasies of their hateful preacher (and by the veritable arsenal that the mob has brought to the service, which Hart must contend with when they go berserk).

Sifting through the violent anti-social mindset of Kingsman, it is possible to hone in on certain inalienable values and standards of conduct and bearing that it finds to be a fixed port in the moral storm of modern life. These core values, Kingsman’s core values, are the old-fashioned ideals of the English gentleman. The values of the patriarchy, one might say (one of Eggsy’s fellow recruits is a young woman, but she bends to the agency’s identity formation, not the other way around), and by extension the aristocratic order and the continuity of class conformity fundamental to the Tory conception of Great Britain. Eggsy, prole though he is by dint of circumstances, can access the privilege of the gentleman via an interrupted paternal pedigree but also by training his body, his mind, his manner, and his dress to conform to the criteria of the ruling class.

Kingsman makes broadly intertextual references to the conventions of James Bond movies and the Bond-esque spy genre in general, self-servingly setting itself up as a subversive antidote to such formulas. But in much the way that a self-styled satire of comic superheroes like Deadpool can only doodle furiously on the surface of its genre, never daring to destabilize its central tenets, this is a film with Bond-esque spy movies so deep in its DNA that nagging resemblances are much more evident than the divergences that it thrusts into the audience’s face.

Those resemblances, and the patriarchal ideals that they uphold, handcuff Kingsman‘s transgressive flourishes at every turn. Are those flourishes often giddily thrilling, composed with skill and imparted with panache by a cast of performers clearly having a grand time in a film willing to let loose in modest immodesty? Yes, indeed. But Matthew Vaughn’s enjoyable genre twist also suggests that a fine bespoke suit and a supercilious indirectness impart an unimpeachable moral superiority. It pushes away snobbish elitism away with one hand while drawing it closer with the other. Not so transgressive, after all.

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