Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

The heroic female lead is on this poster, just very, very small.
The heroic female lead is on this poster, just very, very small.

Directed by Matthew Vaughan
Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Sofia Boutella, Taron Edgerton and Sophie Cookson

Harry ‘Galahad’ Hart (Firth) is the top agent for Kingsman, an international group ‘operating at the highest level of discretion’; in essence, a non-partisan intelligence service dedicated to peace above national interest. The death of Kingsman Lancelot (very briefly Jack Davenport) alerts the agency to the existence of a conspiracy led by software mogul Richmond Valentine (Jackson) and his deadly associate Gazelle (Boutella). It also triggers the search for a new Lancelot, a post for which Hart recommends London council estate lad Eggsy (Edgerton).

The film then follows two strands; Eggsy’s training alongside decent posh girl Roxy (Cookson) and a bunch of Hooray Henry stereotypes, and Harry’s game of cat and mouse with Valentine and Gazelle. Eggsy aces most of his training, but fails at the final hurdle – the classic ‘shoot the dog’ test – only to return when Harry is killed in action. With the head of Kingsman, Arthur (Caine), compromised, only Eggsy, Roxy and technical wizard-cum-drill sergeant Merlin (Strong) stand between Valentine and the destruction of humanity.

What’s wrong with it?

A lot of Kingsman‘s problems come from the desire to have their cake and eat it. Hart chooses Eggsy as his candidate because he believes that the knightly ideals which the agency upholds can be carried forward by the right man, whatever his class; that being a gentleman does not mean being a snob. Unfortunately, the film also wants posh blokes in suits doing unfeasible kung fu, and also fails to find a cinematic shorthand for ‘gentleman’ that isn’t a suit and a posh accent.

The film also wants to simultaneously mock and reinvent the gentleman spy genre, but can’t quite shake its desire to hang on to the tropes of the past, most egregiously the victory shag, incorporating an unnamed Scandinavian princess for the purpose.

Given that Eggsy’s arc is one of overcoming prejudice, it’s surprising that more isn’t made of the fact that Roxy becomes the first female Kingsman, or at least the only one that we see. She is rather left out in the cold, both literally – she spends most of the denouement on a glacier – and figuratively – she serves no active role in the final action sequences of the movie and then vanishes. Despite becoming the new Lancelot, she never even gets her suit and brolly.

On a similar note, it’s a shame that Roxy never gets a scene with Gazelle, the other significant female character, and that Gazelle ultimately has to be beaten by Eggsy.

Eggsy’s mother and baby sister are essentially there to be threatened.

There is a certain degree of tonal whiplash as the film moves from action-Pygmalion to Bourne-inspired brutality. This is most notable when, under the influence of Valentine’s device, Harry massacres an entire congregation of objectionable Southern Baptists in a scene that is as beautifully choreographed as it is full of shots of our hero slaughtering equally mind-controlled civilians.

What’s right with it?

Kingsman is a lot of fun, and hits most of the right notes for a spy movie (as distinct from an espionage thriller.) The action is beautifully choreographed, and there are some delightfully left-field musical moments.

Firth utterly carries his scenes, totally at home in the role of the decent posh guy.

Gazelle is an awesome character, a kick-ass female henchling with sensible trousers and lethal leg blades. It’s a real shame that she had to get beaten.

Valentine and Gazelle made for an interesting pair, the one more at home with remote-controlled genocide, the other with personal violence, and sharing a deep conviction and even affection. While the scope of their plan was appalling and its elitism hateful, its reasoning was just reasonable enough to keep them from becoming pure caricatures.

How bad is it really?

Kingsman isn’t terrible, but it promises so much more than it is able to deliver and so many of its failings come from a reticence to actually break the mould that it chafes against.

Best bit (if such there is)?

  • The cadets are set up for a cringeworthy mission where they are tasked to seduce a mark in a nightclub. They get so caught up in one-upping each other that they fail to notice that they have been slipped a Mickey.
  • Completely surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned, Eggsy realises that while Merlin can’t stop Valentine’s signal, he can at least trigger the loyalty failsafe in his supporters. Cue a scene of various heads of state suffering brightly coloured cranial detonation to the tune of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1.

What’s up with…?

  • The Kingsmen’s secret of immortality. We see Hart, Lancelot and Merlin in the opening scene and none of them appear to have aged a day seventeen years later.
  • Lancelot’s blood? Or rather, the lack of it. Gazelle literally cuts him in half and neither side bleeds even a little.
  • The logistics of Kingsman? The agency appears to maintain multiple HQs, but running only a dozen agents. They have at least that many private jets in the secret hangar beneath the London HQ, serviced by a nebulous tech division, but their quartermaster is also their only training instructor.
  • Mark Hamill’s poisoned electric head? Okay, so his head pops because of the microwave implant, but why does that put Harry down for months? Did I miss something?
  • The dog shoot? If it is the purpose of Kingsman Agents to be gentlemen first and foremost, why do you pass the test if you shoot the dog for no reason but orders? I know it shows up a lot as a test for special forces assassins, but shouldn’t a gentleman spy in that situation – to paraphrase another modern knight – plant his or her feet and say ‘no sir, you move’?
  • Arthur’s terminal lapse into Mockney? The scene only makes sense if he is so certain of Eggsy’s automatic deference to his own aristocracy that he overlooks the possibility of being tricked. If he’s not ‘proper posh’ then how could that be so ingrained?

Ratings

Production values – The film is artfully made, there is no denying it, although a few of the deaths – notable Lancelot’s – are oddly bloodless. 9
Dialogue and performances – Mostly good; the script wisely steers away from too many Bond-style puns and quips and the actors are all excellent. 5
Plot and execution – Again, mostly good; there are just parts of the film where it gets lost in its own enthusiasm for the genre, or suffers from a certain tonal uncertainty. It also loses points for the failure to make proper use of its female characters. 14
Randomness – The breakneck pace of the film leaves a number of points unexplored, and a few others just make no sense. 10
Waste of potential – My feeling is that with a little more attention to the details of its ideas, this could have been a great film, instead of just an okay one, and that’s worse than being terrible. 17

Overall 55%

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3 thoughts on “Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)”

  1. I probably would give it a higher score than that, but I agree with a lot of the criticisms. I particularly hated a lot of the laziness in the last act, culminating in that “victory shag.” Also, there really needed to be a more clear cut class battle outside of Caine’s death, given how much that theme was emphasized throughout. A Kingsman v Kingsman fight in the tailor shop would have fit in nicely. At least it is an undeniably fun flick, though.

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