– By Ben L.
Spy movies have become darker and grittier of late, and even James Bond seemed to have lost his fun and charm in his recent outings by taking a leaf out of Jason Bourne’s book. But in Kingsman: The Secret Service, director Matthew Vaughn brings back the light-heartedness and adventurous spirit that have been sorely missed in the spy film genre in recent years.
Loosely adapted from the comic book series The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman is a fun tribute to the spy films of yesteryears that does not take itself too seriously yet still packs a menacing punch and a couple of ingenious gadgets. Jane Goldman, who notably collaborated with Vaughn on his previous films, returns to co-write the screenplay and the result is a slick combination of the comedy in 2010’s Kick-Ass (another adaption of a Mark Millar comic) and the stylistic action in 2011’s X-Men: First Class.
Kingsman’s plot is nothing novel for the spy genre – a group of spies is tasked with taking down a villainous plan for world domination. But it is the unorthodox nature of the clandestine intelligence agency that sets the tone of the movie. Placing an emphasis on being a ‘gentleman’s spy’, Kingsman operatives are just as much about the suits that they wear as the weapons they carry underneath. A high-end tailor’s shop serves as a front for the organisation, and “oxfords not brogues” is not just a coded message for help but a fashion mantra followed strictly by its operatives.
Colin Firth plays secret agent Harry Hart operating under the codename Galahad, based on the round table knight from the King Arthur legend. When another Kingsman agent Lancelot is killed on a rescue mission, the organisation holds a recruitment programme to find a new young agent to fill his shoes. Galahad elects to mentor Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), the son of a former colleague who sacrificed himself to save Galahad’s team on an old mission.
Unlike the other young recruits who hail from prestigious schools, Eggsy is an unemployed street punk and Royal Marines dropout who has to put up with an abusive stepfather. His rough upbringing translates to the stark difference in problem-solving skills compared to his teammates. He is unselfish and has quick survival instincts – traits that allow him to surpass his competition – only to be let down by his compassion when he refuses to shoot the dog at the programme’s final stage.
For an actor who only made his debut on a television series two years ago, Egerton stars comfortably opposite the Oscar winner Firth and hardly displays any shortcomings despite his lack of Hollywood experience. He brings charm to Eggsy’s rough edges, just as Firth is charismatic in his tailored suit. The mentor-protégé relationship plays a big part of the film and delivers some entertaining banter between the two actors.
Like Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, Vaughn’s latest film centres on a misfit’s rise to becoming a hero and it is satisfying to see the director not taking shortcuts with his newfound talent and avoiding the temptation to rush the young hero into the thick of the action. Instead the film gradually builds momentum and Eggsy’s skills through a series of challenging training missions before unleashing him in the final act against a lispy and hilarious villain played by Samuel L. Jackson.
The big surprise and true hero of the film is Colin Firth, who is hardly an action star by profession. He displays great versatility in a brutal fight scene where he beats the living hell out of a bunch of churchgoers gone berserk, and audiences used to his more gentlemanly roles in the Bridget Jones films and The King’s Speech would surely be thrown off-guard. Galahad punches, stabs, shoots, chokes and impales, and the impressive action is made even more exhilarating through tight shots, quick cuts and the occasional switch to a first-person perspective. Even Firth cannot believe that he managed to pull that off when he emerges from the carnage in a daze saying: “That wasn’t me.”
Paying homage to old spy films, Kingsman is dotted with Easter egg references. Michael Caine and Mark Strong play Arthur and Merlin, whose roles are uncannily similar to M and Q in the 007 films; Kingsman agents don Harry Palmer glasses, which Caine himself used to wear as the protagonist in the 1960s films, and Galahad wields a black umbrella with a concealed gun that is a throwback to John Steed’s weapon of choice in The Avengers spy series. There is also a cheeky stab at how a martini drink should be prepared.
Vaughn’s take on a Bond film is a near-perfect love letter to 007 himself, and my only gripe would be an uneven pace between the first and second acts. A minor flaw nonetheless, and solid acting and top-notch action scenes ensure that Kingsman definitely has the license to thrill.