Even though the year is just beginning, it’s a safe bet that, in cinematic terms, 2015 will partially be known for the year that the spy genre was both deconstructed and gloriously celebrated. There are at least three subversive espionage-themed movies due out in the next twelve months, topped off by the release of a pair of really-for-real spy epics at the end of the year — the next James Bond outing, “Spectre,” and the fifth “Mission: Impossible” film (yet to be garnished with a dopey subtitle). Perhaps it’s the fact that real-world spying has become such a comical farce, with widespread surveillance unapologetically perpetrated by our own government (in connection with other governments and telecommunications giants) and robotic, eavesdropping drones being piloted by subcontracted videogame champs. But whatever the reason, get ready for a whole slew of secret agent send-ups. The first one out of the gate is “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” an awkwardly titled, but ridiculously entertaining action comedy that will certainly be hard to top — not just by the other parodies, but by the actual spy movies themselves.
Mark Millar, the comic book author who was also responsible for “Kick-Ass” and “Wanted,” has the ability to come up with delicious concepts that are so simple and ingenious you can’t believe nobody had thought of them before. Much like the plot of “Kick-Ass,” where a teen obsessed with comic book refashions himself as a real life superhero, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is driven by a straightforward conceit that hangs, delicately, between utter stupidity and out-and-out genius. It’s the story of a streetwise London youth named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who is rescued from his life of petty crime and run-ins with the law by a posh secret agent named Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and trained to be a new generation of spy (as the film cheekily points out, it’s basically “Pretty Woman” or “My Fair Lady,” but with way more guns), working for a top secret, privatized spying operation.
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As directed by former Guy Ritchie confederate Matthew Vaughn, everything in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is delivered with a dash of winking and self-referential pizzazz, and at one point Harry Hart, conferring with the over-the-top villain, a billionaire Steve Jobs-type named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), discusses how much he misses “fun” spy movies. The genre, according to the character (and Vaughn and Millar and the book’s co-creator, artist Dave Gibbons), has become too mired in psychological unease and dour “real world” politics. This movie is very much a return to the splashy, colorful films of the ’60s, which emphasized outlandish gadgets, deadly vixens (‘Kingsman’ has a knife-legged assassin named Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella), and global plots where people push buttons and thousands die. It should be noted, of course, that this discussion takes place while the two characters are eating Big Macs because hey, why not? “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a cinematic Big Mac, but sometimes that’s okay.
As an exercise, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a much more successful film than Vaughn and Millar’s last collaboration, “Kick-Ass.” That film opened maybe five years too early, before the glut of comic book movies felt like it was desperately in need of a takedown (it also had a real problem with perspective and delineating between the comic book reality and the real world). ‘Kingsman,’ however, is perched at just the right pop cultural nexus. After four ‘Bourne‘ films and three recent James Bond entries, each more serious than the last (and with more on the way), this is perhaps the perfect moment to give the middle finger to the genre, while starting a whole new, self-aware franchise in the process. The jokes are sharper (the script was co-written by Vaughn’s regular collaborator Jane Goldman), the plotting swifter, the violence more shocking and operatic; “Kingsman: The Secret Service” gleefully deconstructs the spy genre while also celebrating it, and it does so with wit and intelligence and style and verve. It’s 007 by way of “Cabin in the Woods.”
But the biggest surprised nestled within “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (and trust us, there are a bunch) might be the fact that it isn’t just some intellectual doodle, a hugely expensive, production-designed-within-an-inch-of-its-life lark. This is a hugely entertaining, heartfelt thrill. In an era of filmmaking where studios try to artificially manufacture not only franchise but entire “universes,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is the rare film that makes you want to start a letter-writing campaign to ensure a sequel gets made. It’s so bold and unique and esoteric (not to mention wildly R-rated) that the possibility of future films is pretty unlikely, and that’s a real shame. There’s a truel emotional through-line, and Eggsy is a terrific main character, one you want to root for far beyond the boundaries of this film. Also, it’s a total blast. This is a movie, after all, where the villain sets his diabolical scheme in motion to the disco grooves of KC and the Sunshine Band‘s “Give It Up.”
Vaughn has managed to mature as a filmmaker while wrestling with what is, essentially, a simplistic and utterly juvenile male wish-fulfillment fantasy (and this is the aspect that still nags, even after all the hands-in-the-air fun of “Kingsman: The Secret Service”). Vaughn is able to juggle a number of plot threads and push the action forward in dynamic, sometimes psychedelic ways (including, but not limited to, an action set piece shot like a single take and set to Lynard Skynard‘s “Freebird”). He’s able to handle world-class actors (Michael Caine plays the head of the organization, while Mark Strong puts in a sturdy supporting role as another spy), getting them to loosen up and play, in ways that feel engaging and new (Jackson’s lisping villain is a canny inversion of his more menacing performances — he’s a genocidal madman who gets weak-kneed at the sight of blood), while turning Egerton, all roughhewn charm and brittle good looks, into a movie star of oversized charisma and magnetism. Most will talk about how great it is to see the star of “The King’s Speech” kick ass, but Egerton is the real revelation here. Like Colin Firth’s character, Vaughn and his collaborators have taken a crude and disposable property and turned it into something more — a thoughtful, exciting, whip-smart spy adventure that doesn’t let its smart-ass post-modernism overwhelm its playfulness or heart. [A-]