At the exact moment Jason Bourne was fished out of the Mediterranean Sea, in Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity in 2002, the action genre changed.
Gone were the campy villains, the outlandish set-pieces and the idealised heroes. Instead came a gritty, crunching realism, that was, at the time, refreshing.
But in Jason Bourne’s wake came also a new James Bond, and suddenly, a franchise – an institution – that for so long had provided brainless yet brilliant action films every year or two had also grown up. Where did all the fun go, one might reasonably ask? Enter Kingsman: The Secret Service.
From the moment the film starts, and the opening credits form out of the bouncing rubble of a besieged middle-eastern stronghold, you can immediately tell that this film is set out to entertain. And entertain it does.
Matthew Vaughn, the man who brought a post-modern, ultra-violent slant to the superhero movie in Kick-Ass, now sets his gaze on livening up the spy genre. Like Kick-Ass, Kingsman is based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar, this time following a clandestine branch of the British secret service, where the agents all take the monikers of Arthurian legends, under the leadership of Michael Caine’s Arthur. Colin Firth is Gallahad, investigating the kidnapping of a renowned scientist.
Meanwhile, in a rundown corner of London, newcomer Taron Egerton (The Smoke) is Eggsy, a likeable lad who’s fond of mischief and finds himself on the wrong side of the law. What he doesn’t realise, is that his father was once – briefly – a Kingsman, and soon a long-forgotten memento and a long-owed debt bring him onto Gallahad’s radar.
The set-up is simple. A cockney, street-wise diamond in the rough is thrown into the world of suave sophistication and silver spoons. Does he have what it takes to beat his more privileged counterparts and fill the vacant seat at the Kingsman’s round table?
Privilege is the principal theme of Kingsman, where notions of language, speech and accent are highlighted and pushed to the fore, and the film deals in a sort of modern class war. It’s the stiff upper-lip versus the street.
The premise may not be terribly original, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a deliberate throwback to the Bond films of old, perhaps in particular the excesses of Pierce Brosnan’s latter-day efforts, complete with Samuel L. Jackson’s hilariously extravagant villain.
Under Matthew Vaughn’s direction, and perhaps more significantly, frequent collaborator Jane Goldman’s screenplay, Kingsman perfectly treads the line between homage and spoof. And it’s a total blast.
As the lead, Taron Egerton is superb, excelling equally as a London ruffian and as a suited-and-booted super-spy (a few beats of the London street-talk might ring false, but for the most part it does feel like a pleasingly London film). Colin Firth also does well, holding his own against his younger counterpart.
Firth’s Gallahad never treats Eggsy like an inferior, and offers him a real chance at a life, and it may be the first one he’s ever truly had. The theme of privilege is present throughout, but the script keeps just short of shoving it down our throats.
Samuel L. Jackson is also a hoot, affecting his campy villain with an over-exaggerated lisp that’s the comedic gift that just keeps on giving, while his henchwoman Gazelle – boasting deadly blades for legs, à la Oscar Pistorious – makes for some creative fight choreography. Mark Strong is on typically marvellous form as Kingsman agent Merlin, while Sophie Cookson also makes an impression as Eggsy’s only ally in his training regimen.
Nobody in Hollywood does hyper-kinetic action like Vaughn, and there’s a sequence in the middle of Kingsman that is surely one of the most frenetic, frantic, and intensely brutal set-pieces ever put to film. It’s magnificently staged and mind-bogglingly put-together.
Firth rampages across the screen in a blistering array of violence- a whirlwind of bullets and fists – that never slows for a second. For want of a better phrase, it’s liquid action. A parachute jump, as part of Eggsy’s training, is also gripping and extremely well realised. In the big moments, Vaughn’s film is slick and stylish.
With Bond going straight and serious, Kingsman is here to plug the void left behind. Best of all, it actually works just as well as a straight spy film as many of the classic Bonds do –better than a few, we might even hazard.
While it never descends into true farce or comedy, it is extremely self-aware, and boasts a few riotous flourishes – look out for some shameless product placement; digs at the Westborough Baptist Church, and a sublime moment from Michael Caine near the end that finally justifies his otherwise somewhat superfluous character.
There’s another moment, too, which brings a climax to the story in the most audacious manner imaginable. Quite how Vaughn managed to convince the studio to let off this fireworks display of cartoon violence is anyone’s guess, but it makes for a gleefully unexpected and hilariously left field denouement, that fits perfectly in with the film’s tone.
Sadly, one line – a throwaway gag, really – drags the script closer to the gutter than was necessary, and slightly sours an otherwise perfectly judged ride.
But for the most part Kingsman is everything its young protagonist is – it’s smart, self-aware and more than capable of showing up its elders at their own game. If a new spy franchise is born, then long live the Kingsmen!
Released in UK cinemas on Thursday 29 January 2015.
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