Early on in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is just starting to be coerced into realizing his potential by becoming a Kingsman – an underground secret service established to stylishly tackle the dangerous, messy work MI6 is too afraid to – when his soon-to-be mentor, gentlemanly badass Harry “Galahad” Hart (Colin Firth) passes down a very personal philosophy that he holds dear; “Manners Maketh Man,” right before he begins brutally tearing into a gang of thugs. Harry, despite thinking of himself as a socially progressive member of the classical, old-guard spies, fetishizes the grace and elegance of the upper-class to the point of almost revolting the lower-class – his form of a solution is to resort to their level and one-up them at their own game or make them conform to his standards. Harry is fun, witty and wants to be subversive in his own way but he also lacks any sort of true self-awareness, and that – to me – is the perfect encapsulation of Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Loosely based on the 2012 graphic novel by Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, and helmed by director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), Kingsman: The Secret Service is an extravagant, fun and admirable translation of Millar’s puerile, “edgy” throwback to silly, old-school Bond. But despite Vaughn’s best attempts to deconstruct and enliven the work he’s adapting, the fundamentally smug, ugly elements still push through and give way to some tonal/thematic inconsistencies the film just doesn’t address in any meaningful way.
Looking at Kingsman as a surface-level piece of action filmmaking, it’s pretty goddamn wonderful. It’s creatively staged, well-shot and undoubtedly fun, as sitting in a packed screening is sure to remind you – plenty of hooting and hollering to be had, I promise you. The now notoriously well-known “Church Scene” is a technical marvel to watch that’s absurd and visceral in a way a lot of modern action just isn’t anymore. It’s a lot like Edgar Wright‘s work on Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End, just through the lens of the extreme, ultra-violent duo that gave us Kick-Ass. I also never thought action-star Colin Firth was something I needed until Vaughn gave it to me – now I can’t imagine my life without it. But looking at Kingsman beyond that, as the thoughtful, satirical genre-piece on classism, sexism and sadism it thinks it is?
In many ways Kingsman feels like Vaughn’s attempt at merging the honest, emotionally engaging X-Men: First Class with the ultra-violent, yet introspective Kick-Ass, and I’m just not sure it works. I get what he’s going for. This subversive take on some of the gross tropes that can be found in Bond’s history, and though the film addresses a few of them, even directly – Harry and super-villain Valentine (an incredibly entertaining Samuel L. Jackson) literally discuss their grief with dark and gritty reboots a la Quantum of Solace – but it ultimately fails as a satire and can’t even decide what side it’s on.
It wants to revel in the ultra-violence – one scene in particular includes gleeful mass-murder to a Lynyrd Skynyrd tune– but it also wants to deconstruct mass-consumed cinematic violence as the kind of grim, horrific thing it can be without us even noticing. This is partially why the “Church Scene” is so fascinating. On the one hand, there is this purposeful tonal whiplash where one second we’re cheering and the next we’re meant to feel bad for cheering, and though that’s the intent, the actual filmmaking celebrates the violence so much the sudden turn isn’t earned or convincing. And for a film so concerned with grace and elegance, it really doesn’t express any.
It also wants to address the inherently classist system in the British spy film, but as my friend Siddhant poignantly pointed out in his review, the film isn’t remotely interested in discussing classism in a real, meaningful way. It finds on-the-nose ways to deride the system – like having Eggsy show up the more traditional, preppy spy candidates – but when it comes time to actually address the upper vs. lower class, it ultimately chooses conformity. It’s less about the lower-class kid becoming an equal through discovering himself (as the dialogue suggests) and more about him becoming an equal by transforming into an upper-class snob – made all the more clear by the misjudged, weirdly out-of-place final beat of the film, which…
(obligatory spoiler warning)
… sees Eggsy become a literal Bond-type and claim his “reward.” That reward being anal sex with the princess – a painfully embarrassing metaphor for the upper-class. Again, I get what Vaughn was going for. I’m sure his intent was to deride the sexism inherent in all the times Bond has been rewarded with sex for saving the world in a self-aware, “meta” kind of way, but the way his camera revels in her ass and asks you to cheer as our hero enters it is far more misogynistic than anything you’ll see in an old-school Bond flick. The sequence only lasts for a few seconds but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sour my viewing and speak to the larger film as a whole as almost every point the film tries to make is similarly derailed by contradictory filmmaking.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m glad that we got an ambitious studio outing that truly wanted to say something. I love watching a good piece of entertainment that gives me something to chew on intellectually, and I’d sooner revisit Kingsman than most of the bland, mediocre studio-fair that fills our theatres year-round, but sadly this film is just too ugly and oblivious for me to enjoy it beyond its surface-level thrills.