Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is an anarchistic, pessimistic, and caustically funny spy caper that stands as the most thrilling action film to be released by a major studio in years. While most will peg the film as a British actioner in the vein of James Bond due to its source material, cast, and even most of its crew, that typecast defies every convention that the film aims to undermine. Throw away predictable spy tropes and intense action scenes without any care for the violence they are inflicting; the audience here is asked to revel, revolt, and altogether examine why we must senselessly watch long bouts of extreme violence. Every moment is infused with character, empathy, sophistication, and humor. It’s a difficult, near impossible mix of tone and quality that are unrecognizable in practically any way; I have, simply put, never seen a seething satire with as much skip in its step and weight in its heart as this one. Director Matthew Vaughn has made his best film to date, and one of the decade’s most distinct, thrilling visions of modern socio-political world affairs.
Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is a veteran agent within a secret service in the United Kingdom. They call themselves the “Kingsman” service, a name that comes from the store that makes all of their tailor-made suits and acts as their unofficial headquarters. Enter through practically any dressing room and there are weapons hiding in secret compartments, an elevator that heads down hundreds of feet to an underground transportation system in the center of England, and of course the standard mirrors and hooks to ensure people fit their suits correctly. After the death of one of Harry’s co-workers, he realizes the deceased saved his life and heads home to console the wife and newborn son. He provides them with a necklace engraved with a number that, when called, will provide them help when they need it most. That child turns out to be “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton), a rebellious teenager living with his downward-spiraling mother and newborn sister. His family life is hell because his stepfather is a repulsive, abusive man, so naturally he acts out and gets himself into far too much trouble.
In comes Harry to save the day, and their journey begins. World leaders are being kidnapped around the world without any hint of their location; it’s at the whim of a madman, one who turns out to be a billionaire tech genius named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) with a lisp and all of the power in the world. When he unveils his new product to the masses, everyone lines up for the free technology that will obviously carry ulterior functions. Harry and crew, including the resourceful Merlin (Mark Strong) and the old-blood Arthur (Michael Caine), aim to take down Valentine and save the world from a deadly, greedy, and evil plan. While many of these elements sound conventional and commonplace in the traditional spy film, Kingsman takes them and infuses every one of their occurrences with comedy and social awareness. Valentine acts as a man driven by greed and power who has gone practically insane, while people like Harry and Eggsy come from lower social rank and feel the weight of the wealthy leaders’ actions. That’s one of the many themes explored underneath the action-packed surface.
Kingsman ends up being an absolute blast without a care for audience expectation or predictability. There’s something inherently zany and exciting in practically every scene, yet almost every moment is prefaced with concrete context and the stakes at hand. The audience is never left as pure spectator, but almost taking place within the picture itself. Vaughn asks us to introspectively revel at the action when incredibly violent scenes take place, yet they often end with the “hero” either facing a certain realistic peril or regretting their mayhem. Even a scene within a Southern Baptist Church where members spew hate is filled with a certain level of sympathy; that’s a huge testament to the filmmaking power on display here. Major characters also die more often than expected and the film uses remarkably unconventional action, including an amazing villain with blades for legs. A random, loving ode to The Shining gains social meaning while the peril of children and even dogs are not used to excite, but to terrify. Kingsman: The Secret Service respects the audience, asks them to enjoy the ride, and simultaneously makes them feel weary about everything they have just seen. It’s an amazingly confident, brutally honest take on the action genre.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)