There are certain movies about which my wife has to constantly remind me “You’re not the intended audience,” and I find that to be true more and more the older I get. There are many ways, though, in which I probably am the intended audience of Matthew Vaughan’s (X-Men First Class) latest effort, Kingsman: The Secret Service: I mean, chiefly it’s a spoof of old-school James Bond flicks from the ’60s to the ’80s, and has a sound track of ’70s and ’80s tunes to prove it. As someone who grew up with Dr. No and Goldfinger, I couldn’t help but be drawn in to the world of the movie, and though Colin Firth’s Harry Hart is somewhat nerdier than Sean Connery’s Bond, his stiff upper-class British lip and bullet proof umbrella make him a formidable secret agent in that same tradition. But the film’s over-the-top violence left me repulsed and, frankly, confused about what the point of it all was.
The film is based (what isn’t, these days?) on a popular comic book series from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons about a super-secret organization of spies dedicated to battling evil. The group is like a modern Round Table of idealistic knights dedicated to the chivalrous battle for the cause of right: The head of the organization, “Arthur” (Michael Caine) sends his knights errant (Firth’s code name is “Galahad”) out on quests to rid the kingdom of its enemies—it is no accident that the organization is called “Kingsmen.” Anyone familiar with medieval history knows that chivalry was all about class. Early in the film, Hart instructs a group of working class toughs that “Manners maketh man,” and proceeds to beat them into submission with a very polite ass-whipping. The entrance to his secret organization is through a haberdashery on Savile Row, and is accessed with the password “Oxfords, not brogues.” The new Round Table, like the old one, is made up of the noble class.
In this story, a ruthless multi-billionaire Silicon-valley magnate named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is bent on saving the world from global warming by killing off the entire human population (with the exception of a handful of the very rich and the very powerful), and plans to do it by offering everyone on earth free cell phone and Internet service, through which he will be able to command them to annihilate one another. It’s the sort of elaborate plot and lunatic villain typical of the old Bond films, and has the kind of climactic scene in which the Bond character beards the villain in his den in a confrontation in which the survival of humanity hangs in the balance. Just another day’s work for a Kingsman.
Behind the elaborate plot is a fairly typical initiation story, focusing on the young street lad Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), the son of a former Kingsman recruit killed in the line of duty while saving Harry Hart’s life. Eggsy, with a home life controlled by an abusive, gangster-connected stepfather, seems to have nothing but a dead-end future waiting for him. Harry recruits the young Eggsy to fill the slot of another slain agent, Lancelot, and after a series of impossibly competitive training exercises, Eggsy proves to be more than the equal of the snobbish little twits he is competing with—except for one young woman, Roxy (Sophie Cookson, charming in her first screen role), who predictably becomes his sort-of romantic interest. So in part this is a film about class in a way that will have more to say to a British than an American audience. “Manners maketh man,” Harry Hart says, and with this in mind Eggsy transcends his environment, learns the manners of a Kingsman, but keeps his street-savvy. What else would you expect?
Egerton is likeable in the lead role, learning to transform his congenital James Dean into an acquired Sean Connery. Firth is unflappably delightful as the seasoned spy, and Michael Caine, who never met a role he didn’t like, is quite proper in a part that takes a bit of an unexpected twist. Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker in another life, in what amounts to little more than a cameo, plays a kidnapped eco-scientist forced to assist Valentine in his insane schemes. Hamill’s role is something of a private joke: In the comic books, the scientist kidnapped by Valentine’s henchmen is actually named Mark Hamill. Vaughan stages a minor coup in getting the real Mark Hamill to play the character, whose name is changed to Professor Arnold for the film. But it’s kind of a treat to see Hamill working, if only in a small but noticeable part like this one.
It is Jackson who really steals the show in the acting department: His incredibly campy performance as a lunatic billionaire who lisps, wears his baseball caps turned to the side, and plans mass murder but vomits at the sight of blood, is such a bizarre twist on his usual tough-guy persona that he had me in stitches through much of the film.
Those are the parts of the movie that seemed likethey were speaking to me. Then there were the other parts that went off the rails. Scenes in which Valentine’s henchwoman “Gazelle,” played by dancer Sofia Goutella, slices and dices her enemies with bladed metal feet, for instance, were interesting in a stylized way but soon became brutally redundant. Or when the heads of dozens of Valentine’s super-rich, confident of their invulnerability, begin exploding like so many firecrackers on the Fourth of July—an image reinforced by the music of “Land of Hope and Glory” playing in the background.
But the showcase scene of the movie, a veritable orgy of violence, occurs in an evangelical Kentucky church of the all-too-common sort that masks ignorance, bigotry and hatred under the cloak of Christianity: (Warning: spoiler alert here) In the scene, Harry is attending the service and, at an electronic cue from Valentine relayed through everyone’s free cell phone, the entire congregation in the church turns into programmed, maniacal killers, and a melee begins in which everyone present, including Firth, is trying to kill everyone else. They use knives, axes, guns, a flagpole through the chest, and their bare hands to stab, chop, shoot, gouge, mangle and destroy one another until, by the end of a scene that never seems to end, Harry has managed to kill literally everyone in the church, all to a background of Leonard Skynard music. Perhaps, because the hundred or so parishioners have been presented unsympathetically to that point, we are meant to feel nothing for them. Perhaps the fact that the whole scene is filmed as if it is a video game, but using real people instead of computer graphics, is intended to distance us and objectify the violence. The scene is technically astounding but morally repugnant. Perhaps there is a point being made about the danger of blurring distinctions between film and reality, film being just as unreal as video games, especially in these days of computer-generated special effects. Or perhaps that is a distinction that today’s generation of film-goers does not even think of making—if so what does that fact say about the ability of contemporary films to make any emotional impact on audiences?
Yes, Honey, I know, I’m not the intended audience. If you’re like me, you probably aren’t either. I’ll give this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson, for the parts I did understand.