‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ Review: The Goofy James Bond Throwback You Didn’t Know You Needed
For decades, people have made fun of Roger Moore. Moore starred in more James Bond movies than anyone else, but his entire twelve-year, seven-film run is widely regarded today as a goofy, cartoonish disaster. After Moore retired from the role following 1985’s ‘A View to a Kill,’ the Bond franchise refocused, growing darker and more serious. Now 007 belongs to Daniel Craig, who’s as stern as Moore was cheeky. Craig’s Bonds (and the Jason Bourne movies that helped inspire their solemn tone) have been so hugely successful, that there is an assumption that over-the-top spy movies like Moore’s wouldn’t work in 2015. ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ proves they can.
All the stuff that Moore critics claim is dated and passé is here and tremendously fun. There’s a cold-open action sequence at a mountain chalet. An over-the-top super-villain with a gaudy fashion sense and an enormous lair hidden inside a mountain. A henchman with bizarre metal implants. Crazy spy gadgets. Irreverent comedy and casual sexuality. And for the most part it all fits seamlessly into a story that feels fresh and contemporary.
It’s all based (loosely, with some pretty significant changes) on a comic book by Mark Millar—whose previously adapted works include ‘Wanted’ and ‘Kick-Ass’—and Dave Gibbons, the artist on Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen.’ Both book and film are about a troubled British kid named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who gets recruited into an organization of spies. In the comics, Eggsy joins the British Secret Service; in the movie, he becomes part of “The Kingsmen,” an ancient order of world-protecting agents whose headquarters are housed beneath a bespoke tailor on Savile Row. Curiously, the movie version of Millar’s ‘Wanted’ also grafted a clothing-heavy mythology onto the original story, inventing a “magical loom” that directed its characters to carry out assassinations. (Presumably the movie version of Millar’s ‘Civil War’ will find Captain America working in a Forever 21.)
Eggsy’s finds a mentor and protector in the form of Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a member of the Kingsmen codenamed Galahad (all of its agents have Knights of the Round Table monikers; Michael Caine plays Arthur, Mark Strong’s quartermaster is Merlin, and so on). Eggsy’s father gave his life to save Harry’s, a debt he repays by inducting the savvy but unfocused youth into his secret fraternity. While Eggsy endures the organization’s arduous training process, Harry investigates a string of disappearances around the globe. The trail eventually leads to Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a tech billionaire whose latest product launch may be a cover for a secret plot to destroy the world.
In the classic mold of Bond baddies like Karl Stromberg (‘The Spy Who Loved Me’) or Hugo Drax (‘Moonraker’), Jackson’s Valentine boasts an absurd plan to “save” the planet by wiping out most of its population; also in the classic mold of Bond baddies, he’s got his very own surgically altered sidekick, a sword-legged butt-kicking villainess named Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Her razor-sharp feet seem pretty impractical—wouldn’t you destroy every floor you walked on? Wouldn’t people know you sneaking up on because of all the noisy clanging and scraping?—but they look really cool, and her acrobatic martial-arts moves give ‘Kingsman’ even more dynamic flair.
It’s a flashy movie in general, one apparently engineered to look as different from the Daniel Craig Bonds as possible. Instead of subdued, glossy elegance, ‘Kingsman’ is bright, loud, and garish. Instead of shakily shot and rapidly edited action scenes, director Matthew Vaughn goes for Steadicam and long-takes—most memorably in an all-out brawl that sees Colin Firth duke it out with an entire church congregation for several minutes with almost no visible cuts.
Firth might appear like an odd choice for an action hero, but he makes a surprisingly convincing one in the Roger Moore mold, the sort of unflappable British gentlemen who can kick your ass without wrinkling his suit. He’s a great straight man for Jackson and some of the movie’s sillier elements as well; Firth has this unshakeable dignity and poise that even the most vulgar moments in ‘Kingsman’ can’t puncture. And Egerton, a relative unknown, doesn’t get overwhelmed by his heavyweight co-stars. By the end of the film, as Eggsy comes into his own as a gentleman spy, Egerton does as well. He seems poised for big things down the line.
Between the 1970s spy movie vibe and a none-too-subtle anti-technology theme (humanity’s obsession with the latest, greatest cell phone nearly turns them into mindless, world-destroying zombies), Vaughn pretty clearly believes that the new way isn’t always the best way—or at the very least the only way. Daniel Craig’s Bond movies are cool; so is Jason Bourne. But the old-school Bonds were great too, and there’s no reason they can’t be great again with the right kind of update. Harry and the rest of the Kingsmen argue for the importance of tradition in a changing world. ‘Kingsman: The Secret Services’ confirms it.