Reviewed by Jeb D.
Inexplicably, Jason Flemyng is not in this film.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is the second Mark Millar comic adaptation from director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman. As he did with Kick-Ass, Vaughn has taken a Millar comic that was violent, crass, and cynical, and turned it into a film that is violent, crass, and silly.
The comic series The Secret Service, from Millar and Dave Gibbons, is the story of a young London punk recruited by his super-spy uncle into MI:6, contrasting his East End roughness with the brutal elegance of the typical British gentleman spy. In the film, MI:6 is replaced by Kingsman, a top-secret non-governmental espionage/troubleshooting organization, drawing its code names from Arthurian legend, and there's a greater emphasis on the Men In Black-style relationship between Colin Firth's Harry Hart (aka Galahad) and Taron Egerton's Eggsy, who will compete to replace the murdered Lancelot (Jack Davenport).
Other details from the comics are rejiggered and repurposed (in the film, for example, our protagonists have no family connection, and Mark Hamill's character bears not his own name, as in the original, but that of the villain of the comic series). Mostly, though, Vaughn breezes right past plot details and focuses on hitting the action beats of a Bond film (shootouts, skydiving, car chases, elegantly-executed fights), with the result that Millar's convoluted storyline gets both streamlined and muddled: some supporting characters get more screen time than they warrant, others too little.
Michael Caine glides easily through the role of head Kingsman, and Mark Strong (with a dodgy Scots accent) has fun as the Kingsman equivalent of "Q." During the MIB-style training sequences, Eggsy bonds with Roxy (Sophie Cookson), a female candidate that will clearly be both his principal competitor and eventual ally, but for all the time we spend with her, she never develops any agency, and exists solely as a sounding board for Eggsy's growth and maturing. Samuel L. Jackson plays the appropriately over-the-top villain, software billionaire Richmond Valentine, with an exaggerated lisp, and a costume that suggests a grade-school kid trick or treating as Russell Simmons. Dancer Sofia Boutella is his henchwoman, Gazelle, who takes Rosa Klebb's knife-edged footgear to the extreme, with razor-edged Oscar Pistorius-style prosthetics.
Kingsman is being referred to as a "parody" of a James Bond film, but the result is less a Bond parody than something closer to an outsized Bond gag reel: "parody" would imply some attempt to subvert, or at least examine, the tropes of the genre, and Vaughn's clearly not interested in that, apart from exaggerating them here and there. If anything, Vaughn and Goldman double down on the conservatism inherent in Bond and his ilk: Kingsman is composed of bespoke-suited white men, financed with old money; lip service (so to speak) is paid to the idea that a "gentleman" is not defined by his plummy accent, but in every other respect, it's clear that, while Eggsy's working-class cunning has its uses, his role as a Kingsman will involve looking, dressing, and speaking more like his mentor (Egerton's fresh face, gentleness toward kids and animals, and toned-down accent seem aimed squarely at those American audiences that find Guy Ritchie's Londoners unsympathetic and hard to understand).
Jackson's having so much fun playing something besides the tough-talking badass (Valentine actually gets nauseated by violence), and exchanging meta-textual Bond-movie jokes with Firth, that it's almost possible to ignore the fact that the only black character of any stature in the film (unless we count the back of Barack Obama's head) is such a ludicrous cartoon. This is not to say that Kingsman is any worse in that respect than, say, Live and Let Die, but it doesn't demonstrate any awareness of how different that looks in 2015 than it did in 1973.
The film's two hour runtime is generous with its action, and if John Wick hasn't completely spoiled you for old-school stunts and camera work versus digitally-enhanced trickery, you'll find much of Kingsman a blast. It opens with Davenport's attempted rescue of Hamill's character with arched eyebrow and cheeky uber-Bond precision, and escalates from there, each setpiece more spectacular than the last; Firth is pure delight as he goes toe to toe with Liam Neeson in the over-50 ass-kicking department, and there are equally exhilarating action sequences for Egerton and Boutella. Most of the violence is even more stylized than was the case in Kick-Ass (bits get sliced off people cleanly and neatly, with scarcely a gout of blood in sight) and while I personally liked the aesthetic choices made in depicting Valentine's Scanners-style method of assassination, sanitizing it plays it safely enough to feel like a cheat. Vaughn ends the film proper with a nod to hard-core Millar fans by winking back to the notorious final panel of the Wanted comic.
Most comic fans seem to agree that Vaughn improved on Kick-Ass when transferring it to film, but I think, in retrospect, that's due largely to the freshness of Chloe Grace Moretz' performance as Hit-Girl: most of what Vaughn left out or smoothed away from Kick-Ass was sour and unpleasant (like Big Daddy's backstory, or Katie's rape and rejection of Dave), but for better or worse, that's what gave the story beats something to hang onto. The Secret Service's basic "slobs versus snobs" framework holds up better on film despite the structural changes, because Vaughn's veneer of cheerful mayhem allows Kingsman to get by on the basis of its surface pleasures, which are many. We want Eggsy to show us a more enlightened worldview, to turn his back on Kingsman rather than be co-opted by it, but the sourness inherent in his choice doesn't really hit you till after the film is over.
Like the film or loathe it, there's one definite takeaway from Kingsman: fans of Agent Carter know that Hayley Atwell would be perfect casting as Mrs. Emma Peel; in Kingsman's Colin Firth, we've found her John Steed. This must happen.
Jeb D. participates in the weekly Thor's Comic Review Column here at Bleeding Cool, and tries to get it right most of the time.