Film Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Colin Firth surprises as a kick-ass secret agent in this often over-the-top sendup of spy movies.
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The biggest kick in Kingsman: The Secret Service is watching 54-year-old Colin Firth, heretofore the epitome of British refinement onscreen, bust a move—actually, a barrage of moves—as Harry Hart, a super-spy who can dispatch a roomful of assailants with cool aplomb. Sixty-something Liam Neeson is already looking over his shoulder.

Based on a comic book by genre stars Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman is a cheekily outrageous sendup of espionage tropes, most especially those involving one Bond, James Bond. Adapters Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn previously tackled Millar’s Kick-Ass, and this latest project shares that film’s heightened approach to violence and embrace of the occasional shock tactic. At the least, the film should earn a devoted cult following.

The story begins in 1997 in Argentina, during a mission in which one of Harry’s team is killed. Harry appears at the door of the man’s widow and her five-year-old son and gives them a medal with a phone number they should call in a dire emergency. Seventeen years later, the boy, Eggsy (newcomer Taron Egerton), uses that number to summon Harry after being arrested for joyriding. An ugly confrontation in a pub reveals that the deceptively elegant Harry can more than hold his own against a mob of louts. Soon he is offering Eggsy a tryout for Kingsman, an independent secret organization of highly skilled covert agents.

The selection process is brutal, perhaps even fatally so. But Eggsy emerges as one of the top candidates to replace the recently murdered operative named Lancelot. And not a moment too soon, since demented tech billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is masterminding a secret coup that will have devastating global consequences.

Despite its high and garish body count (including one especially jarring fatality), it’s impossible to take Kingsman seriously, since it’s constantly winking at the audience by quoting all those well-worn elements from the 50-year-old Agent 007 movie series. Hart and Valentine even discuss the genre they’re in at a couple of key points. “Give me a far-fetched, diabolical plot, like the old Bond movies,” Jackson’s Valentine declares, with a risible lisp that helps steal every scene he’s in. Indeed that plot, a rather extreme solution to the climate crisis, is as wild as they come, and leads to a denouement whose fireworks make quite a bizarro impression.

Vaughn and Goldman pack the film with elaborate set-pieces, including a desperate underwater test for the Kingsman trainees, a death-defying parachute challenge and, most memorable of all, a simply incredible single take in which Harry takes on a church full of hyped-up, bloodthirsty, extreme-right-wing congregants. Oh, and let’s not forget Valentine’s chief henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), a beautiful double-amputee with razor-sharp blades for legs.

The cast also includes the dependable Mark Strong and onetime ’60s movie spy Michael Caine as Kingsman trainer Merlin and Kingsman boss Arthur, respectively. (Odd how this supposedly unaffiliated organization is peopled largely by Brits.) Firth and Jackson are without a doubt the fun stars of the show, but young Egerton makes a nice transition from unemployed delinquent to suave action hero. (In more meta-movie talk, he’s never heard of Trading Places or Pretty Woman, but he does know My Fair Lady.)

One big misstep is the film’s final gag, a callback to all those end scenes in which James Bond “collected” his pulchritudinous reward for a job well done. The joke is a puerile one, as if the filmmakers thought the only audience for Kingsman was rowdy frat boys. Thanks especially to Firth and Jackson, the film is much better than that.

Click here for cast and crew information.