Cheeky, rude, stylized, stylish, in crashingly bad taste and with something to offend absolutely everyone. In short, check it out. This week saw the release of two supposedly transgressive, shocking, subversive movies — Fifty Shades of Grey and this. The big difference is that the former is a tease, a snare, a lie, while Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers on those promises. Oh, you may not like it, but you’ll be hard-pressed to say its transgressions are mere hype. Look, I’m pretty jaded. I’ve almost seen it all — and enough times that I yawn at most of it and shrug off the rest. Though I can’t say I was ever actually offended by the film, I was startled — even shocked — by a few points, and I most certainly never yawned. The movie’s too much unwholesome fun for that — and it’s definitely too prickly.
Kingsman is, in fact, sufficiently prickly that it has succeeded in appalling critic friends of mine with whom I usually (more or less) agree. It has also prompted a certain amount of back-and-forth emailing with folks I saw it with — the point being whether or not to be offended, what to be offended by and what the underlying meaning of it all is. While I admit that the film’s tone is frequently reactionary and decidedly of the opinion that good manners, Saville Row tailoring and a very cinematic vision of upper-class England are the only hope for humanity, I think it’s not terribly concerned with underlying meaning. This is first and foremost a 1960s spy/Bond spoof in sort of modern terms. It’s a lot like the 1967 Casino Royale — with a lot more blood and carnage. In fact, the two films have more than a few similarities, including — but not limited to — the criticisms leveled against them.
The plot is reasonably straightforward — at least as these things go. Kingsman is an organization of spies — hidden behind and underneath (and with pneumatic transport to a Stately Homes of England training facility) a high-end clothing concern. This is no ordinary spy organization. These are the elite of the elite — really top-drawer representatives of what the movies have taught us is Great Britain at its best and most sophisticated. They do not represent Her Majesty’s government. They are too sophisticated to require any such sanction as they set the world to rights with their special skills, bottomless wallets and James Bond gadgetry. In the midst of finding a replacement for a fallen comrade, they find themselves pitted against a megalomaniac (Samuel L. Jackson putting his own spin on Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker) with a fiendishly extreme plan for solving the climate change problem. He plans to kill off most of humanity — leaving only a select group of one-percenters and their requisite servants — to bring things down to a manageable level.
To say much more about this aspect of the film would probably do it a disservice. Let’s just say that it’s a less specific, technological riff on Dr. Noah’s bacillus from the original Casino Royale. The problem with saying more about this is that it might blunt the impact — comedic and shocking — of such outrages as a magnificently violent test run at a thinly-veiled version of the Westboro Baptist Church and an almost Cronenbergian sequence joyously (and blasphemously) set to Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory.” While I suspect familiarity won’t really damage the impact of this, some things are just better experienced than described. It is a film made by people who obviously know and love their 1960s spy movies but aren’t afraid to take their tropes to new and disturbing levels.
While the film showcases agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), it’s ultimately more focused on his — wildly inappropriate — candidate for the replacement Kingsman, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (a star-making turn by newcomer Taron Egerton), a street tough who happens to be the son of a Kingsman who died saving Harry. The goal is to transform Eggsy into something like Harry’s own impossibly poised self. (Think Patrick Macnee as John Steed in TV’s The Avengers — the perfect embodiment of a potentially lethal English gentleman, but here one who doesn’t need the assistance of Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel when it comes to doing battle.) It is exactly as Eggsy views it — “like My Fair Lady.”
Should you see it? Well, if you’re particularly squeamish or have an aversion to violence, probably not. Otherwise, yes. Will you be offended? Oh, very likely — and not necessarily for reasons you might expect — but that’s rather the point. There’s something to be said for a movie — especially a comedy — with that kind of power. Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content.