★ ★ ★ ½
In order to understand exactly what tone director Matthew Vaughn is going for in his stylish, comic-to-screen spy romp Kingsman: The Secret Service, one need look no further than a scene that takes place approximately halfway through the film. It’s a pivotal moment that finds gentleman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) posing as a billionaire real-estate mogul in order to get closer to Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a popular Internet entrepreneur and suspected supervillain. As the two rivals sit down to share a meal, the topic of conversation shifts to spy films. Asked if he’s a fan, Hart says that he is, but with the caveat that the most recent entries in the enduring genre have become “too serious.”
Kingsman: The Secret Service is the antidote to all of that seriousness. A rousing dose of retro-fueled fun, replete with sharply dressed secret agents, hi-tech gadgets, lethal henchmen (er, henchwomen), and, of course, a diabolical villain with a secluded mountain-top stronghold, it aims to be the anti-Skyfall—a sprightly franchise starter that wants to fill the gap that opened up when Q sent Bond on his 23rd assignment virtually empty-handed. Even so, there’s one key element of Kingsman that separates it from virtually every spy adventure that has come before, and that difference could be the deciding factor in the future of this potential series.
The Kingsmen are an independent intelligence agency modeled after the Knights of the Round Table. Honor and integrity are among their chief virtues, and each agent takes his and her name from a noble knight of legend. Veteran Kingsman Harry Hart (aka Galahad) is on assignment in the Middle East when he makes a mistake that costs a key teammate his life. Devastated, Galahad bestows the agent’s son Eggsy a medal of valor, which entitles him to any favor of his choosing at any point in his life.
The movie then flash forwards to 12 years later, as Galahad learns that another teammate has perished while attempting to rescue a kidnapped college professor (Mark Hamill) in Argentina. Meanwhile, in England, a now teenage Eggsy (Taron Egerton) isn’t doing that well. After getting arrested for leading the police on a chase in a stolen car, he remembers the medal and requests his favor. Much to his surprise, Galahad is waiting for him when he exits the station. Impressed by Galahad’s fighting skills when confronted by a group of local thugs, Eggsy accepts his offer to try out for the Kingsmen. But he’s just one of many young hopefuls competing for a single open slot, and right as their training begins to pick up, charismatic billionaire Valentine initiates an apocalyptic plot to curb global warming with a great cull. Later, as the selection process comes down to Eggsy and one other potential Kinsgman candidate, Valentine makes a move that shakes the organization to its very core as he prepares to set his catastrophic plan in motion.
Watching Kingsman, it’s plain to see that Vaughn has taken most of his cues from the colorful, pre-Bourne Identity spy films that favored upbeat escapism over gritty realism. In the wake of turning heads with his freshman crime drama Layer Cake (the movie that helped launch future 007 Daniel Craig to stardom), Vaughn revealed himself to be a capable comic-to-screen adaptor as the director and co-writer of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. He keeps that trend going with Kingsman, successfully creating the feel of an action-packed graphic novel come to life. If it’s three-dimensional characters or plausibility that you crave, you might choose to skip this assignment. On the other hand, if it’s eye-popping spectacle you seek, Kingsman hits its marks with the style and skill of an expert assassin. By paralleling Eggsy’s training with the Kingsmen’s fight against Valentine, Vaughn and frequent screenwriting partner Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, Stardust, X-Men: First Class) fuse the discovery of an origin story with the thrill of a first adventure. It all adds up to a rousing good time—as long as you can forgive such obvious leaps in logic as how Eggsy managed to learn the Kingsmen’s distinctive fighting style while his mentor was in a coma—and by making Valentine’s threat both global and deeply personal (a scene with a child in peril may have sensitive parents wincing), the writers keep the action moving fast enough that we have little time to quibble.
Relative newcomer Egerton carries little baggage with him to the big screen, allowing him to fully inhabit the character of Eggsy and make his transformation into a superspy entirely believable. By contrast, it’s precisely our familiarity with Oscar winner Firth that allows his character to command authority as the veteran agent determined to thwart Valentine’s plan. And that brings us to Samuel L. Jackson—gifted with one of the most distinctive voices in cinema, his decision to portray Valentine with a pronounced lisp helps to distinguish the character from his legendary list of big-screen badasses. At the same time, the fun he’s so obviously having as Valentine effortlessly transfers to the audience. Michael Caine brings the appropriate amount of gravity to his role as the head of the Kingsmen organization, and it’s refreshing to see Mark Strong in a rare good-guy role. His slack is picked up by Sofia Boutella, flawlessly agile as Valentine’s alluring, razor-footed enforcer Gazelle.
Making a memorable entrance by slicing a man in half vertically, Gazalle may also be the deciding factor in whether or not the film results in the birth of a new franchise (as it so obviously intends). Outside of the horror genre, it’s difficult to cite examples of successful R-rated movie series, and while Vaughn and company should be commended for their uncompromising vision (a hyper-violent church massacre, complete with blowtorches to the face, makes the climactic battle in Kill Bill feel tame despite running half the time), it could also turn out to be the burgeoning franchise’s Achilles’ heel: Not only will the violence cause some parents to recoil in shock, but in many ways it stands in stark contrast to the film’s otherwise playful tone. For grown-ups who savor nostalgia and mayhem, however, this could be just the throwback they’ve been longing for.