Filmmaker Matthew Vaughn went and transformed himself from a producer and filmmaker in the shadow of peer Guy Ritchie, to a director-for-hire to a genuine auteur. Don’t get me wrong, his previous efforts such as the underappreciated Layer Cake, the quintessential superhero flick X-Men First Class and the anarchic Kick-Ass were all enjoyable and showed off an impeccable sense of filmmaking craft. As great as his films were, none ever seemed to elevate themselves beyond pop movie. That is until he decided to repurpose an old Mark Millar spy comic called The Secret Service and create one of the meanest, irreverent and cynical satirical work since Paul Verhoven’s Starship Troopers. Kingsman: The Secret Service is violent, chaotic and angry, it uses the framework of a blockbuster James Bond parody for the purpose of angrily indicting issues of elitism, male privilege, and many others. The secret genius behind this film is that it does such a good job as a finely tailored example of the very things it aims its vitriol at that it can be easily mistaken as a celebration of those terrible things. The movie is too self-aware to be taken at its face value, and like the best satirical works, it never lets the audience off the hook.
The film follows the exploits of Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (newcomer Taron Egerton), a working class delinquent who has been recruited by Harry Hart (played with unbeatable gentlemanly swagger by Colin Firth in his first action-heavy role) into a secret society of upper-class white male British aristocrats (the details are important) who police and shape the world according to their own vision. They are out to stop a self-made billionaire industrialist/environmentalist Valentine (played as a fusion of Def Jam founder Russell Simmons and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs by a lighthearted Samuel L. Jackson). Just that summation of the film alone should clue you into the intent behind this lurid piece of pulp satire. I have no doubt we will be seeing endless articles picking the film apart for its over-the-top violence, bizarre political standings but most of all the one aspect that most audiences find problematic with male-oriented action films: misogyny. The thing is, the film is absolutely aware of these things and the aspects of the film that seem repulsively indulgent are that way specifically to repulse and dare the audience.
Much has been made of the male power fantasies that make up the majority of films in the “Action” genre. And the James Bond 007 franchise is probably the best example of this, recognizable to most audiences the world over. Now, one could easily misconstrue Kingsman’s indulgent imagery and plot elements as a celebration of these things but both director Vaughn and screenwriter & feminist critic Jane Goldman crank up the “problematic” elements (the male elitism, violence and indulgence) so high that it tips beyond cartoonish parody into a disgusted indictment. See, the film does not “want” the audience to like what is happening in the film, it is actually daring them to. There’s this sly commentary running through the film and it is intricately disguised to the point where even if you miss what the film is trying to say, it’s still enjoyable as a big-budget action romp. I was heavily reminded of the films of Paul Verhoven when watching this movie. As I mentioned before, this film has more in common with Starship Troopers than any of Vaughn’s other movies. That film exaggerated a military sci-fi action tale to such a degree that its setup is transformed in the ultimate anti-war and anti-fascism satirical work.
I would hate to spoil the many scenes that clue one in to Vaughn and Goldman’s aims but the best I can do is help audiences who have seen the film to re-contextualize the experience with this mindset. Vaughn and Goldman setup scenes that toe this line between enjoyably indulgent fun and repulsively problematic and often at the same time all on purpose. Action scenes blend balletic stylization with disgusting gruesome imagery into an orchestra of simultaneous shock and awe. Contrary to popular belief, scenes related to sex, the male id and the action genre’s attitude towards women and sexism are NOT played for laughs directly; it’s the flippancy towards those scenes the film is cleverly mocking with an purpose to indict. All of this satire is so intelligently woven into this film, almost too well, as I have no doubt people might miss it, that one might actually feel inclined to look back at both Vaughn and Goldman’s oeuvre to see if they had pulled this trick before.
Satire is at its core, the ultimate trick. The best kinds of satire are able to sell a lie, essentially trick its audience into thinking the author is saying one thing when in reality, they are saying something else. This is what sets movies like Kingsman and even last year’s Gone Girl apart from stuff like recent episodes of South Park. Satire must still be fully functional in the form of the thing it’s actually targeting. So how is Kingsman as a straightforward “dude” action flick? Really good actually! Vaughn has a great mastery of timing, tone control, cinematography, editing and choreography. There is a prolonged fight scene in a church edited to appear to have been shot in a single take and the staging and stunt work is so well-done (there’s a little emulation of the sequences of last year’s John Wick), I have no doubt people will be examining the scene in years to come. The look of the film recalls the campiness of 1960s spy films and science fiction. It’s like a cross between Mad Men and the Connery-era James Bond with a dash of the 1966 Batman TV series for good measure. The fashion of the film is timeless and will probably popularize tailored or bespoke suits more than they already are. This is one stylish and fun action movie, if that’s all you want to see.
At its core, Kingsman is questioning “elitism” which all boils down to a superiority complex. And it can stem from race, breeding, grooming, intellect, gender etc. This plays out in the film in different ways but is mostly recognizably smart and current by being timeless. It also does so by being so gleefully violent and irreverent that it’s guaranteed to raise some hackles, and rightly so, since that’s the point. This is a film that people will love, hate and everything in between…and everyone would be absolutely right regardless. It is the reaction of the audience that Vaughn and Goldman are interested in and rarely has there ever been a movie that so shamelessly jabs at the very audience it seeks to engage.