First published by Sight & Sound, March 2015
Synopsis: In the Middle East, a Kingsman agent gives his life to save colleague Harry Hart. 17 years later, Hart repays the favour by rescuing the dead agent’s delinquent twentysomething son Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin from police custody in London and offering him the chance to compete with other candidates for a vacancy at the Kingsman secret agency. Hart is investigating multi-billionaire telecommunications entrepreneur Raymond Valentine, who plots, with the connivance of international politicians in return for their safety, to forestall overpopulation and ecological disaster with a phonechip signal that will make humans turn murderously on one another.
Eggsy passes most of the trial stages to become an agent, but fails at the final hurdle when he refuses orders to shoot his own pet dog. Acrophobic Roxy becomes the next Kingsman agent. Following a lead to America, Hart is exposed to an experimental burst of Valentine’s signal, and messily dispatches a churchful of bigoted congregants. Confused by his own actions, Hart confronts Valentine outside the church, and is shot dead. After outwitting Kingsman’s chief Arthur (who has secretly gone over to Valentine’s side), Eggsy rushes to Valentine’s arctic base. While Roxy takes out the signal-emitting satellite in the air, Eggsy fights Valentine’s men – and henchwoman Gazelle – on the ground. Kingsman’s new chief Merlin causes circuits implanted in the heads of the armed guards – and of the complicit politicians – to explode. Eggsy kills Valentine.
Review: In the prologue to Mark Millar’s six-part comicbook series The Secret Service, a British agent rescues the actor Mark Hamill (star of the original Star Wars trilogy) from the clutches of a supervillain who is collecting the SF stars of his youth. Attempting to reprise the opening escapade of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the agent and Hamill plummet over a snowy cliff to a bathetic death after their Union Jack parachute fails properly to open. In other words, Millar’s comic is a James Bond parody set both in a reflexive world of movie geekdom and in a ‘broken Britain’. Kingsman: The Secret Service plays a similar game, but director Mathew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman (who together previously adapted Millar’s Kick-Ass) also deviate from their comicbook model (which Vaughn co-plotted with Millar). The real Hamill may duly cameo, but as an ecology academic rather than as himself – and there will be other changes to plot and characterisation along the way, ensuring plenty of quirky surprises for anyone familiar with the original.
Whenever gentleman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and lisping criminal mastermind Raymond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, who himself overcame a childhood lisp) engage, they expressly discuss spy movies. “Nowadays, they’re all a little serious for my taste,” complains Hart, bringing to mind not just Matt Damon’s Bourne and Daniel Craig’s Bond, but also Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), starring Firth himself. Indeed, Kingsman restores the campy fun of Roger Moore-era Bond to a contemporary British landscape where class divisions, though present, are also evolving. When Hart is called upon to help young housing estate chancer Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (impressive newcomer Taron Egerton) as part of a blood debt to Eggsy’s late father, he sees potential in the twenty-something lad, and recruits him to compete with other hopefuls for a position as a new Kingsman agent.
There is a double standard operating here, as chavtastic Eggsy is contrasted with his snobbish Oxbridge rivals but still, like them, depends on family connections to get his foot in the Kingsman door. To beat one élite political establishment, Eggsy must join another. Still, double standards abound in a film which simultaneously offers a critique of the superspy genre’s mainstays of sex and violence, while celebrating them to gleeful excess. Eggsy’s colleague Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and Valentine’s blade-legged henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella; male in the original comic) may represent unusually strong female characters for the genre, but any points gained for gender progress are quickly lost again in the portrayal of an initially principled Swedish princess (Hanna Alström) who, in one of the film’s more misjudged and regressive moments of supposed comedy, promises her own anal cavity as a sexual reward for a world-saving Eggsy. Conversely, the violence is mostly cartoonish, but one particular sequence – in which master spy Hart, sent into an involuntary homicidal rage, single-handedly massacres a churchful of hate preachers – manages to be exciting and uncomfortable all at once, in perfect illustration of the way that Kingsman gets to surveil its cake and eat it too.