REVIEW: Kingsman: The Secret Service

kingsman logoThis review contains a significant spoiler to make a broader point. There will be a warning.

By Bill Koenig

Matthew Vaughn set out to make an old-fashioned James Bond movie. It turns out Kingsman: The Secret Service is like Die Another Day — an excellent first half, with an overwrought second.

The first half of Kingsman, which Vaughn directed and co-scripted, stylishly updates familiar spy memes. It draws from 1960s Bond movies (including a score that evokes John Barry without copying), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers while updating them for 21st century audiences.

So far, so good. In fact, it’s better than good. You get socked in, you care about the heroes. Things move at a brisk pace.

Then, roughly at the midway point, there is a long, violent sequence. The purpose is to show (rather than tell) the villain’s scheme. But it’s so over the top, bordering on revolting, is like’s violence porn.

Now, I can hear some reactions now. “Whaddya expect? It’s Matthew Vaughn! It’s Mark Millar!” (Millar wrote and Dave Gibbons drew the comic book this film is based on, for those unfamiliar with the source material.)

True enough. Vaughn is known for violent films such as Layer Cake. Millar wrote Marvel and DC Comics stories of note to turn himself into a brand.

Still, much of it is unnecessary. The sequence could have been equally horrifying, and set the audience on edge, while still not becoming violence porn. But it doesn’t.

The plot is, essentially, a dressed up version of a megalomaniac trying to take over the world plot. Said megalomaniac here is Samuel L. Jackson, as Valentine, a billionaire who speaks with a speech impediment.

Valentine’s activities come to the attention of the Kingsmen, a private, non-governmental intelligence agency. One of its best operatives is Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Harry has a lot of his mind. Besides his normal derring do, he is trying to repay a slain colleague. Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the dead Kingsman’s son, had great promise but isn’t going anywhere. His mother lives with a low-life. Eggsy has been in trouble with the law.

When Valentine has another Kingsman operative killed, there’s an opening in the organization. Harry sponsors Eggsy, who’s up competing against a group of mostly upper class snobs.

Valentine’s ultimate plan is along the lines of The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker. But this being the 21st century and a Matthew Vaughn-directed film, things are more cynical than that. It turns out, some world leaders are more than willing to be a part of the scheme.

The aforementioned major spoiler follows. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know.

Eventually, the Kingsmen — well, what’s left of them — get the upper hand. They even manager to activate an implant in the necks of those world leaders who are collaborating with Valentine. As a result, their heads explode.

One of those people whose head explodes is U.S. President Barack Obama. Oh, he’s not named as such. But a tall, thin, African American U.S. president is in a bunker with his trusted advisers and they all have Valentine’s implants. Said U.S. president is photographed from the back. But nobody is fooled about who is this is supposed to be.

Anyway, all of their heads explode. It’s played for laughs — albeit extremely dark humor laughs. It’s part of a broader sequence where various, well-connected members of the 1 percent have their heads explode.

Now, in the “good old days,” escapist spy movies might have actors depicting an actual U.S. president without showing his face. Lyndon B. Johnson made “appearances” in Our Man Flint and The Wrecking Crew. But when such an official was needed for longer stretches, a “generic” U.S. president was shown such as In Like Flint, with actor Andrew Duggan.

Watching this movie, one suspects U.S. cable news networks may end up jumping in. One that’s known for leaning conservative (and owned by the parent company of 20th Century Fox, which released this movie) may call it brilliant satire. Another, known for leaning liberal, may work itself into a frenzy. We’ll see.
End spoiler.

In the end, Kingsman is worth seeing, particularly for fans of the spy genre who like an escpaist bent. However, it had a chance at excellence. It falls short. “Manners maketh man,” as Harry Hart says. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t follow their own advice. GRADE: B-Minus, mostly on the strength of the movie’s first half.

UPDATE: Valentine’s basic plot was also done in The Night of the Murderous Spring, near the end of the first season of The Wild Wild West. The episode, directed by Richard Donner, was the fourth appearance of Dr. Loveless. In this outing, he’s developed what amounts to a drug that releases all inhibitions so people kill each other.

In the episode, Loveless (Michael Dunn) is having dinner while James West and Artemus Gordon (Robert Conrad and Ross Martin) are caged up. A thug (Leonard Falk, Robert Conrad’s real life father) is leaning up against the door of a dining room where a large number of people are having food that includes Loveless’s drug. Suddenly, there are screams and yelling. Some of the people try to get out but the thug leans harder against the door to keep them in.

Now, this staging in part reflects the modest budgets for television. But it also forces the viewer to *imagine* the carnage occurring. Kitten, part of Loveless’s inner circle eventually opens the door is horrified. Loveless orders her to clean up the mess. Matthew Vaughn could have learned some lessons watching this episode.

UPDATE II (Feb. 15): Matthew Vaughn denies the U.S. president shown in the movie is supposed to be Barack Obama, the director said in a Feb. 13 story on ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’S WEBSITE.

Here’s the quote:

First of all, it’s not Obama. I just want to be clear. This is not an attack on Obama at all. This is an attack on all politicians, but the easiest way to making the point where people knew that Valentine was in power was to have the White House. We needed someone who was reminiscent of Obama, so that people got the point.

Personally, I think he’s being disingenuous. But there you go.

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Post-trailer questions about the U.N.C.L.E. movie

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

Fans have now gotten a peek of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie via the teaser trailer that went online Feb. 11. That means one thing: more questions.

So here we go:

What does the score sound like? The trailer put out by Warner Bros. doesn’t use any of Daniel Pemberton’s score, the composer said on Twitter. That’s pretty common, especially for a film’s first trailer. Music is always a big element of a movie. But fans will have to wait longer to sample the results of Pemberton’s labors. Ditto for whether the score uses Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for the original theme for the 1964-68 television series.

What about Young Napoleon Solo? The trailer, understandably, spends most of its time on the movie’s leads: Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin. There was just a quick peek of Hugh Grant as Waverly. During production in 2013, it came out there was a “young Napoleon Solo” character. He didn’t appear in the trailer, so no indications of whether young Solo will be part of an extended flashback sequence or something shorter and faster.

Will the “international criminal organization” be revealed as Thrush? In the movie, the discovery of said organization — with ties to former Nazis — spurs the United States to work together with the Soviet Union in 1963, the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Will director Guy Ritchie still use Thrush as a name?

On the original show, Thrush was a very massive organization. The shows makers also had trouble with the name. It initially was Thrush. But after the pilot was filmed, other names were considered, including WASP and MAGGOTT. The makers of the show went with Thrush.

The U.N.C.L.E. Special appeared. Will any other memes of the series? Given the movie has an “origin” story, that makes it harder. Some of the memes — the secret headquarters, badges related to the security system, the communicators — were there because U.N.C.L.E. had been well established. Still, some fans feared the U.N.C.L.E. Special might be missing from the film. So perhaps others might be present somehow.

Book Bond: No U.S. print edition of Young Bond novel

The Book Bond website, IN A POST BY JOHN COX, reports there are no plans for a U.S. print edition of Shoot to Kill, the first Young Bond novel written by Steve Cole.

According to the website, a reader contacted Cole’s literary agent, Curtis Brown. The agent advised there weren’t plans “at the moment” for Shoot to Kill to be published in the United States and that getting a British edition was the best way to proceed.

Cole took on the assignment of writing Young Bond stories after five novels by Charlie Higson. Cole’s story line was described thusly by IAN FLEMING PUBLICATIONS: “Expelled from Eton and determined never to trust again, James Bond’s plans for a solitary summer are dashed by the discovery of a gruesome film reel – a reel someone is willing to kill for.”

To read The Book Bond post, CLICK HERE.