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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One Response

  1. I just viewed this on video. I was sickened by the sequence in the church, and yes, the first phrase that came to mind was ‘violence porn.’ Completely revolting, and very un-Bonded. Thankfully, the old Bond (and even the new one) hasn’t fallen to these depths of depravity. Further, the political diatribe on ‘Kentucky Christians’ was another example of idiotic screenplay. I will never watch another Kingsman, unless I’m informed the ultra-violence is kaput.

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