Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

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Galahad, a member of a British secret society called Kingsman, is tasked with picking a protegé to replace a murdered member.  Eggsy, a troubled young man with potential to spare and time to kill, ends up on Galahad's radar after Eggsy uses a "Get out of jail free" message Galahad left with him years ago.  What Eggsy and Galahad don't realize is Eggsy's training may be over sooner than either anticipate as an ecoterrorist plots to rid the world of its human disease.  Matthew Vaughn directs Kingsman: The Secret Service with stars Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Didn't want this to happenIf anyone needs a primer in how cinematic universes create a moral argument for their protagonists, look no further than Kingsman: The Secret Service's best scene.  It occurs a little more than halfway through when Galahad (Colin Firth) ties the villainous Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) to a racist church in the southern united states.  Galahad listens to the sermon, filled with hate and slurs, but when he tries to leave he's stopped by a woman.  Off-screen, a device activates which causes the parishioners to fly into a violent frenzy.  However, only Galahad's trained in mob combat like this, and proceeds to kill every one of the parishioners.

It's a hell of a scene.  Director Matthew Vaughn skips the buildup of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" and jumps straight to the guitar solo.  In a bravura action sequence with few cuts as Vaughn follows Firth's body closely with his camera and adjusts the recording speed just so slightly so, on playback, it goes in fast-forward but missing frames in between.  What Vaughn creates is an epileptic blood orgy with Firth at the center who, when the carnage has finally died down, has a key line - "I wanted to."

Galahad wanted to kill those people, vile or no, who had done him no harm.  Vaughn, as director and coscreenwriter, wanted to craft a scenario where Galahad has to murder an entire congregation just to prove how deadly Richmond's device is.  This means Vaughn also wanted to craft a movie where an imprisoned woman can only barter her freedom through anal sex.  Or how frequent jabs at the British class system end up hollow in the rags to riches tale of isolation and violence at the heart of Kingsman.  Really, all Vaughn wanted to do was show a bunch of unskilled people getting thoroughly brutalized at the hands of their betters, either through skill, resources, or upbringing.  Kingsman is a vile film, gussying up the worst tendencies of humans in expert cinematography, then presenting this violence with little consequence.

Don't get too attached to characters, no matter how entertaining they first appear.

Don't get too attached to characters, no matter how entertaining they first appear.

Really, I should not have been surprised at this result.  Vaughn started off promisingly enough with Layer Cake in 2005, a movie which Vaughn didn't have a hand in writing I should point out, before delivering a rote fantasy in Stardust, the terrible Kick-Ass, and the aggressively mediocre X-Men: First ClassKingsman finds Vaughn tipping back into the comic world of Mark Millar, whose work Vaughn adapted for Kick-Ass, and suffer from almost the same hypocritical blend of action and queasy morals.

The big problem with Vaughn's movies, excepting Layer Cake, is that they try to have everything at once.  They want to be tongue-in-cheek send-ups of their sources but also self-aware enough to recognize the problems in the material.  For Kingsman, this translates into scenes of Firth looking haunted after killing someone or witnessing a death right before another cheeky action sequence with one-liners.  Firth's performance is especially rough in these moments because he's so good at communicating the haunted morals Galahad has had to live with that when Jackson comes on with his heavily lisped dialogue and unsteady hands that we sense two cinematic universes are at the border of one another with neither really communicating.  Kick-Ass had this exact problem, showing the inherent violent sociopathic nature of superhero vigilante narratives while still having its ostensible hero saving the day on a jet pack.

Vaughn's also got a thing for creating one memorable action sequence then picking up a dull playbook for the rest.  They're presented with enough urgency, but the sequence where Galahad's protegé Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is trying to open his parachute is another masterclass in needlessly pumping up a foregone conclusion.  His survival is difficult to get invested in when Eggsy would likely be entering a society where nothing is real.  This, on its face, is a critique of the British upper class but considering Eggsy's final choices, and a concluding montage which rids the world of all its limp liberals, it just reinforces that people who make it to the upper class are there because they always know better and don't question it.  Listen to each story in Kingsman, each moral parable and ask - does it really matter what's true and what isn't?

The other good sequence in Kingsman is a methodical one,

The other good sequence in Kingsman is a methodical one as Eggsy leads the other protege's through a flooded room.

The only answer I can reasonably come up with is that truth in Kingsman, or fiction, only matters so long as it leads to another scene of people getting hurt or murdered in brutal ways.  The violence itself is relatively clean, with a surprisingly colorful array of neck blood providing unusual fireworks for the closing scenes, but no one's life is of any consequence - least of all the Kingsman.  If no one's life matters, and examining why this is the case isn't the point of Kingsman, then it becomes one aggravating and dull trek to finish up the experience.

All of this might not be so bad if Kingsman didn't take the tired postmodern route of pointing out how cliché all the secret service stuff is.  It's not even done in a clever way, and at multiple points in Kingsman the characters start pointing out to one another just how absurd their responses would be if they actually were in a spy movie.  There's no joke, no intelligence, just, "What would you say here if you were in a spy movie?"  If Kingsman set out to be the anti-spy movie, perhaps by making the action sequences as dull and lifeless as possible, then this kind of self-referential humor might have worked.  But when placed next to an already queasy moral structure and whizz bang action sequences the dialogue just becomes insufferably annoying.

Kingsman, as distasteful as it is, still hasn't plumbed the depths of Kick-Ass.  Firth is much too good a performer to let something like that happen, and Vaughn really is an A+ director.  But I wonder what heights Vaughn could reach if he stopped with this self-referential hypocrisy and made a movie with a screenplay he did not have a hand in writing.  I don't know if he has another Layer Cake in him, but just about anything would be preferential to this sub-Austin Powers self-congratulatory nonsense.

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Tail - KingsmanKingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Directed by Matthew Vaughn.
Screenplay written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman.
Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Hah, it was a thoroughly enjoyable film. would shudder to think what you like. perhaps “manos – the hands of fate?!”

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