When director Matthew Vaughn teamed up with screenwriter Jane Goldman to adapt Mark Millar’s subversive superhero comic Kick-Ass, the end result was inarguably my favourite superhero movie, as well as a strong contender for my favourite comic book movie full-stop (give or take an Oldboy or a Scott Pilgrim). In the five years between that movie and Kingsman: The Secret Service, the reteaming of all the creative talent behind Kick-Ass, a lot has changed. For one, Mark Millar’s continuing Kick-Ass comic books got a piss-poor cinematic sequel that is easily the worst superhero movie I’ve seen.
More damningly, in the wake of the 2010 general election (just a month after the UK release of Kick-Ass), director Matthew Vaughn not only came out as a supporter of David Cameron’s Conservative party, he did it in The Sun newspaper under the headline “Why I think the Tories Kick-Ass” (I still shudder over this thought most days). Yet I could easily look past this; he may be a supporter of our government, but his filmography is as subversive as you can get whilst working in genre limitations. From the redefining of the British gangster movie with his debut Layer Cake, to the reimagining of fairytale mythology with Stardust, he has constantly proved himself to excel at different mainstream genres, making him that rare thing – the successful mainstream British filmmaker whose movies are not only worth watching, but essential viewing.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is only subversive when you compare it to modern day spy movies, as it nostalgically harks back to Roger Moore’s output as James Bond. By this, I mean the plot is entirely nonsensical and appears to be made up as it goes along, comprised entirely of set pieces of differing quality, many of which have no relevancy to the overarching plot. Its other similarity to Roger Moore’s Bond movies is that it is screamingly awful and represents not only my first big cinematic disappointment of the year, but also the first misstep in Matthew Vaughn’s filmography.
We begin in 1997, as Colin Firth’s suave secret agent Harry Hart unwittingly causes the death of one of his fellow Kingsmen by not realising that the man they were interrogating had explosives strapped to him, ready to detonate. He visits his colleagues grieving widow and their young son, who always goes by the nickname Eggsy for reasons that are never explained. Young Eggsy is given a Kingsman badge and told that if he ever gets in trouble, he should ring the number on the badge- the secret service is responsible for the death of his father, so one favour won’t hurt right? Now, bear with me, as like the Roger Moore Bond movies, the plot is so incredibly convoluted that the majority of the word count will be me trying to synopsise the mere set-up for the movie.
We flash forward to 2014, where Eggsy (Taron Egerton, a textbook example of a real-life posh actor awkwardly playing a working-class chav) is a juvenile delinquent, who lives with his mum and her abusive boyfriend. He steals the car of said abusive boyfriend’s associates, landing himself in jail. He calls the number he was given all those years ago (yes, he just happened to have it on him at the time) and Harry Hart comes to his rescue. One of his fellow Kingsmen has just died and he needs to find a replacement to try out to join the secret service; Eggsy is just the ticket and he is thrown into the job interview from hell, which is just like The Apprentice. Only instead of Alan Sugar it’s the usually wonderful Mark Strong doing a terrible Scottish accent, and instead of creating pitches for businesses, tasks include jumping out of helicopters without parachutes.
That’s still not the entire set-up (yes, I have to describe MORE before I even get to the review). An American tech mogul called Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, whose awful performance I will discuss in greater detail later) has plans to give out SIM cards to the world’s entire population, giving them unlimited free calls for the rest of their lives. Simultaneously, lots of renowned public figures are going missing, which is always mentioned in TV news reports directly after his tech announcements in a way that only happens in films to let you know that he is directly responsible. These disappearances largely comprise of the governments and monarchies of the world, yet for some inexplicable reason also includes Australian popstar Iggy Azalea, whose disappearance somehow makes it to the top story on Sky News (?).
From that plot description, you can already tell that the film’s major flaw is having too much plot – and the plot it does have is massively unoriginal (not the Bond referencing, but the fact the storyline eventually morphs into a dumbed-down version of Channel 4’s excellent sci-fi series Utopia). Like the Moore Bond movies, its over-plotted nature is simply an excuse for set pieces, ensuring that you never stop to think about what’s happening onscreen. Kick-Ass was a hilarious subversion of the superhero genre; Kingsman is just as dumb, if not dumber, then the movies that inspired it. Matthew Vaughn still has great directorial flair, but the standout sequences here only remind you of his past glories.
Colin Firth beating the shit out of an entire Westboro Baptist church style congregation to the soundtrack of Freebird is pretty fun, but it only reminds you that it was more fun when it was Hit Girl murdering entire armies of gangsters to the sound of Bad Reputation. Plus, in Kick-Ass you actually got to see the action; here the camera work is so frenetic, moving from one angle to another before a punch even lands, it’s hard to get fully absorbed by the scene. I suspect the only reason that the two stand out sequences work is because of the pop soundtrack used (KC & The Sunshine Band are used to thrilling effect also) – whenever a punch-up sequence plays out without a soundtrack, the awkward editing becomes even more jarring, whilst with a soundtrack you immediately get taken up by the sheer inappropriateness of the song being used.
It’s not just the action sequences. The ridiculous amount of awful CGI only acts to take you out of the scene repeatedly, which is only more damning considering the film was originally supposed to be released in October, but delayed to give time to work on the special effects. From the opening moments, as bits of rubble break off a building to form the opening credits, this is a film defined by using outdated CGI. If I were being charitable, this could be to hark back to the old spy movies, or even the cartoonish violence of Grindhouse movies – but those movies had the budget limitations Kingsman doesn’t. The violence is laughable, but not because it’s played for laughs, but because it mostly looks like an almost finished animatic sequence you would find on the DVD extras.
However, if this film goes down in history for anything, it will be because it’s definitively Samuel L. Jackson’s worst performance. Even though it seems like he appears in everything (although IMDB informs me it’s only 158 titles), Jackson is always a welcome screen presence that never wears out his welcome. However, Matthew Vaughn’s direction of him here results in him playing the role with the worst lisp in cinematic history – one that seems to be used so it can be played for laughs when the actual gags in the screenplay don’t seem to be doing the job. All it did was remind me of the perennially underrated 2006 Australian mockumentary Kenny; that titular character had a lisp, yet was never played for laughs. It was just a little character detail that helped him appear like a fully rounded person.
I honestly didn’t expect to go into such great detail about Kingsman, yet I have just one final thing to say. After just over a year in government, David Cameron announced that he was scrapping the UK Film Council, the government funded body that helps independent filmmakers get their movies both made and seen. In his defence, Cameron argued that the movies produced were predominantly arthouse fare and not “films like Harry Potter that people want to see”. Here, Matthew Vaughn has definitively made the kind of movie Cameron thinks the British film industry should be making; nonsensical action sequences, product placement that fulfils the Conservative capitalist ideals and enough sex and violence to numb the mind for two hours.
Harry Hart is the personification of Vaughn’s conservative ideals; he lectures Eggsy about the fact that just because he wasn’t born into a life of privilege doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try (invoking Margaret Thatcher’s idea of the working class as a motivational class), as well as the fact his first mission was to stop the assassination of Margaret Thatcher. The walls in his office are adorned with front covers of The Sun newspaper, yet he frequently calls himself a gentleman – but would a gentleman read a newspaper whose sole selling point is that it has bare breasts on the third page? Kingsman is a film of contradictions; billed as a subversive ride, it is as pro-establishment as you could possibly get, even as it tries to suggest otherwise.