January to March is a dark period of the calendar for theatrical releases. Aside from the Oscar contenders that go wide after getting an earlier limited release, a lot of the movies released are dumped because the studio knows they’re not that good. It’s easy to be dubious or dismissive of any movie that is released during this period, but the right movies can come along and make a killing in this time period because of the dearth of quality competition. Despite my like of the director (Matthew Vaughn) and his previous work (Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class are all movies I own), I was dismissive of Kingsman: The Secret Service based on the previews and the release date. After seeing it, I am happy to admit that I was wrong about that.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a film (based on a comic book) about the spy world. Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (newcomer Taron Egerton) is a young man who lost his father at a young age and is a promising but underachieving prospect who gets recruited to join a top-secret, private sector spy organization. While in training, a tech mogul named Valentine(Samuel L. Jackson) is putting sinister plans into motion on a global scale. The film boasts a great ensemble British cast, particularly of the Kingsmen, who take King Arthur’s knights’ names as codenames. Colin Firth’s Harry/”Galahad” is the Kingsman who knew Eggsy’s father (a former Kingsman who saved his life) and brings Eggsy into this world because he sees potential in him. Mark Strong is “Merlin” runs the training of the recruits and is the “Q” of sorts of the film. Michael Caine’s “Arthur” is the head of the organization. Two other newcomers round out the main cast: Sophie Cookson plays Roxy, another promising recruit, and Sofia Boutella is Gazelle, a highly skilled, lethal henchman (henchwoman???) of Valentine’s who has sharp metal prosthetic lowers legs, akin to Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius.
There have been a lot of super-serious spy films in recent years, a lot of which I like. Lighter far in the genre seem few and far between and to make one that is effective is even rarer. Kingsman succeeds by going back to the roots of a lot of the classic, enjoyable spy movies of the 60s and 70s and bringing them into the modern world, whether it is the outrageous tech they use, or the villain bent on world domination/destruction. It is a film that is self-aware of the genre too and is able to play with it and have fun with it, much like Kick-Ass did with the superhero genre. It wears its influences on its sleeve, with winking nods to the spy genre and also rags-to-riches movies of the past (There is a great joke about Trading Places and Pretty Woman).
Samuel L. Jackson is entertaining as Valentine. He plays him with a lisp and he also has an aversion to blood, which makes for an entertaining running joke throughout the film before a funny payoff at the end. Egerton is definitely going to be in more things after this. The film benefits greatly from Vaughn prior experience making Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. There is a kinetic energy to the filming of the action sequences that really works. The pace of the fights is well-done too, as it doesn’t take the zoomed-in-shaky-cam approach of the Bourne movies but pulls back enough to let us see the action without losing perspective on who is doing what. While all of the action scenes work well and are entertaining, there is one sequence in particular in a church that is just bravura action filmmaking. It shares top billing with another scene in the climax of the film that is a slow motion, epic detonation played for laughs that is truly funny and subversive and both of them will be on my mind at the end of the year for best moments in a film for 2015.
The film is not without flaws; despite an important role, Roxy is largely relegated to the B Team for the third act. But Kingsman: The Secret Service is a well-made, enjoyable, stylized action movie that strikes a good balance between its action and its humor. With knowing nods to old spy movies of the past, Kingsman is a kinetic update of those action spy movies, and proof that not all spy movies have to be somber thrillers of espionage. Saving the world can be a whole hell of a lot of fun.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.