Sunday, February 22, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Alternate Title:  Mr. Darcy Kills Everyone

One sentence synopsis:    A poor kid from a council estate is recruited into an international organization of gentlemen-spies to stop a megalomaniac from destroying the world.

Things Havoc liked:  Pickings tend to be slim this time of year. We all know this. We've been through this dance now four times, and entering a fifth, we have all seen what disasters can lie in wait in Doldrums season. Last week alone we encountered the second movie of the year, a shoe-in for the worst of the year list already in the form of a Mila Kunis snore-fest masquerading as a space opera. I do not, as a rule, see movies that I expect to suck, but with the inflexible requirement of a film a week bearing down upon one, it can be necessary at times like these to take risks one might not otherwise take, see movies that smell bad because of a stupid-looking trailer or a formulaic plot. Sometimes, in the darkest periods of the movie calendar, it becomes necessary to take what few glimmers of hope are on offer, the pedigree of a director with a fine record behind him for instance, one like Matthew Vaughn, of Stardust, Kick Ass, and X-Men: First Class, or perhaps the opportunity to see actors one adores, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, regardless of the evident idiocy of the project they are appearing in. Sometimes, in a time like this, on the heels of a terrible movie and a disappointing Oscar season, one must take a risk that the film one is going to see may well be garbage, but hold onto the hope that it may, at least, have some entertainment value as garbage.

And when one takes this risk, though I do not recommend trusting to it, one should also bear in mind that there is always, no matter how unlikely, the possibility that the film you have selected under such protest may actually turn out to be something amazing.

Kingsman: The Secret Service, is a living argument against cynicism. It is a stunning, explosive, horrifyingly-violent action-comedy madhouse, filmed with wit and charm and the same grotesque lack of restraint that Vaughn has become a byword for, a movie I had absolutely no expectations for, which left me literally gushing in its aftermath. Maybe Doldrums season broke me, and maybe it's just that I haven't seen a movie this unabashedly fun in more than six months (that's twenty-five goddamn movies, bear in mind), but if this is the sort of thing about which I am wrong, I do not care to be right! Kingsman is a revelation and a masterpiece. I adored it. What the hell else do you want?

I love Colin Firth, though he is not someone I think of when it comes time to cast irreverent action comedies, or at least he wasn't prior to this film. Playing Harry Hart, codename Galahad, a middle-aged James Bond analogue in a five-thousand-pound suit with a cut-glass posh accent and impeccable manners, Firth brings all his Kings Speech/British Reserved charm to a role that involves him, at certain points, performing some of the most showy and violent action sequences I have seen since The Raid 2. If this sounds like something you cannot envision, then you are on the same page I was on not long ago, as I presumed, erroneously, that any action scene involving Colin Firth would have to be some sort of Taken-2-style bad-stunt-double-editing work. And maybe it was here too, I don't know, but the illusion at the very least is perfectly compelling. Firth is on fire in this movie, making his turn in last year's wretched Railway Man feel like a distant memory receding blissfully into the past. The insanities he gets up to over the course of this film would not be out of place in any one of Matthew Vaughn's previous works, all without once letting his veneer of old-world charm drop. It's one of those roles that causes you to never look at an actor the same way again.

Not so Samuel L. Jackson, who has made a career out of roles that fit that very description. Here he plays Valentine, a cross between Steve Jobs and Mike Tyson, a billionaire environmental philanthropist who intends to destroy the world as a solution to global warming. Jackson always livens up the screen no matter what he's playing, but here he plays a lisping martinet seeking world domination and mass death in the best tradition of a Bond villain, a comparison made explicitly several times over the course of the movie. Jackson's character is absurd, but it's consistent across the film, which is a rarity in cases like this, as many actors think that their villains have to continually dial up the crazy to absurd levels to make these kinds of things work. Jackson, a veteran of hundreds of movies good and less good, knows better. Another man who knows better is the incomparable Mark Strong, whom I love dearly, and who takes on a role as "Merlin" that is one part Q, one part drill instructor, and another part crusty-old-badass-who-knows-it-all. If the notion of spending several hours in the company of Mark Strong doing these things does not appeal to you, then get the hell out of my reviews, you tasteless snob.

But while Firth and Jackson and Strong are always awesome, movies like this always fall apart because of their leads, the inevitable unknown young actor who has to play the central role in the coming of age stories that these sorts of things always take the form of. And yet for once, that isn't what happened, because this time, Vaughn somehow found newcomers Taron Egerton and Sophie Cookson, who are given the task of playing Eggsy and Roxy, two newly minted recruits for the shadowy secret service, whose task it is to try and prove themselves against their peers and the usual rote steps movies like this take on. And yet both Egerton and Cookson, particularly the former, are spot perfect in the role. Egerton manages to do the near-impossible by playing a likeable chav (think about that), successfully walking the tightrope between a wide-eyed youngster overawed at his present circumstances (which is usually boring), and a smart-mouthed wise-ass who claims to have seen it all (which is always insufferable). Egerton nails everything he's given, both before, during, and after his transformation into a Kingsman, be it action scenes, drama, humor, or simple quiet dialogue. I have literally never seen anyone pull off a role like this, save perhaps for Chris Pine's turn as Kirk in the new Trek movies, and given that that performance anchored the entire film, it's only fitting that this one does the same.

Kingsman, like Kick-Ass, is based on a comic book by legendary asshole Mark Millar, and yet while I have few good things to say about the man, his insistence on working with Matthew Vaughn ever since the debacle that was Wanted is certainly one of them. Vaughn is in his element here, producing a movie that is grotesquely over-the-top without ever losing a sense of fun, an expertly shot and crafted film that relies on the contrast between good old-fashioned ludicrous ultra-violence and British reserved humor to stage its strongest moments. Stuntwork is flashy and inventive, including multiple sequences of all-out crowd-brawls, and battles involving a female assassin (Algerian Hip-hop dancer Sofia Boutella) named Gazelle who fights with a pair of "blade runner"-style prosthetic legs whose name is taken literally. A thunderous soundtrack featuring everything from Lynard Skynyrd to Edward Elgar, and a colorful visual style that richly paints the scenes of bloody slaughter and allows the audience to drink up every last detail polishes everything off alongside a whole series of hilarious stunt castings and cameos (try and ID the scientist in the opening scene. It took me five minutes to be certain I wasn't hallucinating).

Things Havoc disliked:  All of this is necessary, of course, to cover up the fact that the plot of Kingsman is as generic as it comes, a plot that is no doubt engraved somewhere on a plaque in the old-screenwriter's-home in Beverly Hills. A young kid who has fallen in with the wrong crowd and failed to live up to his potential because of challenging life circumstances must finally "make something" of himself, growing up and becoming a man. I have only seen this particular plot done about six hundred times before, in everything from the aforementioned Star Trek to Millar's own Kick Ass and Wanted. So repetetive is this plot, to be honest, that I could predict, beat for beat, what was to happen in largely every single act of the film, who was to die, at whose hand, and what the results of that death were, who would win what competitions, what characters would turn out to be truly heroic deep down, and which ones would fall by the wayside. Vaughn and the scriptwriters use every trick there is to try and disguise the fact that this plot is entirely derivative of roughly a third of all movies ever made, but there is simply nothing for it. We have all seen this story before. Many, many times.

Final thoughts:   But then again, doesn't that fact make Kingsman all the more impressive? After all, if I wanted to go see original works, I would watch nothing but the most obscure, foreign, indie cinema and leave Hollywood and its directors to rot. That would, however, mean I would not get to have seen Kingsman, the finest pure action movie I have seen in a good long while, and one of the biggest surprises I have ever encountered at the cinema. So well-crafted, so vibrant, so much fun is this movie that the presence of what may quite literally be the oldest story on earth does not detract from it a whit. I adored this film, to the point where I was babbling incoherently about it for hours thereafter, and even saw it a second time just so that a friend of mine would get a chance to bear witness to its awesomeness.

I do what I do because I love watching good movies, but a good movie that comes about where I had not thought to find one is perhaps the best surprise of all. So it was with Cloud Atlas, with Suckerpunch, with Real Steel and Cabin in the Woods and Pain & Gain. I understand if one might be inclined to dismiss Kingsman as a cheap ripoff of Bond or any one of a dozen YA books as that's precisely what I did before I went to see it, but the reality is simply, gloriously, else. Kingsman flat out rocks. Go forth and bear witness. If you've any appreciation for the sheer joy of cinema, you will not regret a minute of it.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Time:  Vampires!

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