Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, adapted from Mark Millar’s graphic novel, is a movie of fascinating contradictions. It’s got the heart of a Harry Potter movie mixed with the violence and language of a Tarantino movie. Its all-over-the-place angrily radical politics will have both Occupiers and Tea Partiers cheering if they’re not grossly offended. It’s a loving recreation of Roger Moore-era James Bond silliness and a satirical deconstruction of same. Yet Bond is only the starting point in an attempt at a broader commentary on action cinema in general, how it works, why we respond to it, and what’s both wonderful and troubling about it. If not as perfectly constructed a genre deconstruction as Cabin in the Woods was to horror or The Lego Movie was to Joseph Campbell myth-making (and a rewatch and/or a detailed Film Crit Hulk essay might convince me otherwise), it’s surprisingly thought-provoking for a movie that simultaneously works as mindless entertainment.
Vaughn’s first Millar adaptation, Kick-Ass, still gets frequently misunderstood as a failed attempt at doing a “gritty realistic” superhero movie, while the arc of the film is a critique and rejection of the “realistic” superhero in favor of absurdity. The preference for stylized fantasies over realistic ones is made explicit in Kingsman, both in its aesthetics (deliberately fake-looking CG explosion rubble warps into the opening credits) and its dialogue (Colin Firth’s Harry Hart complains about spy movies becoming too serious). But stylization alone doesn’t free such fantasies from all their troubling elements, which the movie does its best to wrangle with.
The first act’s very Harry Potter (boy with a heroic dead father and an abusive living situation gets rescued by a man with weaponized umbrella and brought to a competitive academy), in a good, solidly entertaining way. It establishes the general attitude towards the secret service: admiring of their classiness while critical of their classism, respecting dedication to the organization while flinching at the organization’s occasional cruelty. Where the movie becomes astonishing is in its action centerpiece (mild spoilers here, but nothing dealing with any of the big surprises). Colin Firth slaughters the Westboro Baptist Church! In a Birdman-style long take! Set to “Free Bird”! It’s coolest thing ever! … And then we stand in the aftermath of the scene and it sinks in that we just watched a bunch of people being horrifically slaughtered. Despicable people, but people nevertheless. And while the scene sets up a reasonable motivation for Firth to fight and kill them, it turns out he wasn’t planning on a massacre. The big plot of supervillain Richmond Valentine (one of Samuel L. Jackson’s more memorable parts, played as a bizarre combo of Mark Zuckerberg and Mike Tyson) involves an app that, with the right sound, causes people to partake in and enjoy violence.
This movie, James Bond movies, action movies, well, they don’t make us partake in anything, but we enjoy the violence in these things. So in a way, movie is like the evil plot.
Or not. One of the many funny details of Valentine’s character is how, despite his genocidal intentions, he can’t stand the sight of blood. I’m not saying watching violent movies prevents you from being genocidal, but there’s an evil that comes with being detached and unengaged, seeing the world as statistics to be dealt with while averting one’s eyes. Kingsman can be enjoyed for its surface pleasures, but this is a story that is best watched engaged, aware of your feelings and the strange, contradictory, even ugly ways they can work.
I’m not sure what the film’s climax is saying. It’s still satirically engaging with Bond/action movie tropes, ultra-violence and bizarre sexual attitudes pumped up to outrageous extremes, but by this point it seems to be enjoying these absurdities more than the deconstruction found in the church scene. One thing’s certain: I expect I’ll be seeing this again, and thinking about it some more.