Matthew Vaughn movies are really weird and as a result I’ve always found them remarkably hard to judge. Starting out as a producer, primarily collaborating with Guy Ritchie, his first directing gig gave us Layer Cake, an entirely decent cockney gangster movie that was maybe a little too clever for its own good. From there, Vaughn started working almost exclusively with screenwriter Jane Goldman to produce the surprisingly earnest Stardust, the shockingly violent Kick-Ass and the second best X-Men movie to date, First Class. If these movies have anything in common it’s that nothing is ever as simple as it first seems. They all start out pushing in the direction you’d expect before frequently pulling the rug out from beneath the audience. Vaughn’s movies are subversive as hell and it’s precisely why when I walked out of my first screening of Kick-Ass, I kind of hated it. After more repeat viewings than I can count, though, I would probably count it among a list of personal favourites. At this point I’ve been suckered by Vaughn’s movies as much as I’ve been taken by them. As a result I went into Kingsman with an open, flexible mind expecting to be challenged and toyed with. I’m pretty confident in saying this is the correct approach.
When tasked with selecting a new candidate for training by the super secretive spy organisation Kingsman, ace agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) makes a controversial choice in selecting troubled but gifted teen Eggsy (Taron Egerton) all whilst investigating a massive conspiracy that sees the disappearances of key and influential figures across the globe.
Having delved into gangster flicks, fantasy worlds and superhero adventures, Kingsman marks Vaughn’s first attempt to infiltrate the world of spy cinema and the result is outright astounding. Fans of his abrasive style will not be disappointed as he brings in one of the bloodiest, sweariest and outright filthiest spy movies in recent recollection. Let it be said that as intelligent and challenging a filmmaker as he is, Vaughn has a lot of time for the simple pleasures of sex, gore and cursing. What is surprising is how beautifully Kingsman manages to tie such stark and visceral modern extremes to the abundant goofiness of classic spy movies. “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day!” chimes Hart as a bionic hench-woman with razor blade legs sits menacingly behind him, almost aware of the one or two note musical swells that accompany every witty one liner, ala all those old Bond movies. Colourful vistas pop off the screen, heroes and villains sparkle with personality that ensures that they are, if nothing else, memorable and the whole affair feels supremely and chiefly ‘British’ in a manner that only spy movies can encapsulate. And yet when things take a turn for the bloody, the fast paced frenetic action gels shockingly well, countering the charm with a refreshing verve. The only issue I have with the horribly coarse and obscene violence is that I would have liked more of it as some of the most technically proficient and energetic carnage ever captured on film is crammed into the back half of the feature around all of the spy-world building. The genre work is all wonderful but honestly, the excellent action left me clamouring for Vaughn’s version of a movie like The Raid, where he can truly let loose.
Other aspects of Kingsman are all more than sufficient at holding their own. Egerton is a hilarious star in the making as the unabashed young thug Eggsy and Samuel L. Jackson is on top form having the most fun he’s had on screen in years as the speech-impeded villain. The true standout, though, is clearly Colin Firth receiving the Liam Neeson treatment. If he gets half the action roles as a result from Kingsman as Neeson earned with Taken then Firth is certainly in for a deserved career resurgence. A historically amusing and charming fellow, it beggars belief how incredibly badass Firth proves in Kingsman and it’s a side of him I’d love to continue seeing going forward. He gets plenty of chances to prove himself throughout Secret Service and at no point disappoints but I challenge anybody not to rank the ‘Freebird’ sequence on display here as an absolute career high point.
I’ve typically found myself enjoying Vaughn’s movies more and more with repeat viewings and I hope that this rule stands with Kingsman: The Secret Service. It might not have quite the broadly safe audience appeal as a movie like Stardust or X-Men: First Class, but for those who came to love his previous work with comic-book legend Mark Millar, Kingsman has everything their previous collaboration, Kick-Ass, had in spades and a whole lot more too.
Suited, booted, suave and smart, the only thing that Kingsman: The Secret Service does better than subvert spy tropes is live up to them. And violence. It’s really, really good at violence.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is out in cinemas across the UK on Thursday 29th, January.