Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bespoke Banality – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Colin Firth and Taron Egerton in Kingsman: The Secret Service.

My issues with graphic novelist Mark Millar, creator of Kick-Ass, Wanted, and The Secret Service, usually also extend to the film adaptations of his work. Millar exhibits a highly questionable sense of morality (embodied in human form by Kick-Ass's Hit Girl, a foul-mouthed pre-teen assassin) and an extremely myopic view of societal class structure (exemplified by the "hero" of Wanted, who discards his desk job to inherit a career as a supervillainous mercenary). His ham-handed "self-awareness" exacerbates these problems, often underlining an amoral subversion of a typical hero character or genre without actually deconstructing or commenting on the thing he attempts to send up. Ordinarily, sticking as closely as possible to the source material would be cause for celebration in a film adaptation – but translating Millar's material, warts and all, to the big screen often results in movies that are slick and entertaining on a surface level, but which fall apart on close examination. Kingsman: The Secret Service – directed by (surprise!) Guy Ritchie protege Matthew Vaughn (of Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past fame) is a perfect example: for all appearances a flashy, energetic film, whose oddly disconcerting tone may leave you feeling confused or upset, without being able to pinpoint exactly why.

The titular "Kingsman" is the name of an independent spy agency staffed by impossibly posh gentlemen code-named after members of Arthurian legend: Arthur (Michael Caine, because of course it's Michael Caine) holds court in their secret lair under a Savile Row tailor shop, Merlin (Mark Strong) trains recruits and manages technology, and Galahad (Colin Firth) must find a replacement for Lancelot, who is killed in the film's opening sequence before completing his training. Galahad's choice is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a South London hard-luck delinquent who is encouraged to pull up his socks and realize his potential to become a true gentleman spy before tech magnate Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson) can exact his plan to cull the world's population in order to stop global warming. (I don't get it either.) And so, Vaughn's adaptation of The Secret Service manages to pack all of Millar's undesirable writing habits into one screenplay, in the guise of a pastiche of 1960s spy television and James Bond films whose jokes never really land and whose wildly inconsistent tone irritates, when it's not outright offensive.

Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service.
I'll explain: firstly, Kingsman is incredibly, brutally violent (certainly more than the trailer would suggest, which makes the film look like a mashup Harry Potter/James Bond family film. I was upset, if not surprised, to see a father bringing his posse of under-14 kids to the screening I attended, whose reaction to the film's final shot of a Swedish princess's bare ass, not to mention the rest of the movie, I can only guess at). A five-minute action sequence which takes place in a church, played for laughs with exhilarating camerawork and upbeat music, produces more innocent corpses than I'd care to count, but they were all hateful Bible-thumpers, so it's okay to enjoy it, right? The excessive carnage of the film is completely at odds with its lighthearted, jokesy tone, which is a staple of Millar's work (and now, it seems, Vaughn's work too). Next is Kingsman's strangely-defined worldview, which depicts lower-class London life as being entirely comprised of alcoholic spousal abusers (and curiously free of black people, which will no doubt strike any Brit as hilariously inaccurate). It's suggested that all Eggsy has to do in order to escape this harsh world – to achieve true gentlemanhood – is to "improve himself" by wearing bespoke suits and upgrading to the upper-class mid-century posh ideal. Millar's limited grasp on sociopolitical issues strikes again!

All of this ignores the problems with the film on its own terms – like the nonexistent score, the shameless product placement for brands like Adidas, Guinness, and Harry Palmer, and the weirdly slack pacing. The movie builds up its elements coherently enough until the third act, which sets the ridiculous dial to 11 and where all suspension of disbelief is abandoned. The romantic subplot between Eggsy and fellow Lancelot candidate Roxy, established through their teamwork and intimacy during training, is dropped entirely. This is not to say that the film is wholly incompetent – far from it, in fact. The action sequences, while excessively and pointlessly violent, are exciting and creative. The lead cast, too, was excellent, particularly Egerton and Strong as the no-nonsense Merlin. Firth, who gets the lion's share of screentime, was pleasant enough despite his inescapable foppishness (a common role for him, which was properly deconstructed in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and which is left here to clash terribly with his character's badass hand-to-hand combat skills). I was thrilled to see Mark Hamill in a small supporting role as an eccentric climatologist, but he disappears quickly from the film. Overall, it's by no means a bad movie – just a terribly misguided one.

Few are likely to be as annoyed by Kingsman as I was. By all accounts it's a slick, funny, lively film, provided you don't think about any of it for any length of time. Had I gone into it without expectations, I might have enjoyed myself more, but the relentlessly good press the film seems to be enjoying had me prepared for a less confounding experience. If you were a fan of Kick-Ass, then Kingsman is probably for you – but if, like me, you were left with a lingering taste of something unaccountably foul, I'd recommend you avoid it, and all adaptations of Millar's work, past and present.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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