For decades, spy movies have dwelt under the shadow of a particular franchise featuring a certain womanizing agent, high-tech gadgetry, megalomaniacal villains bent on world domination, thrilling set-piece adventures and fight scenes, and a kind of tongue-in-cheek British triumphalism that hearkened to the Empire’s better years, powered by a thoroughly modern sense of wish fulfillment. And those movies were fun enough, though very much hidebound to their own formula. Eventually, as it transformed into a cliché of itself, the rest of the world began to pick up on the fact that maybe it’s time to offer a different worldview of this kind of adventure, or perhaps time to deconstruct it entirely. And that is where Kingsman: The Secret Service comes in.
The story involves Eggsy, a bright young English chav who doesn’t realize that his dead father was actually the member of Kingsman, an elite spy organization that goes around saving the world in secret. Founded by rich aristocrats who’d lost their heirs in WWI, the Kingsmen wrap themselves up in bespoke suits and manners, but they are a no-nonsense weapon of mass destruction just looking for a fight. Agent Galahad sees something in Eggsy and takes him under his wing as a protégé, guiding him through the brutal Kingsman training regimen. But an evil industrialist looking to kill the entire planet through a mind control device distributed through cell phones is on the loose; ready or not, Eggsy, Galahad and the rest of the Kingsmen must go into battle once more. Only this time, it’s against an enemy who is more than a few steps ahead of them, who is playing for the kind of stakes the Kingsmen never believed possible, and who has already bent so many power-players around the world to its will that our heroes can’t really be sure of who to trust…including themselves. It all comes down to an extravagant superspy finale with abundant action scenes, more head explosions than can be easily counted, and the bawdiest reward ever offered to an action hero.
Kingsman may look smooth and polished, but in many ways, it’s a deliberate middle finger to the exterior gentility of an older kind of spy movie, embracing the sort of sexual frankness and ultraviolence an audience raised on the internet is ready for. It is the kind of movie that manages to holds its audience rapt as it runs through a bizarre pastiche of themes and influences, knowing that the more irreverent and over-the-top this thing becomes, the more likely people are to stop questioning it and just enjoy the ride. This is a movie that seems especially pleased at the style it’s cultivated, but more pleased with the notion that cinematically, it feels like it’s getting away with murder.
This is a movie that for a lot of people will offer a kind of vulgar, bloody fun that looks damned good while it does its business. But somewhere under the surface there is a kind of sneering disdain at all of the things it’s deconstructing. Writer Mark Millar—who wrote the comic book on which Kingsman is based—loves crafting stories that subvert the expectations of a given genre with a kind of revolutionary zeal, as if he almost hates himself for ever having loved the genre he wants to take a crowbar to. It’s a kind of aggressive outlook that doesn’t always work, to be honest, even if his willingness to tear down old orders is almost always well-timed. Most of the things Millar seeks to topple have been living beyond their natural expiration date for 20 years or more. But the same madcap desire to lay waste at a to something familiar and comfortable also has a way of repelling viewers who might not feel the need to justify why they ever liked what Millar seem hellbent on shattering. That’s asking a lot of an audience. But Kingsman channels that energy faithfully and with fine acting, direction and cinematography seem to make it work anyway. If ever there is a movie one can forgive simultaneously talking both up and down at its audience, it’s this one.
This is a movie that begs the question: what saving the world didn’t have to be so bloody serious all the time? And what if all of the tired formulae that drive not just British spy movies in particular, but action movies in general, could be put on notice? It’s an interesting thought, as this movie goes out of its way to provide the kinds of setups, twists, turns and payoffs that would confound somebody expecting a more conventional action story. And nowhere do we see it more—amid this movie’s many chases, fights, and scenes of beautiful people standing around being cool as hell—than in Kingsmen’s moment of truth, a spectacular and ultraviolent slaughter scene that ends the second act of this three-act play.
Trapped in the kind of scene where Kingsman is making fun of things in the real world as much as he’s creating an imaginary playground for his characters, Agent Galahad embarks on the kind of killing spree that no hero of the crown has ever committed on screen before or since. It’s all to the tune of “Free Bird,” and it’s the kind of sequence that leaves you feeling exhilarated, exhausted and violated all the same time. That’s kind of what this whole movie is going for. We might expect the scene to end a certain way, but when we’re informed through the fourth wall that this isn’t that kind of movie, it’s almost a letdown. Anybody who was paying attention so far, anybody who saw even three seconds of that Free Bird scene, already knows that. Kingsmen makes it clear from the first frame that this isn’t your dad’s spy thriller. If anything, it’s here to beat your dad’s spy thriller up without even getting any blood on its Saville Row suit. And boy, does it ever.