Imagine the surprise you might get if 007 sauntered into a Monte Carlo bar, leant deftly on the counter, gave that smoky glare to some bodyconned broad, and then, in a broad Wigan accent exclaimed: “‘Ere, love, get us a WKD and some hog rind will yis?” This shock is pretty much what you get with Matthew Vaughn’s tribute to the spy game, Kingsman: The Secret Service, which borrows heavily from Bond and many other things to leave the Martini well and truly shaken.
But what did you expect from the man who gave us a tweenage C-Bomber and an Irish Magneto? Here Vaughn has dropped the seriousness and reality of Bourne and recent Bond, instead opting for an endlessly intriguing, sometimes offensively subversive genre-flick which might already be in the running for the most entertaining film of the year.
We follow the Kingsmen, a super secret intelligence agency which is so under the radar that they haven’t heard of employment equality regulations. Yes, the Kingsmen are certainly a throwback; an army of white, horn-rimmed, Savile Row-suited men from a time when going to Oxbridge was a realistic first step to becoming a spy, instead of the inevitable gap between school and consultancy. They are, indeed, so out of touch that they take their code-names from Arthurian legend.
Looking forward into a future where ‘bespoke’ is more likely to refer to a London burger than to a tailored suit is Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a sophisticated Kingsman who handily comes with some plot-driving baggage. After he is unable to save the life of a fellow agent, Harry takes on the challenge of mentoring his old partner’s tearaway son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton, all innits and bruvs). While this will help heal emotional wounds, the recruitment of rudeboy Eggsy is a big faaaaack off to the establishment.
In Egerton, Vaughn has found a fantastic and unlikely leading man. His performance in no way mirrors the 2D, aggressive street kids found in the early work of Noel Clarke; instead he has true warmth and charisma to carry this film. Even when he only seems to be saving the world for a bit of bum fun with a Swedish princess (yes, really), it’s hard not to root for the kid.
Of course, all this has been done before in the guise of Men In Black or The Mask of Zorro. Much of the film is taken up with Eggsy’s test to be accepted into the Kingsmen, where he must duke it out with the Rufuses and Digbys of the world. While this segment is hugely entertaining, including underwater puzzles, parachute jumps and a particularly adorable pug, it is a complete re-hash of Will Smith and his chipped shoulder, which we saw almost twenty years ago.
That said, Kingsman appears to delight in riffing on and subverting what has come before. In one particularly knowing scene, Harry has a discussion with techno-genius and villain Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson) about how they prefer the silliness of the old Bond films. Elsewhere, there are jokes about monologuing and pointlessly extravagant deaths, and even two new takes on Rosa Klebb’s dagger shoe. The first is a more lethal but recognisable blade; the second manifests itself in Gazelle, the most dangerous thing on no-legs since Oscar Pistorius. (I am also convinced that there is a VERY niche reference to You Only Live Twice, in a moment where Valentine mishears the word ‘locks’ for ‘lox’, the American name for smoked salmon. Bond geeks will know this as a clue which momentarily flummoxed Sean Connery in one of the more racist Bond entries.)
The film doesn’t really undo its bow tie until the bonkers final act, and while Vaughn is in danger of throwing too much stuff at the wall as we approach the climax, the final hour or so is nothing if not stupidly exciting. From an exhilarating mêlée in a Bible Belt church to the head-exploding final scenes, some audiences will find the video-game violence too much. As Vaughn plays around with his own version of New Year’s Eve fireworks (taking something from V For Vendetta) these prudish types may be squirming in their seats, longing to nestle in the comfort and security of Connery’s chest hair.
There is plenty to admire here, and it is refreshing to see a mainstream film which is comfortable to do its own thing and make its own rules. It is difficult to maintain this fizziness for the duration of the film, and indeed, not all of it works. Jackson’s villain has some nice touches (his aversion to blood is used to great comic effect) but his plan is just plain odd. The film never keeps still long enough for you to scrutinise his motives and decisions, but he certainly does not come across as threatening. In fact, the most dangerous thing about him is his insistence on wearing a cap indoors, something which would no doubt disgust the sartorially intricate Kingsmen.
In many ways, Kingsman is an exercise in style over substance, expertly polished like the Oxfords of Harry Hart. But honestly, when the suit’s from Savile Row, one really could not care less.