2014 – The world’s most clandestine club of gentleman spies is looking for recruits as it faces a new threat that could destroy human society.
Now this is how you make a Bond movie. We’ve got it all here – a dashing, handsome hero (or two), slick costumes, amazing set design, gadgets, puns, a strong villain, grotesque henchmen, a tongue-in-cheek attitude, and a spectacular final battle where the protagonists race to stop a ticking timebomb (while pausing for some romance along the way).
Kingsman: The Secret Service isn’t about James Bond, but I seriously doubt we’re ever going to see a real Bond film again, so I’ll have to take what I can get. It follows the exploits of Harry Hart, code name Galahad (Colin Firth), an elite spy who sponsors the unlikely Eggsy (Taron Egerton) to replace a recently-fall comrade. The Kingsmen need all the help they can get to stop a threat from lisping lunatic Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a global warming alarmist with the ultimate solution to the human population problem.
The movie easily and cleverly balances its two plots – can the rough-edged, lower-class Eggsy fit into the world of cognac and umbrella duels that the Kingsmen represent? And can old-school spies stop Valentine’s ultra-modern program for genocide? Director Matthew Vaughn, of Kick-Ass fame, keeps things moving at a crisp pace, never battering us over the head with the “poor kid vs. rich kids” cliches or tiresome “hero in training” sequences that I was fearing.
The two-hour run time is an amazing celebration of what makes escapist fantasy great. It didn’t have its characters mumble and stare broodingly into the dark to make them “more real” – it built them up with clever dialog and revealing action. It didn’t waste our time with any “spying is a harsh game and human life is cheap” tripe – it toasted fallen Kingsmen with Napoleonic brandy and got back to the action. Firth and Egerton play their heroes with a grin and an elevated eyebrow that would make Roger Moore green with envy. The supporting cast includes Michael Caine and Mark Hamill, but Caine doesn’t talk like Alfred and Hamill doesn’t do his Joker voice, so… meh.
One thing I absolutely dreaded was seeing chronic loud-talker Samuel L. Jackson as the bad guy, but he ended up being a highlight. As Galahad himself observes, the strength of a good spy movie always depends on its villain. Valentine isn’t some weepy stooge with a maudlin back-story, he’s an absolute nut committed to (and reveling in) his villainy. His henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is a double amputee whose feet have been replaced by razor-sharp blades – kinda like an even more murderous Oscar Pistorius. Since it’s always been a dream of mine to make love to a woman missing either an eye or a limb, she gets an A+ in my book.
There’s also a sub-plot involving the world’s elite basically deciding that Valentine is right and global warming is bad, so killing everyone else is okay. One of them, seen only from behind, is clearly an Obama stand-in. I think it’s the first time he’s gotten “the Bush treatment” (a.k.a. when a movie shows a president and doesn’t say who it is but ha-ha it’s really him and he’s an asshole). I salute the filmmakers for that.
SKIP AHEAD IF YOU ARE NOT INTERESTED IN A LENGTHY RANT ABOUT THE DECLINE OF THE JAMES BOND FRANCHISE
With all due apologies to Skyfall, I felt that Kingsman was the best Bond film in well over a decade. If they’re going to turn Bond into a Jason Bourne knock-off who, as a friend once put it, “just gets pissed off at people and doesn’t spy on anyone,” then I’d be more than happy to accept Eggsy’s (hopefully) continuing exploits as the fun, slick action series of the new millennium.
See, here’s the thing: I don’t want Bond to be some hulking, squinty brute. I want him to be lean and debonair. I want him to play golf with the villain (or eat McDonald’s with him, as in Kingsman) and engage in a little witty banter, not just glare righteously and stab him in the back. I don’t want or need my villain to be sympathetic, either. I want him be delighted with his scheme and annoyed at Bond’s mosquito-like persistence in disrupting it. Someone once observed that the ideal Bond/villain relationship is like a rebellious student and a strict master. Note that they didn’t say “mush-mouthed bodybuilder and metrosexual douchebag” (I’m looking at you, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace).
When was the last time a Bond bad guy even had a BASE? Or at least a cool set-piece for a final confrontation? Auric Goldfinger had Fort Knox. Karl Stromberg had an underwater laboratory. Hugo Drax had a damn space station. The bad guy from Casino Royale had… what? His hotel room? That’s pathetic. In Kingsman, Valentine has a base in the side of a mountain. Much better.
I’m also not interested in seeing Bond being unshaven or walking around in sweat pants. Bond is well-dressed. That’s his thing. As a character, he cares about how he looks. Don’t show me a stubbly Bond wearing lounge pants and say, “Oh, well, this is his character. He’s just like us.” No, it’s not, and no, he isn’t. In Kingsman, the heroes wear suits and ties, don spectacles, and carry umbrellas. That’s what I’m talking about.
I don’t particularly want to see Bond holding a machine gun, either. Bond is about elegance and sophistication and subtlety. That’s why he has his brains and his gadgets. Remember the scene in The Living Daylights when Bond, armed with his .380 Walther PPK, took on Whitaker, armed with an assault rifle and full body armor? He still won. In the real Bond films, you had the main villain (who was often physically weak but had great intelligence) and a henchman (who was usually dumb but far stronger and better-armed than the hero). When Bond defeats both of them, it proves his supremacy in both physical combat – craft over brute force – and mental dueling – cunning and wit over raw genius. Do the current leaders of the franchise seriously think that having Bond slap around some sniveling little shit in the desert gives him “hero” credentials? In Kingsman, the hero ignores an entire room full of guns and picks up an umbrella instead. I wanted to applaud.
One more thing: don’t condescend to me and say that the newer Bond movies are “more realistic.” No. No, they aren’t. They just have all the joy sucked out of their absurd moments because damn it we are making a SERIOUS movie here. Whew. Okay, I’m finished.
END LENGTHY RANT ABOUT THE DECLINE OF THE JAMES BOND FRANCHISE
So. To sum up: Kingsmen. Go see it, because it’s fun and violent and not too long and an attractive woman shows her butt near the end.