A smarter spoof than “Austin Powers,” and free of the over-seriousness of the Bond movies, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a much-needed fresh take on spy fiction. It’s a film that pays homage to the genre almost as often as it rips it off, subverts it, and then gives it the finger.
The movie finds writer-director Matthew Vaughn once again adapting a comic book, specifically “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar (“Wanted,” “Kick-Ass”) and artist Dave Gibbons (“Watchmen”). This time around he treads closer to “Kick-Ass” territory than “X-Men: First Class” in terms of style and tone.
The premise is altered from the source material: Your friendly neighborhood MI6 is replaced by the Kingsmen, an independent, very wealthy, and super-secret intelligence service of self-styled gentlemen run by Arthur (Michael Caine). When one of their agents dies in the field, new recruits are gathered for an elimination process with added emphasis on the “elimination” part. Top agent Galahad (Colin Firth) sponsors a troubled teen with a dead-end future, Eggsy (Taron Eggerton), out of guilt and as a long-promised favor: Eggsy’s father had been a recruit who died 17 years ago saving Galahad’s life during his final training mission.
While street-savvy Eggsy is butting heads with a stolid organization and snobbish upper-crust classmates, the prerequisite evil genius is hard at work on villainous master plan. Said genius comes in the form a mega-rich tech developer in the Steve Jobs mold played by Samuel L. Jackson, who skewers his image as the baddest of badasses by hamming it up as a decidedly naifish villain who rocks an amazing lisp and can’t handle the sight of blood. He’s an interesting spin on the Bond villain trope – a subject he and Galahad cleverly critique in a great sequence – and so is his henchwoman, Gazelle (dancer and scene-stealer Sofia Boutella), a double-amputee who puts her flex-foot blade prosthetics to creatively bloody new uses.
Gratuitously violent mayhem ensues, and throughout the blood and thunder Vaughn and company keep tongues firmly in cheek. Much as he did with “Kick-Ass” (which Roger Ebert infamously referred to as the “death of innocence”), Vaughn goes off the deep end with the violence and mordant humor, and makes us feel dirty for enjoying it – but only a little. There’s no denying the wonderful absurdity of watching the guy from “Bridget Jones’ Diary” get in touch with his inner Liam Neeson.
Vaughn also flirts with social-political satire, with a Westboro-esque fundamentalist church exploding into a stunningly choreographed extended free-for-all set to the guitar solo from “Freebird” in one scene, and liberal elites and Randian capitalists alike on the receiving end of a suitably mind-blowing form of poetic justice in another. He gives us a wink and a nudge throughout his unique brand of depraved slapstick, reminding us that it is indeed a twisted joke – and a brilliantly cheeky one at that.