Saturday, 7 February 2015

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

‘Mark Millar’ and ‘movie adaptation’ have a very odd relationship with each other: While the films adapted from his work are mostly good, they take a lot of liberties with the source material. Kick-Ass, through its re-writing of Big Daddy's character, completely shifted the tone of the film and made it a lot less bleak which actually worked to the film’s benefit; Wanted, save for the main character’s abilities and backstory, has pretty much nothing else to do with the original book, a definite shame given its initial premise. Since Millar and director Matthew Vaughn struck gold before with Kick-Ass, it would make sense that he would also bring his book The Secret Service to the big screen. It doesn’t hurt that Vaughn was co-plotter on the original book as well. This is Kingsman: The Secret Service.

The plot: Out of respect for an agent that saved his life, Galahad (Colin Firth) enlists the agent’s son Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as a recruit in the super-spy organization Kingsman. As Eggsy goes through his training under the watchful eye of Merlin (Mark Strong), billionaire tech-whiz Mr. Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) sets a sinister plan in motion that he believes will save the world.

This is another case like Kick-Ass where Vaughn and Jane Goldman managed to isolate the best parts of the original comic, improve upon them and, in turn, surpass its source material. An interesting notion considering that, aside from having a couple of really good concepts, it is definitely one of Millar’s less engaging works. The writers took an idea at the core of the original, the idea of the James Bond brand of super spy and his place in the real world, and managed to inject some superb subtext into it that shows a lot of respect for its forebears. This film is a big sloppy kiss to the cheek of the genre, taking great jubilation out of sending up the more prevalent clichés of the genre. What makes this work even better is that it avoids the pitfall that a lot of other spoof-ish films fall into: Succumbing to the very clichés it’s making fun of. When this film makes fun of the trope of the villain explaining his plan to the hero as a means to gloat over his own ‘genius’, it follows through with it along with everything else it pokes fun at and practices the doctrine that it preaches. Beyond flexing its genre-savvy muscles, the writing also has no qualms with poking the hornet’s nest of modern-day politics, citing the usual cry of politicians only ever caring about re-election, as well as a not-so-subtle jab at the more hate-mongering religious groups out there through a fairly obvious Westboro Baptist proxy. I don’t know why, but those jokes still haven’t gotten old yet.

The cast here all do a fantastic job playing these very animated characters. Colin Firth oozes class from every pore with his portrayal of Galahad, spouting off his cheesy and serious line with equal Connery-brand confidence that sells them; I doubt anyone else could make a McDonald’s-based one-liner sound as good as he does here. Taron Egarton, despite Firth getting top billing for name recognition I'm assuming, has the kind of presence and charisma of a star in the making, playing Eggsy’s chav and posh sides with equal ease. Mark Strong is very engaging as the tough but well-meaning Merlin, keeping up the rest of the cast in terms of wit and badassery and on occasion surpassing them. Michael Caine, who could probably have played this role in his sleep and still made it work, does well in his authoritative role as Kingsman's leader Arthur. Hanna Alström, despite her relatively smaller role in this film, plays a large part in one of the funniest exchanges in the whole movie and why it worked as well as it did. Sofia Boutella, playing the villain's right-hand henchwoman Gazelle, pulls off the physicality of her role with ease and puts her previous experience as a dancer to surprisingly good effect in the fight scenes. Sophie Cookson, playing what could have easily devolved into a stock romantic interest with Roxy, holds her own amongst the others with spunk to spare. To round it off, Sam Jackson as Valentine lives up to one of the film’s quips about how the old Bond flicks were only ever as good as their villain with a certain nuance missing from a lot of antagonists in films of late, not to mention managing to make a very pronounced lisp not sound forced and work as part of the character.

Despite my discussion of the effort put into the writing and paying its respects to the spy films of old, this is still another example of Vaughn’s bombastic style: The main purpose of this is to let Rule Of Cool reign supreme. The film opens on a terrorist base being blown up to the opening riff from Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing with some pretty cheap CGI rubble forming the opening credits. It is here that the grinning started and it didn’t leave my face for the entirety of this film. From the bombastic fight scenes to the sly wit of the dialogue, this shows a pretty hefty triumph of style over substance. Not to say that this has no substance to it at all, as I dare say that the more dramatic moments are handled well by our cast; just that you can tell where the emphasis has been placed. The action scenes show the kind of over-the-top ultraviolence that Tarantino has wet dreams over, when he’s not indulging in his foot fetish porn that is, with a lot of flashy and pretty grisly brawling that makes great use of more athletic movements to create fights that are real spectacles to behold. The camera work and editing may be a bit too hectic for some viewers, but thankfully this film knows where and when to place its fight scenes and doesn’t blow its load too early at any point. When this film gets into its stride on the action, like in the church brawl or the massive fire fight at Valentine’s base, it’s an orgy of carnage candy. True, due to the nature of the story and the villain’s plan, some of the fight scenes have a pretty grim undertone to them, but it’s that overblown that it is easy to overlook if it becomes too uncomfortable. I mean, it’s rare that I can get this excited over a fireworks display, but when it happens like it does in this movie it’s hard to argue with.

All in all, this is an insanely fun watch. The characters are great, the acting stays on point, the fight scenes are outstanding and the writing wears a lot of its influences on its sleeve while doing its damnedest to make them proud as well as make them laugh no matter where they lie. Given how some of my favourite films of all time are very much style over substance, I loved seeing a film accomplish it with as much panache as it does here. Purely on its entertainment value, and how well it succeeded in its stylistic endeavors, this film managed to surpass Birdman on my list. I cannot recommend this movie enough for appreciators of great action mixed with a roguish sense of humour.

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