Thursday, February 26, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service—Making Violence and Stupidity Look Cool

Colin Firth tutors Taron Egerton in "Kingsman: The Secret Service"

The centerpiece of Kingsman: The Secret Service, a happily idiotic action comedy from Matthew Vaughn, takes place in a Kentucky church. As a bigoted preacher spouts fiery rhetoric to his eagerly racist flock—including an undercover spy played by Colin Firth—an invisible toxin is released, infecting everyone in the pews with a bloodthirsty savagery. For the next five minutes, the church turns into a carnival of death, with the parishioners murdering one another with any and all weapons available (guns, knives, grenades, organ pipes), until only Firth's impeccably dressed secret agent is left standing. It's a sequence that sounds nightmarish, but it plays almost like a musical number, with limber choreography and a rollicking tempo. All that's missing is the "applause" button.

Welcome to the world of comic-book writer Mark Millar, an execrable place of severed limbs, exploding heads, and casual misogyny. It's the kind of cinematic universe where the hero saves the world, then rewards himself by having anal sex with a Scandinavian princess. Cool, right? OK, maybe not. Yet as loathsome as Millar's worldview may be, adaptations of his work can at least carry a certain charge, even if it's not the provocative kind that Millar would wish. That's especially true when the man doing the adapting is Vaughn, a nimble and fast-moving filmmaker whose fleetness allows him to faithfully recreate Millar's orgies of revulsion without lingering over their repellent implications. Take that scene in the church. From any sane perspective, it is thoroughly grotesque. But Vaughn stages the horrific spectacle with such alacrity and flair that, as the camera swoops and soars and the blood spurts everywhere, you may find yourself tapping your foot to the rhythmic slashing of arms and the symphonic spray of bullets.

Firth stars as Harry Hart, aka Galahad, a member of the eponymous kingsmen—their codenames all double as Arthurian knights—whom we first meet casually kneecapping a suspected terrorist. (In Millar's vision of justice, counting to 10 before blowing someone's head off constitutes due process.) Tasked with replacing a fallen comrade, Harry sets his eyes on the man's son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton, holding his own alongside British acting royalty), a hotheaded teen with a destructive streak and a healthy distrust of authority. Harry wins him over, however, first by springing him from jail, then by confronting a bar full of thugs and, after imperiously intoning "Manners maketh man", pulverizing them all with an arched eyebrow and a souped-up umbrella. At that point, the boisterous lad all-too-eagerly accompanies the debonair gent to a remote mansion, where he and a handful of other bratty teenagers compete to become the next knight of the agency's round table.

Kingsman paints itself as an ultraviolent James Bond parody, but the movie it most resembles in its early going is Men in Black. As with Will Smith's brash cop in that film, Eggsy enters a heretofore secret society, one complete with its own wardrobe, language, social codes, and high-tech gadgetry. There, he receives instruction from Merlin (Mark Strong, enjoyable even on autopilot), befriends fellow recruit Roxy (Sophie Cookson), and makes enemies with the smug Charlie (Edward Holcroft). The setup is hardly novel, but the particular challenges are interesting, whether it's attempting to escape from an underwater chamber or contriving how to survive a skydive without a parachute. For a time, Kingsman coasts amiably on its cavalier absurdity, mingling the platoon-bonding dynamic from An Officer and a Gentleman with its own chic sense of cool.

Eventually, though, the James Bond elements come to the fore. They're emblematized by Richmond Valentine, a climate change alarmist-cum-megalomaniac who has decided the safest way to ensure humanity's survival is to massacre 99% of it. Valentine is played, in a stroke of either genius or madness, by Samuel L. Jackson, donning a New York Yankees cap and adopting a lisp that is sure to induce murmurs of disapproval among more sensitive viewers. But Jackson has far too much fun with the role for his portrayal to warrant legitimate analysis, and Valentine is a sufficiently colorful baddie—in a nice touch, he abhors actual violence and despises the sight of blood—that he provides the movie with some unpredictable juice. He also, naturally, comes with an indestructible henchman, though it's actually a comely henchwoman (Sofia Boutella) who sports curved blades in place of feet. (Please hold your Oscar Pistorius jokes.) It's all very silly, but the ridiculousness occasionally generates its own sense of charm.

It's somewhat disappointing, then, that Kingsman transforms into a meta movie, constantly winking at viewers with supposedly sly referential humor. These moments are more often tiresome than clever, as they merely remind you of other, better movies you'd rather be watching. All the same, it can be satisfying to watch high-caliber actors elevate mundane material. At one point, Valentine and Harry circle each other verbally, chatting in delightful doublespeak about the heroes and villains of old thrillers. When Valentine asks Harry if he likes spy movies, Harry replies that he prefers the classics, as the modern ones are "a little serious".

Touché. And for all its faults—its retributive zeal, its insipid comedy, its general stupidity—Kingsman never feels dour, instead keeping its tongue firmly planted in cheek. As he did with Kick-Ass, his prior adaptation of a Millar comic, Vaughn demonstrates a refreshingly light touch to go with his sharp eye. (Remove Vaughn from the equation, and you get the dreadful Kick-Ass 2, which replaced with original's wide-eyed curiosity and bizarre playfulness with relentless bloodletting and deep-seated ugliness.) There are a couple of too-obvious reveals (including the old switcheroo!), and the finale succumbs to the usual mundane shootouts in which countless faceless minions are gunned down by an intrepid hero. But there is also a memorably outlandish sequence in which Eggsy and his gang activate a failsafe (don't ask), resulting in a merry montage of heads exploding across the globe, all scored to "Pomp and Circumstance".

Millar doubtless intended for that moment to be thought-provoking. It's not. But it is eye-catching, and it's over in a blink. That's why the best thing about Kingsman, apart from its indecently talented cast (Michael Caine even shows up as the agency's wizened leader), is its brisk pace. Vaughn keeps things moving so quickly that you can't focus on the inherent flimsiness of the source material, so instead you indulge in the outrageousness of what's on screen. It's the work of a director who clearly believes that, while manners may maketh man, momentum maketh movies.

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