Matthew Vaughn returns to familiar territory with Kingsman. With violence and a sexual reference guaranteed to earn an R-rating, but a story clearly aimed a teens, one wonders if the whole project was worth the effort.
Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service tells the story of a working-class kid (Taron Egerton) from London public housing taken up into the world of an elite, well-appointed spy ring based on Sevile Row. It is based on comic book writer Mark Millar’s 2012 comic book series, The Secret Service. This is not Vaughn’s first adaptation of a Millar comic. Vaughn was also the director behind 2010’s Kick Ass, another tale of a teen caught up in adventures over his head. Both films share the honor of earning R-Ratings for violence, even though they are clearly aimed at teen audiences. But while the 2010 outing was successful, and in fact is one of my favorite “super hero” films of the past 10 years, I thought that Kingsman struggled to find its groove as a spy film. There are amazing fight sequences galore in Kingsman, plenty of swearing, and a sexual reference clearly designed to earn that R-Rating, but none of that pushed me to believe that adults who are supposed to make up the bulk of receipts at that rating level were being catered to enough in the film.
Kingsman sets out to tell two related stories. The primary story is about a group of young recruits in an elimination tournament for an open seat in the elite spy organization. The second is about the efforts of that organization to thwart the plan of a mad billionaire to destroy modern civilization. Basically, it is the original Men in Black without the alien menace. I think it is the former story line that I found a bit flat, and because the competition takes up the majority of the film, I found the whole movie dragged for an action film.
When story opens Eggsy (Egerton) is a down on his luck drop-out from the Royal Marines who has found himself in a spot of trouble with the police and his mother’s criminal and abusive boyfriend. When he was a small child, he was given a special medal in honor of his fallen father and instructed to call a number engraved in the back it if he ever needed anything. He calls the number and is reintroduced to Harry Hart (aka “Gallahad” played by Colin Firth), the man who bestowed the medal. Harry is quintessential English gentleman spy, well dressed, suave, polite, and hiding amazing gadgets. He easily dispatches the surly goons sent to get even with Eggsy.
Harry is also in need of a protege for the competition to replace one of the fallen members of the Kingsmen. The group usually recruits from Oxbridge. Since Eggsy’s father was the first Kingsman from the working classes and was Harry’s protege and lifesaver years ago, Harry nominates Eggsy, much to the chagrin of head Kingsman, Arthur (Michael Caine). The proteges are assembled and the tests of character begin.
While the young people take their exams, Harry sets off to investigate the murder of his comrade, who was sliced in two while trying to rescue a kidnapped professor (Mark Hamill). All facts start pointing to a Silicon Valley genius named Valentine (Samuel Jackson), a kind of cross between Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Klaus Schwab. With his henchwoman, Gazelle, (a razor prosthetic leg-clad Sofia Boutella), Jackson is up to something nefarious involving free internet and cellular data, global warming, world leaders and Iggy Azalea. The presence of Samuel Jackson, Michael Caine and Colin Firth on screen makes the “Evil Madman out to Destroy the World” plot fun from time to time. Jackson seems especially keen on his role. Unfortunately, the movie keeps moving back to the Kingsmen’s secret mansion headquarters, where a bunch of good-looking, but otherwise indistinguishable actors are going through the motions of losing a tournament to the underdog hero.
We’ll call the issue Kingsman suffers from the Ender’s Hunger Game Problem, which afflicts the first films in series about secret organizations and how they go about selecting and training their members. Either we care about the recruits who lose out in the competition, in which case we remain enthralled with the process, or we just wait while the hero inevitably is found to be the right fit and wish the interruption was over soon so we could get back to the main story. Training sequences for elite organizations are good places to explain what those organizations are for, how they are structured, and give some historic background, sure, but otherwise, no matter how arduous the test, and whatever character virtues we can ascribe to the heroes who pass them, we are in fact watching a bureaucratic examination. Unless we care about who loses, the shorter the tournament, the better. In Kingsman, the elimination tournament is too long. and except for a few snobs in the recruit pool, we don’t really care how people are eliminated, since it is obvious who will make it from the moment the tournament begins.
The outcome is obvious, of course, unless one hasn’t watched elimination tournament films before, in which case, Kingsman might be new. But the audience for whom it would be new probably includes younger viewers who haven’t seen many action films, who cannot go to see the film because of its intentional R-Rating. Normally, I’d look to the sometimes arbitrary decisions of the MPAA and wonder what they were thinking with the rating, but in this case it is obvious why. Cutting out a few hundred uses of the work “fuck” and a completely gratuitous anal sex reference would have meant PG-13. While the reward for successful spy missions for generations of movie spies has included sex, in this case, toning it down a notch would go a long way to improving my rating.
As a PG-13 movie, Colin Firth and Samuel Jackson hamming it up playing spy games would earn a three, maybe even four star rating. But the “R” rating means I need to consider that the movie was intended for adults. At that level, I would expect the production team to push the envelope a little more with the violence or sex, cynicism or complicated thrills in the story-line. But Kingsman never pushes anything but just enough buttons to raise it’s rating to R, daring kids to watch forbidden fare. It hardly seems worth the effort.