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Their Upper Lips Are Stiffer than Yours

by Thom Yee

Kingsman images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Kingsman images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Everybody wants to believe they’re something special. That there’s more to them, another level, that they’re just one opportunity away. And you know what? People — all people — are special. But let’s not mistake special for good. People are special, like Kristen Stewart is special, like Toyota Corollas are special. People are special like Fresca is special, but that doesn’t mean they’re useful or desirable. And besides, the world isn’t really looking for special. The world is looking for valuable. The world is looking for relevant. The world isn’t looking for more of your CO2 emissions.

There’s a specificity in the application of who and what is special that’s both heartening and just as often chilling in Kingsman: The Secret Service, even if it’s a specificity that the film never really takes time to consider.

Our lead character is special in a way that puts him well ahead of any normal person who’s not a natural super-spy. He’s top of his classes, he’s an Olympic-level gymnast, and the only reason he didn’t ascend to the best of the British Royal Marine Corps is that he had to take care of family.

Meanwhile, our primary antagonist’s entire plan deals with saving only the special, the upper class, those with money and influence, the type of people we’ll need in a finer world. Or more correctly, the type of people they’ll need in a finer world.

For most of us who go and see Kingsman: The Secret Service, the former story will be more than enough to fulfill all of our movie-going desires, but there’s still that select few, who will find their thoughts lingering more on the latter. It’s for those people, these singular entities, that I might not recommend the movie.

kingsman-shopAfter a night of drinks, car thievery and joyriding, young Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, an unemployed dropout with no future to speak of, calls in the one favour he’s ever had in his life: the secret number on the back of his deceased father’s medal of bravery and the cryptic phrase, “Oxfords not brogues.” Immediately freed by the mysterious Harry Hart (Colin Firth), Eggsy learns of his father’s forays and his own potential future as a Kingsman, one of twelve internationally sanctioned secret agents operating with absolute discretion on the most dangerous stages of modern human history. Training in survival, detection, gunplay and seduction, and ascending to the highest levels of the organization, Eggsy nevertheless finds himself unsure who to trust, when the maniacal Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) reveals his plans for world domination.

Based on Mark Millar’s The Secret Service, Kingsman is the third franchise comicbook to be adapted for the screen from his Millarworld series of books, following Wanted and Kick-Ass. Millar’s a clever writer to be sure, but his work generally lacks the polish of his fellow British, comicbook-writing contemporaries like Grant Morrison or Garth Ennis, and even though I’d recommend most of his titles for their far-out concepts, I also have to admit his dialogue is ridiculously verbose and unnatural, and many of his ideas are carried out in a deeply inelegant manner, with the central concepts of his books often feeling extremely forced. Still, in an exciting (but fairly shallow) way, his books are like the perfect gateway to comics, and the bulk of his most well-known pieces have proven extremely movie-friendly, including the Civil War mini-series he wrote for Marvel in 2005, which pitted Iron Man and Captain America and looks likely to be the inspiration for what will kick off Marvel’s phase III stories in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.

As for The Secret Service itself… I would honestly call it the least of his independent comicbook works, and the only one so far that manages to be much better on screen than on the original comic page. Where Wanted departed sharply from the source material (and was a disappointment to all involved) and Kick-Ass was almost the same story in both forms, so much of Kingsman’s strengths and so much of what makes it feel like the full-fledged, self-aware movie it is comes from a vastly different place than the comic, which tells a smaller and far-less endearing story. It’s too bad, though, that the movie passed up easily the best moment from the comicbook, a spoof of The Spy Who Loved Me’s famous parachute ski jump that, rather than concluding with a successful escape…kingsman-bond-parachute

… instead ends like this:


(a scene which also probably explains how Mark Hamill got involved in the production).

What makes Kingsman work at all, to be honest, lies almost entirely in the finest lines of its execution, where the action is mostly over-the-top but still conceivable, where its characters, for the most part, feel real even in an unreal setting, and where every moment almost seems calculated to deliver just the right mix of bombast, intrigue, and self-aware humor. You can feel almost every joke land just so, just ahead of falling completely flat, and in a way that suggests absolute precision on the part of the screenwriters. Kingsman is a spy movie in the same basic spirit as the Austin Powers series, only with brutal, balls-out action, and without all the groan-worthy moments. And it’s actually funny.

“Manners.. Maketh… Man…” and then he kicked everybody’s ass for pissing him off.

To anyone who’s paying even mild attention to where these movies are coming from, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see Matthew Vaughn’s name in the director’s slot. A former collaborator of Millar’s on the first Kick-Ass, Vaughn also directed 2011’s X-Men: First Class, and other than the subject matter and the story specifics, X-Men and Kingsman are very similar movies, sharing the same sort of themes, the same style of camerawork, and extremely similar scores.

Where X-Men faulters under the weight of over-serving certain characters at the expense of others, however, Kingsman handles almost all of its primary charges with expert aplomb. Though ostensibly the story of Eggsy, Colin Firth in particular steals the show in his role as Harry Hart. Firth plays the role with such conviction that you completely believe in the world of Kingsman no matter how ridiculous the scenario, particularly the astonishingly violent church rampage scene where Firth’s naturally refined and usually calm presence both contrasts the proceedings and further underscores just how thoroughly and completely he gets to kick EVERYBODY’S ass.

I haven't had enough of this motherf*cking tea out of these mother*cking tiny tea cups!

“I can’t get enough of this motherf*cking tea out of these mother*cking tiny tea cups!”

As for the antagonist, tech mogul Richmond Valentine, Samuel L. Jackson finds himself in yet another role absolutely in his wheelhouse, and seemingly tailor-made for him by Mark Millar (whose early-2000s Ultimates comicbook almost singularly guaranteed Jackson the role of Nick Fury years later). In Kingsman, Jackson’s Valentine is never really that menacing so much as he’s just another onscreen presence dominating every scene he’s in by being [a slightly more evil] Samuel L. Jackson. And what’s more, his plan to save the world by drastically reducing the world population isn’t as technically wrong as it is morally. Though you can quibble over whether his plan to save only the world’s wealthy elite is the right way to go, and you can argue over the humanity of a plan that basically fills everyone on Earth with the urge to kill each other, there’s no doubt that Valentine makes a valid point in equating humanity’s presence on the planet to a virus.

And then there’s Gazelle, who’s hard to adequately describe in words for the language’s inherent inability to match her awesomeness:

Women can't be super-spies.  They'd distract the other men super-spies!

Women can’t be super-spies. They’d just distract the other men super-spies!

Much has been made of Kingsman’s final scene, an obvious homage to the time-worn James Bond movie closings of old where Bond inevitably beds the girl, only this time it’s equally obvious our superspy protagonist gives the girl anal. While it’s a potentially offensive moment, it’s clearly more tongue-(and other parts)-in-cheek than anything else. Part of the fantasy of the classic James Bond is that, while he does always get the girl, we never really dwell on the particulars. You never see Bond and Bond girl reach any sort of climax, nor have we ever really seen a Bond sex scene so much as the immediate pre and/or proceedings, precisely because it’s all fantasy. Kingsman’s conscious (and graphic) acknowledgement of the nature of the encounter serves merely to put a point (among other parts) on that fact, even if it does reduce women to little more than a role of subservience and a reward for the successful man. From a feminist perspective, I think what’s more concerning, is that Roxy, the only major female Kingsman, winds up missing the bulk of the movie’s action, with her part in the plan relegating her to minor contributor and then cheerleader throughout the movie’s conclusion. What might have been a more directly empowering and certainly much more subversive take on the whole thing is if the girl got the girl in the end, although if we’re being honest, just imagining Roxy and the princess together would have been more than enough to send a large part of the male audience into a froth (he said in his final double entendre of the review).

Overall, Kingsman is a movie that will please almost everyone who’s up for what its producers are putting down, but even though I can’t really fault it on any technical level, I’m still not in love with it. For me, what’s troubling is that the movie offers nothing in the way of an answer to the dilemma that it poses of overpopulation, instead leaving the problem and those answers for another day and a more ambitious story. Certainly nothing about Kingsman suggests that it’s the ideal platform for such heady topics, but that fact also undermines much of the movie’s sense of reality and, perhaps more importantly, danger in a genre that’s moved towards both of those sensibilities even in its most venerable franchises (i.e., Daniel Craig’s Bond). It poses two different stories concerning the idea of who’s special and who’s not, but offers only normal answers and a normal conclusion. It’s ultimately a movie that’s great at a few things, but doesn’t come close to being anything that really matters. While that takes a lot of the pressure off, allowing it to be a nice, entertaining movie, it’s, therefore, also lacking the edge it needs to push it beyond crowd pleaser and toward becoming anything truly special. I mean, sure, I loved Kingsman… like I love Fresca.

Thom’s Kingsman: The Secret Service final score: 7.5

On the Edge

  • So Valentine’s plot revolves entirely around full-sized SIM cards that don’t fit in most modern smartphones?
  • During the church riot, was anyone else wondering why there weren’t more guns? I mean, this is Kentucky we’re talking about.
  • If one more person had fallen prey to somebody putting something in their drink, I think I would have screamed.
  • So… where were the rest of the Kingsmen? Shouldn’t there have been, like, nine or ten others also attempting to save the world?
  • So was Valentine planning to just keep his hands planted on the table until everyone was dead? That would’ve taken hours.
  • I still don’t like the idea that the Kingsmen’s final test is killing their own dog. Not only is that more than a little distasteful, but it seems to go against one of their first lessons in the flooded sleeping quarters: teamwork.

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