Matthew Vaughn reinvented—and reinvigorated—Marvel Comics’ X-Men for the big screen in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, a period piece where he demonstrated a real affinity for the swinging ’60s, in addition to the command of action filmmaking and editing he’d previously displayed in 2010’s Kick-Ass, his violent, entertaining deconstruction of the modern superhero movie based on a comic book series written by Mark Millar. Now, Vaughn and regular collaborator Jane Goldman, his co-screenwriter on those pictures, have freely adapted another Millar comic book for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Although set in the present day, this affectionately winking, post-modern take on spy films aims squarely at the James Bond franchise, specifically the movies from the 1970s, with Oscar winner Colin Firth tapping into his inner Roger Moore as gentleman spy Harry Hart.
In a 1997-set pre-credit sequence in the Middle East, a Kingsman recruit sacrifices his life, throwing himself atop a grenade that Harry missed during his inspection of an interrogation subject. Feeling responsible for the young man’s death, Harry—known within his secret agency as “Galahad”—visits the widow of the deceased to deliver a posthumous medal of valor. Inscribed on the badge’s back is a phone number, to be used at a time when assistance is needed most. The weeping woman is inconsolable, so Harry hands the medal to the recruit’s 9-year-old son, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Alex Nikolov), who keeps it close well into his mid-20s (when the role is played by newcomer Taron Egerton), wearing it on a gold chain to complement his baseball cap and high-top sneakers.
As the film’s title appears onscreen, super-spy Lancelot (Jack Davenport)—one of the men who witnessed Eggsy’s father’s sacrifice—is shockingly, sadistically (and somewhat comically) killed during the film’s first big action scene, a hyper-stylized sequence of kinetic, sped-up and slowed-down violence that finds the dapper agent successfully mounting a one-man rescue operation to free Professor James Arnold (Mark Hamill) from armed captors in a snow-capped mountain villa. While enjoying a celebratory Scotch (presumably not stirred), Lancelot is cut down by Gazelle (Algerian actress/dancer Sofia Boutella), part of a longstanding tradition of lefthand (hench)men, like Bond nemeses Oddjob with his razor-tipped hat or Jaws with his steel-tipped teeth. Gazelle’s weapon of choice? The deadly silver blades that replace her legs below the knees. She makes acrobatic use of them, slicing Lancelot straight down the middle.
Speaking of gymnastic feats, Eggsy was Olympic material before he dropped out of the Royal Marines and fell into a life of petty crime, one bred by years of abuse at the hands of his stepfather. When he’s arrested one time too many, Eggsy finally phones the number on the reverse of his heroic dad’s medal. He’s sprung from jail by Galahad, who becomes the lad’s suave, Savile Row-suited mentor, seeing some of the same potential he’d spotted in Eggsy’s dad.
Heading to a pub, the two share a brief chat that ends with Galahad turning John Steed, cooly dispensing a gang of local hooligans with his ammunition-firing, bulletproof umbrella in another standout action scene. Afterward, Galahad takes the duly impressed Eggsy to the secret Kingsman headquarters, appropriately camouflaged in a tailor shop.
“Since 1849, the Kingsman Tailors have acted as an independent Secret Service, with the agents its knights,” Galahad tells the Boy Who Would Be Lancelot, if he can be successfully groomed to take over the slain agent’s code name. “The suit is the modern gentleman’s armor,” Galahad continues, and he’s not kidding—the designer suits Eggsy’s outfitted with are just as bulletproof as the umbrella seen earlier, and the custom shoes with pop-out poison-laced blades (a nod to those worn in 1963’s From Russia with Love) go nicely with the standard-issue remote-activated poison pens.
First though, Galahad must not only train this street tough in the art of hand-to-hand combat, but teach him how to tie a Windsor knot. In other words, he has the impossible task of turning Eggsy into a gentleman. Along the way, he introduces Eggsy to the Kingsman equivalents of Bond’s M and Q: Arthur and Merlin. The latter is played by Mark Strong, a welcome regular in Vaughn’s movies, while Arthur is portrayed with sufficient gravitas by Michael Caine.
Samuel L. Jackson shows up as Valentine—a lisping, Bill Gates-like billionaire—the depths of whose villainy are revealed during another well-choreographed action scene, this one taking place within a backwoods Kentucky chapel. If the hate-mongers in this congregation remind you of the Westboro Baptist Church members, it’s likely by design. How else could you enjoy the excessive bloodletting and carnage to come in this warped house of worship, as Valentine test-drives his Master Plan, set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”
It’s an exhilaratingly over-the-top sequence that’s a preview of the fireworks to come. And if you enjoy a good fireworks display, Vaughn’s film ends with one of the best sight gags this critic’s seen in a while—all before the filthy sex act that serves as a true climax.
If Bond’s upper lip has grown too stiff for you, Eggsy’s new breed of spy is bound to raise a few eyebrows.
Kingsman: The Secret Service ***
Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Edward Holcroft, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Alex Nikolov and Michael Caine. Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.