After giving superheroes a boot in the Thunderballs with Kick Ass, Matthew Vaughn turns his Goldeneye onto the spy flick with typically brash and boisterous results.
Vaughn’s unique style has won him a legion of admirers since his much-loved 2004 debut Layer Cake; the film that went a long way to bagging its star Daniel Craig the iconic role of James Bond, who in a neatly circular turn of events is the primary influence for Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time following the success of Kick Ass (2010), Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman have once again teamed up with Mark Millar to loosely adapt another of his comic book series.
While Millar’s comic was set within the world of MI6, the movie decides to go even more super-secretive by focusing on the Kingsman, a spy agency so covert that 007 himself probably doesn’t know about them.
Influenced by Arthurian legend, the Kingsman are led by a round table of gentlemen spies, including Arther (Michael Caine) and Galahad, aka Harry Hart (Colin Firth). When one of their own is killed in action, Hart takes mouthy street kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton) under his wing and convinces him to go up against other young hopefuls to replace the fallen spy.
Tech tycoon Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), meanwhile, is busy trying to take over the world and it falls on what’s left of the Kingsman to put a stop to his ultra-sinister plan.
The spy movie has hardly been short of a spoof or two; hell, the godfather James Bond was sending it up most of the time during the Roger Moore years. Kingsman takes its cue from that era; from the poster which is a direct pastiche of For Your Eyes Only to the high concept plotline that really took hold during Moore’s era.
Alongside the numerous nods to Bond, there are other homages to a well-trodden genre, including The Avengers‘ (no, not that one) John Steed with the Saville Row-besuited league of gentlemen spies and liberal use of umbrellas.
While the tips of the bowler hat to 007 and co are plentiful, Vaughn and Goldman’s self-referential script is also at pains to have its cake and eat it by having its characters remind each other that “this isn’t that kind of movie” shortly before endeavouring to pull the rug out from under our feet.
The most glaring way Kingsman “isn’t that kind of movie” is through the colourful use of Anglo saxon (much like Kick Ass). As occasionally amusing as it is (pretty much every sentence uttered by Jackson drops an f-bomb; and we all know how gleefully Sammy invokes the use of that word), you suspect the thinking behind it is to see how far it can be pushed and to give us a spy drama with the shackles removed. This admittedly works quite nicely when Arthur’s well-spoken demeanour disappears at one point and the foul-mouthed cockney lurking under the surface is exposed.
The offhand ultra violence that marked Kick Ass out as a bold piece of filmmaking is also in plentiful supply here. An early bust-up in a pub is the aperitif to an unholy bloodbath in a right-wing Christian church to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird that reaches Old Testament levels of brutality and sees the camera get stuck in to the ensuing carnage.
This, and later fight scenes have a balletic quality John Woo would be proud of, although the final assault on Valentine’s secret lair by Mark Strong’s Q-esque Merlin and Eggsy leaves you wondering at what point the former tearaway learned such gracefully merciless close quarters fighting techniques (we’re left to assume he’s picked this up as the film never bothers to show us).
While it has plenty of nice touches, in particular the casting of Mark Hamill as a very convincing English professor (in the comic, the terrorists abduct an environmental scientist called Mark Hamill), it ends on a bum note with a moment of pantomime absurdity that makes Q’s infamous line from Moonraker – “I think he’s attempting re-entry sir” – seem like a moment of restraint worthy of Bergman.
It may not reach the heights of Kick Ass, but Kingman: The Secret Service is so unashamedly over-the-top it’s hard not to sign up to its licence to thrill.