Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

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.

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

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

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.

Spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) creates holy hell in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) creates holy hell in Kingsman: The Secret Service

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.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) in deep water in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) in deep water in Kingsman: The Secret Service

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.

Dot com douchebag Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Dot com douchebag Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

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 recruits striving to become a Kingsman in Kingsman: The Secret Service

The recruits striving to become a Kingsman in Kingsman: The Secret Service

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.

'King' Arther (Michael Caine) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

‘King’ Arther (Michael Caine) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

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.

Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

After seriously dropping the hammer with the disappointing Thor: The Dark World, Marvel has got its mojo back with this superheroic espionage thriller that packs a real biff, pow and bang.

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America's onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America’s onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for

On its 2011 release, Captain America: The First Avenger was an unexpected pleasure, skillfully mixing pulpy action and period nostalgia with a World War Two setting that perfectly suited the old school heroics of Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, a great fit for the role).

His appearance alongside Iron Man, Thor et al in Avengers Assemble (as it was called over here) was largely about him trying to come to terms with the modern world and it’s an issue that inevitably permeates through The Winter Soldier.

Steve 'Cap' Rogers (Chris Evans) forms a valuable friendship with fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve ‘Cap’ Rogers (Chris Evans) forms a valuable friendship with fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

However, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (who also wrote the first movie) deserve a lot of credit for crafting a story that transcends fish-out-of-water narrative tropes and instead gives the character something he can really get his shield stuck into.

While the bad guys he’s fighting this time around aren’t as clear-cut as the uber-Nazis he was battling in The First Avenger, Cap’s inherent goodness and staunch belief in the enduring power of freedom are traits that prove just as necessary in The Winter Soldier.

Cap (Chris Evans) expresses his concerns as to the direction S.H.I.E.L.D is taking to Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap (Chris Evans) expresses his concerns as to the direction S.H.I.E.L.D is taking to Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Since being thawed out from cryogenic stasis at the end of The First Avenger, Rogers has allied himself with S.H.I.E.L.D, the labyrinthine spy and law-enforcement network led by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, given more to do this time) – but is growing ever-more sceptical about its true motives. Rogers is forced to go on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D after finding himself in the middle of a massive conspiracy and, with the help of deadly assassin Natalia Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson, also with more to do this time), and fellow war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, underused) sets about uncovering the truth.

While Thor’s second solo outing got lost in an Asgardian vortex of Dark Elves and cod-Lord Of The Rings nonsense, Cap’s big return has a far more engaging narrative.

Cap (Chris Evans) must work with deadly assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap (Chris Evans) must work with deadly assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The central plot makes no bones about its nods to 1970s conspiracy cinema classics like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days Of The Condor (1975), right down to the casting of Condor‘s Robert Redford, who effortlessly raises the level of the film every time he’s on screen as senior S.H.I.E.L.D figure Alexander Pierce.

The juxtaposition of Cap’s clearly defined outlook of right and wrong with the murky, compromised ideology of S.H.I.E.L.D is a nice idea and a very contemporary concept, but the film doesn’t trust the audience to work it out for themselves. When he witnesses just how far S.H.I.E.L.D is willing to go to “neutralise threats”, a rattled Rogers tells Fury “This isn’t freedom, this is fear”; to which Fury replies the agency “takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be”. The point is made several more times in case we haven’t picked it up.

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) with old buddy and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D colleague Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) with old buddy and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D colleague Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In spite of the lack of subtlety, it’s undoubtedly the most interesting element of both this and any other Marvel picture to date, and one you feel directors Anthony and Joe Russo would rather have concentrated on more. This being a superhero movie, however, it’s a prerequisite that things go boom sooner or later.

That being said, an early set piece involving an ambush on Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D mobile is exhilarating stuff, while a fight involving Rogers and a dozen or so S.H.I.E.L.D goons in a lift gets the pulse racing. It’s when the scale of the action is amped up that the film – especially in the final act – loses its way and turns into just another Marvel movie involving a stack of CGI explosions in the sky.

The mysterious Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The mysterious Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In spite of being part of the title, we’re given only a brief taste of who and what the Winter Soldier is. It’s a plot thread you suspect had more meat on it during early drafts and is left dangling for Cap’s third solo movie. At 136 minutes, the film is too long anyway, so it’s not surprising this wasn’t developed more.

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America’s onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for.

Review – Django Unchained

For a writer and director who’s the unashamed king of the movie homage there really isn’t anyone else out there making films quite like Quentin Tarantino.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – arguably his most outrageous film yet

Django Unchained, Tarantino’s eighth feature is arguably his most outrageous yet and serves up a similar stylistic mash-up as his previous film Inglourious Basterds.

In that movie, he somehow got away with making a World War Two spaghetti western (complete with Ennio Morricone music) where a squadron of Jewish-American soldiers give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Here, Tarantino uses a similar mould for his most fully realised and satisfying film since Jackie Brown, jettisoning the episodic structure that has been so familiar throughout his filmography.

Django Unchained is a western with extra spaghetti sauce and features a blaxploitation hero even cooler than Shaft. From the title, which directly references the 1966 spaghetti western Django starring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo here), to the red-painted opening credits, music, ultra violence and theme of revenge (common to virtually all of Tarantino’s work), the film sends the homage-o-meter up to 11.

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows Django (Jamie Foxx) the way of the gun in Django Unchained

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) shows Django (Jamie Foxx) the way of the gun in Django Unchained

It’s also the writer-director’s most overtly political work to date, addressing the still thorny subject of slavery in a frank and often brutal way. Our hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in 1858 Texas who wins his freedom thanks to the intervention of Christoph Waltz’s German dentist-turned bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (it can’t be a coincidence that a character who abhors slavery shares his name with Dr Martin Luther King).

The sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained

The sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained

Schultz takes Django under his wing and trains him in the art of bounty hunting (“like slavery, it’s a flesh for cash business”) and, in return for assisting him, Schultz agrees to help Django win the freedom of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave forced to work at the perversely named Candyland, owned by the despicable sadist and racial supremacist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting horribly blackened teeth).

Tarantino has never been one to shy away from throwing in the kitchen sink when it comes to on-screen violence. It’s a facet of his work that has attracted considerable consternation from critics and commentators throughout his career, but while he no doubt takes great pleasure in seeing how far he can go he also never lets you forget that violence and bullets hurt – a lot. When we see slaves being killed in the most vicious of ways at the hands of Candie, we’re left in no uncertain terms that this is no laughing matter.

The deplorable house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) in Django Unchained

The deplorable house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) in Django Unchained

That being said, just as the Nazis have it coming in Inglourious Basterds, there’s a certain gleeful satisfaction in seeing a black man administer justice of the most merciless kind to the racist white trash who have profited from and exploited the slave trade.

In the film’s most amusing scene , a group of proto-Ku Klux Klansmen led by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) go in search of Schultz and Django, only to bicker among themselves because they can’t see properly out of their white hoods. It’s a nicely observed comment on the absurdity and cowardice of racism.

Tarantino also nods to classic John Ford westerns, framing his heroes against a series of expansive vistas, beautifully filmed by cinematographer Robert Richardson, and conjures up a number of arresting images, most strikingly when blood splattters over pure white cotton on a plantation.

Quentin Tarantino directs and unfortunately stars in Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino directs and unfortunately stars in Django Unchained

As verbose as Tarantino’s scripts are, his rich dialogue is a gift for the superlative cast he’s assembled here. Waltz almost steals the show as the kind-but-deadly Schultz, as memorable a screen presence as his diabolical Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds.

Foxx does a nice line in man-with-no-name quiet intensity (can you imagine what Will Smith, Tarantino’s original choice, would have done with the role?), while DiCaprio has a whale of a time tearing it up as the dapper southern aristocrat out of control in his own private fiefdom.

The colourfully dressed Django (Jamie Foxx) kicks ass and takes names in Django Unchained

The colourfully dressed Django (Jamie Foxx) kicks ass and takes names in Django Unchained

However, all pale in comparison to the quite brilliant Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s house slave who’s so servile he makes Uncle Tom look like a Black Panther. Hidden behind that frail, shuffling walk lies a truly abominable human being who, when he isn’t perched on Candie’s shoulder like a parrot repeating his every line, is punishing his fellow slaves and conspiring against them to get in his white master’s good books. It’s a very disturbing performance that only Tarantino and Jackson could have dreamt up.

What Tarantino still has some trouble with, however, is acting and he’s truly terrible as an Australian (!) slave driver. He can’t even resist affording himself the film’s most colourful death. This entire section is the only weak spot in the whole movie. There’s a natural end point before this, but Tarantino (who has previously admitted to not showing enough discipline when it comes to a script) gives himself another half an hour before he finally wraps things up, all be it in a pleasingly brutal way.

The thing you have to admire about Tarantino is that he’s a rock’n’roll director in the truest sense, a film geek who wants to share his love of cinema’s outer margins and with Django Unchained he hits it out of the park.