Introduction: This was a case where I watched the trailer (and subsequent trailers) and was instantly hooked. Most trailers are a pass for me, especially if it’s for a movie not based off of a book I’ve read or a franchise I like, and won’t even convince me to look up the movie to know what it’s about. Not so with Kingsman: The Secret Service. When I first glimpsed Colin Firth wrecking havoc on some thugs in a pub, I just knew I had to see this movie, no matter what it was about. Not to mention the trailer’s clever humor, cheekiness, and action were enough to seal the deal. In the end, Kingsman certainly lives up to the awesome quotient of its advertising but might not be the spy action flick you’re looking for…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), which is based loosely off of a graphic novel by Mark Millar, introduces viewers to a stylishly covert security agency called Kingsman, whose spies are herald as the “new knights.” After a mission goes awry, one Kingsman, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), offers his condolences to his fellow agent’s wife and son, Gary (a.k.a. Eggsy) with a promise that should they ever run into trouble, they can contact a secret hotline, deliver a coded message, and assistance will be theirs. Years pass and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) becomes a street-wise punk who would rather shoot his mouth off and go joyriding than care about making much of his life. But when Eggsy’s antics finally catch up with him, he turns to Kingsman for help, eventually entering their intense training program under Hart’s watchful eye. In the meantime, a global threat emerges when Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a technology billionaire, is the subject of several high-profile kidnappings. But his plan to spread chaos with his henchwoman, Gazelle, by his side, will impact the heart of the Kingsman organization. Eggsy then must rise to the challenge and save the world before Valentine’s violent schemes are fully put into motion.
My Take: At first glance, Kingsman certainly looks like a high-octane action spy movie for the younger set that incorporates age and grace with the casting of Academy Award-winning actor, Colin Firth. And such a presumption would be correct but only in part. What this film offers is a good balance of drama, cheeky humor, spy movie staples, and fun action set pieces, thus it’s not all one thing. To be honest, the first hour is kind of quiet and a little slow going but that’s actually a good thing. Rather than toss audiences into some random cliched story with a paper-thin plot, the movie takes its time to introduce its main characters with special attention devoted to Eggsy, who becomes the unlikely hero of the film.
Naturally, the acting focal points here are Colin Firth as debonair spy Harry Hart and Welsh acting newcomer Taron Egerton as Eggsy. At first, I assumed that Firth’s Hart would be the ultimate straight man and Egerton’s Eggsy would be the street-wise, wise-cracking youth. Instead, both men provide a perfect balance of wit and wisdom. Firth, while portraying a character who, for the most part, is the straight man, often gets to spout some of the film’s funniest lines, revealing that despite his polished exterior, Harry Hart possesses a smart aleck streak that’s a blast to watch because it completely contradicts his outward appearance. Likewise, Eggsy has moments of serious reflection that betray his rough-and-tumble exterior. In short, the two leads play off of and contrast each other in a harmonious performance.
I was heartily impressed with Egerton as he turns Eggsy into a genuine character rather than a trope. One thing that keeps Eggsy out of stock character territory is his backstory, which fills up a good deal of the movie’s first hour. Rather than serve as filler, the moments of interaction between Eggsy and his mother, his abusive step-father(ish) figure, and street thugs/”friends” serve to ground Eggsy as an underdog character audiences can connect with. While he’s far from perfect, Eggsy is worth cheering for as he’s not a disgusting bit of riffraff nor is he a pathetic doormat that everyone steps on. Instead, Eggsy embodies a universal struggle to find one’s place in the world and make one’s life count for something. That’s essentially what his character’s journey and training as a Kingsman is about: it’s a chance for Eggsy to prove that he’s more than the makings of his social class. He can be a gentleman and a hero and he can save the world, thus demonstrating that no matter what your family or social background is, you don’t have to settle for less in life. As Harry tells Eggsy, “If you’re prepared to adapt, you can transform.” But the trick is that you must want to change as personal transformation just won’t happen with no effort exercised on your part.
Naturally, I have to also call out Colin Firth’s performance here because he really took me by surprise. I think most people know or at least recognize Firth’s roles as falling into one of two categories, the romantic comedy side and the serious/dramatic side. While Firth is certainly a master of both, what Kingsman allows him to do is show off the best of his performing skills in a film that is neither a rom-com nor a drama but a hybrid of drama, comedy, and action.
Harry Hart isn’t your grandma’s average spy. While he has the markings of a classy spy a la James Bond, he’s quite capable of combating with the best of the film’s baddies and isn’t afraid to get his hands bloody. From one of his character’s early scenes where he takes down a gang of punks to the film’s most insane action sequence, you know Hart isn’t a gentleman spy you’d want to cross. (And Firth did 80% of the movie’s stunts himself, so he deserves some serious kudos for that alone.) On the other hand, Hart can banter with the best and worst of them, often delivering hilarious lines with a completely straight face. In the same way, he takes Eggsy under his wing and teaches the young man, not only how to be a gentleman spy, but also how to improve his lot in life by taking advantage of the good opportunities life hands his way rather than squander his time and talents. As a whole, Firth is absolutely perfect and easily one of the film’s biggest highlights that shouldn’t be missed.
Other performances of note are Samuel L. Jackson as Richmond Valentine, the chief antagonist, and Sofia Boutella as Gazelle (who was originally a male character in the comic, I believe). Jackson is having a blast playing Valentine and it shows – he’s a nasty baddie but he also has a hankering for fast food and an aversion to blood, which add to his character’s delightfully engaging camp factor. While falling slightly into a trope figure as she’s chiefly Valentine’s right-hand gal and doesn’t develop much beyond that scope, Gazelle remains an interesting minion character who at least avoids being a robotic assassin or strictly a sycophant. Likewise, the choice to keep the character’s physical disability (as a double amputee) adds an element of originality that makes Gazelle a unique female baddie sidekick.
Plot-wise, Kingsman serves as an homage to classic James Bond-esque spy films yet isn’t a spoof (despite its occasional jabs at the spy genre as if it knows full well that it’s a spy movie with a twist) nor is it always drenched in drama. In many places, especially early on, Kingsman does take itself seriously as it explores the idea that a person’s social class doesn’t dictate his fate in life. Yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously as cheeky, clever humor abounds but comes in appropriate doses so this isn’t a full-fledged comedy. Hence, unlike some movies that showcase the funniest moments in their trailers, Kingsman actually held back and saved some of its best moments for the film itself. The same can be said for its action set pieces, which are pulse-pounding and thrilling but avoid becoming too dark and bloody as they’re often set to a rather unusual soundtrack, from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” to KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Give it Up.” A gentle current of humor and humanity carries all throughout Kingsman, which, above anything else in the film, sets it apart from the spy movie pack.
My only criticism is its ending, which I’ll expand upon in the Content Breakdown below. Compared to the other jokes and gags in the film, this moment is very crass and includes some quick nudity that just didn’t fit with the rest of the movie’s tone. While 99% of the film possesses a tone that neatly balances itself between classy action and cheeky humor, it manages to avoid being blue comedy. Yet the next-to-last frames in the film are probably what solidified its R rating. I understand that it’s supposed to be a crude play on the way James Bond always “got the girl” but it’s a bit of a jolt to the system as it doesn’t match the comedic angle or timing seen in the rest of the film, so it became a stain for me on an otherwise highly enjoyable and very clever spy film.
In the end, Kingsman: The Secret Service offers up some fun casting, especially through its leads; elegantly filmed fight scenes; awesome costumes; quirky soundtrack; and a compelling story that isn’t all blazing guns and wise cracks. It’s definitely not your average spy film but who says all gentlemen spies have to be cut from the same cloth? Kingsman believes it’s okay to bend the rules, so a spy can be the picture of austere composure on the outside but inside he can have a very human and fun-loving heart.
Content Breakdown: Kingsman: The Secret Service was given an R rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – There are some mild to strong profanities used, chiefly the f-word and its variants and the sh-word, though their usage isn’t pervasive. Also, Eggsy flashes an obscene gesture (the British equivalent of the middle finger) to some thugs.
Violence –Violence and violent action come in degrees, from fighting/punching sequences, to shooting, stabbing, impaling, and even slicing (courtesy of Gazelle’s lethal legs). For the most part, there isn’t too much attention spent on gore though there are moments of blood splatter, especially during a purposely over-the-top fight sequence set in a chapel. Elsewhere, one of Valentine’s schemes involves the near-simultaneous murders of many world leaders and members of the global upper crust as said people’s heads explode in a burst of colored powder rather than blood and gore (all to the rousing tune of “Pomp and Circumstance”). Overall, while nothing is too cringe-worthy and doesn’t push the boundaries of an R-rating, some of the extended fight sequences might not appeal to overly-squeamish viewers, particularly the chapel scene. Elsewhere, Eggsy gets into fisticuffs and commits petty offenses, including stealing a car and joyriding through the streets of London. Eggsy’s mother and Eggsy himself are also mentally and physically abused (in a non-graphic manner) by a significant other. Lastly, there are some extended scenes of chaotic, frantic fighting, punching, and general mayhem albeit it’s not bloody or graphic though one such scene involves a woman trying to get at a little child who is locked away for safety (but the child is never harmed).
Sexual Material – There are a few crude jokes and innuendos throughout but these are not pervasive. The most graphic moment in terms of sexual content comes at the very end of the movie when a princess promises Eggsy that she’ll let him have sex with her in a rather non-traditional manner. Later, she keeps her promise to him as she rolls over and exposes her bare backside to the camera for a few seconds, after which nothing else is seen (so sexual activity is only implied). It should be noted that this comprises the next to the last frames of the film, so this moment of crassness essentially closes out the movie.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Kingsman stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended. This film is solidly an R due to its language, violence, and innuendos and brief nudity, so it is too intense and not appropriate for children.
Older Children & Teens – I think if there is an edited version slated to air on television, that would be fine though most older children and teens, I would venture to guess, won’t be attracted to this movie due to its overall story save for only the oldest of teens who would probably be within the age range to watch a R-rated film.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, especially for persons looking for a tongue-in-cheek spy/action movie that decidedly isn’t James Bond yet possesses the hallmarks of classic spy films with an updated, and very British, twist.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a rather unexpected movie that unquestionably delivers but might take some viewers by surprise. For audiences expecting a full throttle action movie, they’re going to be disappointed in a good way as this film takes its time to let us get to know its characters, especially its young lead. For fans of comedy films expecting a spy spoof, you won’t see that either but you will witness a very smart tribute to the image of the classy, traditional gentleman spy. Thus, the trailers for this film really didn’t do it justice as it’s more than just wise cracks, secret gadgets, and fight scenes. Its closing crass moment aside (which was a sour note for me), Kingsman: the Secret Service is a highly enjoyable film that pays tribute to spy films of the past while making its own signature mark.