Parodies of spy pictures – and the James Bond variation in particular – are a dime a dozen, with a fairly mixed bag of results. The cream of the crop may be the first two Austin Powers movies, International Man Of Mystery and The Spy Who Shagged Me. The low point is arguably a spoof based on Ian Fleming’s first novel, the star-laden 1966 attempt at Casino Royale with Peter Sellers, David Niven, and Woody Allen that needed a whopping five directors to be completed. Now X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has entered the territory and assembled an impressive cast to realize Kingsman: The Secret Service. Is his vision of what a spy movie should look like up to the task?
Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton) is the intelligent son of a deceased intelligence operative but leads the life of a London drifter. After stealing a car, he is rescued by the agent Harry Hart, alias ‘Galahan’ (Colin Firth), who has a sense of guilt because he feels responsible for the death of Eggsy’s father. When a Kingsman, a member of the secret society Hart works for, is killed in combat, the spy urges Gary to apply for the opening. Unwin is impressive in the training supervised by senior Kingsman ‘Merlin’ (Mark Strong). He makes it to the final round, eventually losing out to Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who becomes the next ‘Lancelot’ of the association.
Meanwhile, the organization investigates Internet billionaire and philanthropist Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). The entrepreneur has given away free SIM cards with phone and World Wide Web access and also seems to be connected to the disappearance of several VIPs and heads of state. What do the charismatic yet somehow equally enigmatic and megalomaniac self-made man and his henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) have in mind? When Hart becomes witness and the sole survivor of a mass brawl in a Kentucky hate group church – apparently orchestrated by Valentine – as Eggsy, Merlin, and head Kingsman ‘Arthur’ (Michael Caine) watch in disbelief, the agency knows it must act.
Matthew Vaughn’s latest movie is a far cry from the recent gritty and realistic spy thrillers such as the Bourne franchise, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or the Daniel Craig-era 007 pictures. If anything, Kingsman: The Secret Service is full-blown silly, over-the-top fun that even trumps the sometimes ridiculous James Bond adventures starring Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. In a way, that’s also one of the film’s saving graces. It doesn’t take itself any serious at all, beginning with the opening sequence in which Eggsy’s father is killed. We’re treated to whirlybirds heading into a desert landscape while “Money For Nothing” by the Dire Straits blasts from the sound system as an obviously ironic comment on both the whole operation and the movie itself.
Samuel L. Jackson does his best to portray a worthy but, at the same time, ridiculous adversary to the Kingsman agents. In Ian Fleming’s original James Bond stories (and the early cinematic entries into the series), the villains always suffered from either gross or at least bizarre features. Richmond Valentine and his assistant are no different. The billionaire has a preposterous speech impediment that makes it hard for the audience to take him any seriously, while Gazelle has blades for legs. Their plans for taking over the world are also somewhat reminiscent of Carl Stromberg’s ideas in The Spy Who Loved Me and Hugo Drax’s preposterous scheme in Moonraker. Therefore Kingsman: The Secret Service, while poking fun at 007, also – in a way – stays true to the Bond pattern; we’ve seen a lot of it before.
This conservative approach, combined with the excessive use of graphic violence, is also why Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie really isn’t anything special despite the star-studded lineup and a fairly big budget. Her Majesty’s most popular agent has already been spoofed to death. Likewise, with the notable exception of the Austin Powers films that followed a similar approach sans the bloodshed, the most successful parodies of James Bond have arguably been some of the original 007 movies. Some of the Roger Moore adventures, particularly Moonraker, were already so outré that the necessity of a further parody is certainly up for debate. The same can be argued for Sean Connery’s reemergence as the aging super-spy in 1983’s Never Say Never Again.
‘Luke Skywalker’ Mark Hamill appearing as Professor Arnold is a nice surprise, and it’s definitely a positive to see two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine back in the genre that originally made him famous. The gentleman thesp is, however, relegated to mere supporting status here, partially letting his seasoned acting chops go to waste in the process. Colin Firth fares a little better as Eggsy’s mentor Harry Hart, but Kingsman: The Secret Service is actually a standoff between Taron Egerton and Mark Strong on one side versus Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella on the other side.
Michael Caine’s role, then, essentially personifies the problems with the film. It’s good to watch, in a way – yet it could have been so much more, on so many different levels. Matthew Vaughn is certainly an able director and a talented screenwriter. Kingsman: The Secret Service, however, isn’t really one of his finest moments. That status is still reserved for Kick-Ass or maybe for Layer Cake. As for his spy movie – loud, colorful, fast-paced, and fun as it is at times, seeing it once is probably enough.
Seen at E-Kinos, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on February 13th, 2015.