Combustible Celluloid
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With: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Sofia Boutella, Edward Holcroft, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Michael Caine
Written by: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, based on a comic book by Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content
Running Time: 129
Date: 02/13/2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Just One of the Spies

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's sort of an old cliché when stuffy, stuck-up critics stick their noses in the air at anything that might be considered subversive or fun by the regular moviegoing public. I would like to think that this does not apply to me, but occasionally a movie crosses the line and it just bugs me. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a good deal of fun for quite a long time. It's swift and lighthearted and blasts through old spy movie plot turns with wicked glee. If the movie had kept up this kind of pace and tone for the rest of the way, I would have been a fan. But there's a scene in which agent Harry Hart, a.k.a. "Galahad" (Colin Firth) sits in a church, and that's when it starts.

Based on a comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons -- whose Kick-Ass (2010) was also turned into a vaguely offensive movie, but one which I enjoyed -- Kingsman: The Secret Service tells the story of an old, private society of gentleman spies, not subject to any government regulations. As the story begins in 1997, an agent is killed in the line of duty, and Hart blames himself. In the present, the dead agent's son, whose name is Gary and goes by "Eggsy" (Taron Egerton), has grown up without a father and is a working class street thug. Hart gives him a chance to try out for Kingsman, competing against several other applicants.

Eggsy must participate in several "tests" that each contain a certain trick, although it's not too hard to figure them out. (Could I have tried out for Kingsman?) In other scenes, it's fun watching the agents go through their martial arts moves and unleash their cool weapons, including an English umbrella that deflects incoming bullets while providing a clear view of the target and shooting its own ammo back. The bad guy is a technology billionaire, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, who reads his lines with an inauthentic sounding lisp). His plan is to provide free sim cards and free internet access to everyone, but of course the cards are all loaded with evil technology.

When Hart goes into the church, Valentine runs his first test of this technology. A certain signal triggers the aggression center in the brain, and releases the inhibition center, so that, basically, people begin punching each other to death. (The plan is to lessen the planet's population to help the earth heal itself.) But, since Hart is highly trained, he begins punching, kicking, shooting, stabbing, and pummeling his way through the entire congregation. It's a weirdly southern church, full of bigots and haters, but, even so, it's a church full of people, and under the influence of the vicious technology, Hart swiftly and mercilessly kills all of them.

Director Matthew Vaughn, who also made Kick-Ass as well as X-Men: First Class and a few other good movies, films this with a disturbing kind of admiration, or even joy. His camera skillfully flips and swooshes around the room, managing a clear, close-up view of everything. Firth's face is blank and grim. He's just a killing machine, and his victims don't have a chance. It's entirely possible that some of this scene was even intended to be funny. As it played out, my sense of a good time slowly changed, but the movie didn't seem to change with me.

As the movie gets to its conclusion, we can hope that our heroes will be able to prevent the evil weapon from being used on a global scale, but of course, they don't... they have to stop it after it starts, and we get plenty of images of people punching and killing each other in the streets. Eggsy's mother even tries to bash down a locked bathroom door to kill her own baby daughter (who cries at her mother's aggressive behavior). But it gets worse.

Valentine has rescued a handful of people who are wealthy, and has installed chips in their necks that prevent them from hearing the signal. To buy themselves some time, the good guys set off chips in the necks of all these guests, which make their heads explode. Vaughn's camera travels cheerfully over all the exploding heads, making fireworks out of their airborne brain matter. But here's the kicker. The act of the good guys killing all those bystanders does absolutely no good! Valentine is still able to operate the computer that triggers the signal. If the filmmakers were at all aware of the mindlessness and brutality of this kind of jubilant killing, as, I think Kick-Ass was, the movie doesn't show it. (Kingsman: The Secret Service is closer in spirit to the ill-fated Kick-Ass 2.)

Aside from this major quibble, there are several other, minor quibbles. For example, where are all the other spies in this organization? We see a bunch of them at the film's beginning... what are they doing in this global crisis? And how would Eggsy suddenly go from a normal guy who can't even handle a regular street fight, to highly-trained martial artist in such a short time? I know it's not exactly a reality-based movie, but that was a little too unreal.

I love movies like Battle Royale, which also has its own share of gruesome deaths and piled-up corpses, but the movie itself is built around thoughts and themes and emotions, so that it eventually adds up to something. Kingsman: The Secret Service is only about a good time; it has nothing to say, other than that, yes, the climate crisis is happening, and it's too late to stop it, so why not just give up and have fun? Maybe the movie doesn't have a conscience, but I do, and, sorry, but it doesn't really allow me to do that.

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