I love the Kingsman saga – and I know I’m not the only one. Granted, its three episodes are of uneven quality (and the second, The Golden Circle, verged into self-parody), but I will defend The Secret Service, first instalment in the saga, until the day I die! When the film came out in 2015, it was hugely successful at the box-office, but some critics dismissed it as a brainless and crass teenage action flick, which had nothing serious to offer.
Yes, the film does have many under-the-belt jokes, but it deserves a reappraisal: there is more to Kingsman: The Secret Service than just stupid humour. Behind the dumb facade, the movie actually pays a vibrant homage to action films, and even discusses some quite deep issues of today’s Britain. So, it’s worth taking a hidden elevator to dive beneath Kingsman’s surface!
More than meets the eye: diving beneath the surface of the film
At first glance, the film offers a fairly classic rags to riches story, following the life of the young Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), who lost his father – a former secret agent – and lives on a council estate with his mother and abusive stepfather, until he gets recruited by Kingsman – a top-secret independent intelligence agency – where he is mentored by classy spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth). This doesn’t sound like anything groundbreaking, but The Secret Service, adapted from the eponymous comic book, does an excellent job at touching upon deep issues under the fun facade. For starters, the film does not shy away from showing how stark the class divide is Britain, and the characters of Eggsy and Harry perfectly illustrate it.
Besides the clash of generations, one was given opportunities that the other never had access to. It’s also made clear that Eggsy was a very high-achiever at school, but never had the chance to study or get a good job. In fact, the entire movie is centred on the idea of social mobility, and how prejudices prevented the young man from achieving his true potential. Even a tiny detail hammers in the message (spoiler alert here, but this is a 2015 movie!): when Arthur, the posh and corrupt leader of Kingsman, is about to die, his refined upper-class accent slips off, indicating he has Cockney origins – and made it to the top, but doesn’t want others to do the same! On another (but just as serious) note, the movie also discusses domestic violence in a surprisingly harrowing way for an action flick.
The ultimate homage to classic action films
So, not only has Kingsman got some interesting things to say, but it is also an ultimate homage to action cinema – filled with small references and fan service, of course! This is down to director Matthew Vaughn’s real appreciation of the genre, and the effort he put into writing a love letter to classic spy thrillers. I know that some critics called Kingsman a “parody” of action films, but I instead see it as a tongue-in-cheek homage, which pushes tropes to the maximum – but always in a loving way. Perfect proof is the gadgets, which include bulletproof suits and umbrellas, a self-driving taxi and a poison-bladed shoe – obvious nods to classic spy films and old 007 movies. This is even more enjoyable in an era where crazy gadgets are absent from Bond’s adventures and only Mission: Impossible is still having fun with them. Featuring so many improbable devices is the perfect way to bring a knowing smile onto action fans’ faces!
I might be taking things too far here, but it’s nice to see a film which reconciles all generations of action fans: there does exist a divide between those who prefer “oldies” and those looking for something more modern (especially in the 007 fanbase). Seeing Kingsman pay its respects to the foundations of the genre, while having a modern setting, is truly appreciable. Even its villain-sidekick duo, played by Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella, is nothing short of awesome. The non-violent big bad, Valentine, who throws up at the sight of blood, and his sidekick Gazelle, who has bladed prosthetic legs, make for a really iconic duo. They play with the cliché of the evil mastermind and his sidekick with an improbably lethal physical feature, and glorious carnage ensues. It feels like the likes of Karl Stromberg and Jaws have been resurrected in the 21st century!
But how ultimate is it?
Yes, I spoke about reconciling old and new fans, because the film also delivers on the violence and gore, in a way typical of late 2000 action flicks – and of Matthew Vaughn’s work. The movie doesn’t shy away from blood splatters and makes the most of Boutella’s dancing background, as she slices and dices some enemies with style. Yes, Kingsman is heavy on the jokes, and its humour has a tongue-in-cheek feel, but its action scenes deliver, and the film does have some real stakes.
The evil masterplan here is worthy of old 007 movies, and adds in an interesting discussion about climate change – again, a perfect mix of old and new. Overall, the first Kingsman movie is thus an ultimate homage made by an action fan for action fans, and is well-worth a rewatch! Vaughn tried to expand the universe in following film The Golden Circle. This one was less successful and delved far more in self-parody, but that will be the topic of another retro-review!