Mark Millar movies and comics can be highly concerning and dangerous entities. There is an odd status where Millar chooses for his work to appeal to the hate in the audience while simultaneously judging them for liking it. Kickass for example was unrelentingly aggressive towards the people watching the movie and reading the comic. The nerd protagonist was a horrible person with almost no redeeming qualities beyond a skewed view of justice coupled with a penchant for violence. While some of his choices can be seen as Millar sticking to the pulpy roots of comics, there is a point where that adherence to old styles of violence, sexism and racism feels infuriatingly backwards. That is why it came as a surprise that Kingsman: The Secret Service (based on The Secret Service by Millar and Dave Gibbons) is a spy movie that does a fantastic job at avoiding the hatefulness of the genre that Millar’s work commonly holds. Instead we are reintroduced to that original Millar who grew up at the feet of Grant Morrison with a love for comics. This is the Millar that could write decent characters, craft a fun plot and still have some good over the top action. Kingsman: The Secret Service has the better Millar at the heart, or at least some very strong adaption work thanks to writer and director Matthew Vaughn (X-men: First Class, Kickass and Stardust).
The movie opens with a mission with the Kingsman invading a Middle Eastern country to stop a terrorist cell. As the credits roll, the movie has that great retro action feel to it that lets you know the movie is here for fun and action. Unfortunately, the mission goes south and in a moment of panic, one of the Kingsman agents sacrifices himself to save the rest of the group. His son Eggsy is given a medal with a special number to call in case he ever needs help.
Unfortunately the lack of a positive father figure defines Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and molds him into a troubled youth. Over the next 15 or so years, we see that his formerly middle class lifestyle has deteriorated. The once pristine flat that he grew up in is now dumpy thanks to his abusive stepfather and his mother has been left dependent. Eggsy has fallen into believing that his social status limits what he can be. Once a prospective Olympic gymnast, straight A student and Marine, Eggsy is now unemployed, living with his family and frequently fighting with his stepfather. After a joyride lands him in prison, Eggsy is left with two options, he can betray his friends or go to jail. Eggsy’s loyalty wins out but to avoid a jail sentence, Eggsy finally calls in his favor with the Kingsman.
Within minutes, Eggsy is released and Galahad (Colin Firth), a former friend of Eggsy’s father, introduces him to the group. The Kingsman is a group of secret agents taking care of the missions that government agencies across the globe cannot or will not. The group is technically illegal and it honestly raises a lot of questions. Either everyone aware of the group is adept at keeping secrets or Kingsman has not been discovered by any other world agency. They could easily be a group of villains but we’re told they work to preserve peace and it is left at that.
After the mysterious murder of another member of the Kingsman during a mission, Eggsy is brought into the group under the orders of Arthur (Michael Caine). Eggsy, along with 7 other candidates, is set to be tested and trained as a potential replacement under the tutelage of Merlin (Mark Strong). The other candidates, all nominated by other existing agents, are white, upper crust and are mostly male. They also all have some level of spy training which leaves Eggsy as the odd man out. Most of the other trainees have no personality beyond Roxy (Sophie Cookson), the well trained female candidate and Charlie (Edward Holcroft), the pretty boy asshole. With his innate skills finally being called into action, Eggsy grows to his maximum potential as a trainee.
Eggsy stands as an interesting character because he didn’t need to be white beyond making the movie theoretically easier to market because it is “normal”. While Taron Egerton brings an admirable amount of fun and swagger to his performance, his character’s race is unfortunately never discussed despite the classist discussions of the film. Kingsman is portrayed as a very upper crust group without any female agents and only white men working within the organization. While Eggsy is seen as an odd candidate for being lower class, it feels like the movie was also trying to discuss race without touching on race. In fact beyond Valentine, the villain of the movie, there are no real black or minority characters in the movie. Everyone in a movie about class is either upper class and white or non-upper crust and they are still mostly white. The three exceptions of people outside of crowd shots are Eggsy’s friend and then two members of his stepfather’s gang. Having a non-white young man entering this group of mostly stuff white men could have made the movie poignant, especially as Idris Elba is being considered to be the James Bond.
While it would be possible for the group to set her up as the initial best candidate before making her lose that status to Eggsy, it never happens. In fact Roxy is given her own subplot with a character arc and she never has her agency stripped away. There is no sexuality to her relationship with the other agents and she is allowed to be a flawed character which is refreshing. My biggest complaint is that while Roxy is such a great character she isn’t given a larger role especially towards the end when she essentially vanishes after wrapping up her character arc.
Meanwhile in one of his stranger portrayals in a while, Samuel L Jackson plays Richmond Valentine, a soft spoken lisping tech genius who lacks any traditionally masculine qualities and who has a fear of violence. The performance almost feels like Goldfinger but done in a far more over the top manner to the point where the strangeness makes it hard to tell if it is offensive or not. The performance is on a level comparable to Jackson’s performance as The Octopus in Frank Miller’s The Spirit in sheer weirdness. Valentine is a Steve Jobs type and he has a plan to save the world from global warming. It includes kidnapping Professor James Arnold (Mark Hamill) along with a number of other scientists, celebrities and world leaders who either agree with his mysterious plan or end up trapped in a dungeon inside his secret base. As Valentine advances his evil plot, the Kingman organization must band together to find out what all he plans to do and to stop him.
Accompanying Valentine is his legless bodyguard Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella. Gazelle has a pair of prosthetic legs with swords in them which is badass, ridiculous and surprisingly effective. Fortunately Gazelle never ends up letting her handicap hinder her effectiveness which is excellent. She is never insulted or even commented on for not having legs and she remains in control of who she is. She frequently takes down rooms of highly trained agents and bodyguards and she is never made the butt of a joke.
Thanks to long time Vaughn writing partner, Jane Goldman, the movie has a lot of fun along the way. This isn’t an overly serious and gritty James Bond film that drags on forever. You get your fun spy gadgets with setup and payoff. You get your banter between the super villain and the secret agents. You also get enough inverted tropes to keep you having fun and that is something that Matthew Vaughn revels in as a director. Vaughn is able to flip the switch on the violence changing it from enjoyably chaotic and fun to horrifyingly brutal and back again. If you are squeamish, you should be prepared to cover your eyes. The well crafted fight scenes are clear, the violence and blows have real impact and it is all well shot. Vaughn shows his talent and flair for action throughout the movie and makes it rise above what the film would have been in the hands of almost any other action director.
Kingsman: The Secret Service does have flaws, but they are mostly based on what could have been instead of what is. For what it is, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a highly enjoyable spy action film with some frank classist discussions and a bit more under the cap than you’d expect.