Kingsman: The Secret Service is a delightfully silly spy spoof.
Warning: this review contains light story spoilers for Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Kingsman has a light touch, poking fun at classic James Bond films, alongside more modern fare like the Bourne movies and 24. But it also has heart, a subversive undercurrent and a great deal of love for its characters.
Kingsman is an adaptation of a comic book, The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. It centers on Harry (alias, Galahad — yes, like the knight of the round table), a capable, dapper secret agent played by Colin Firth. Galahad is part of a secret fellowship of agents who work out of a fancy suit shop in London's Savile Row. In the opening scene, a younger agent saves Galahad and other Kingsmen from a suicide bomber, giving his life.
Fast forward to the present day, and the deceased agent's son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), has wandered to the wrong side of the tracks. He may be in a bad spot, but he's also smart and athletic. After a run-in with the law, Eggsy meets Galahad and gets invited to join the Kingsmen team.
Meanwhile, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is a billionaire media mogul with a lisp, and his right-hand lady Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is a gorgeous assassin with blades for legs. Naturally, these two are plotting no good. A class of young Kingsmen hopefuls must step up to take on the megalomaniacs, and Galahad is already on the job with an arsenal of kooky gadgets and witty quips.
Kingsman is over-the-top and ultraviolent, from its first ridiculous siege on an Iraqi castle to a massive fight scene set in a hate group's church stronghold. There are bulletproof umbrellas, exploding heads, and impossible, Matrix-style acrobatics.
But for all its absurdity, the movie never lets its characters get lost in the endless string of insane stunts and physical gags. All of the main characters are lovable, or, at the very least, of the "love to hate them" ilk. Eggsy is tough and street-smart, as loyal and likable as a puppy. In the beginning of the movie, he sticks around home in order to protect his mother from her abusive partner.
As Eggsy trains to become an agent, he befriends Roxy (Sophie Cookson), a young woman also up for position with the Kingsmen. She's accomplished, but team-oriented and friendly to Eggsy when the rest of the candidates — all rich snobs — reject him. Roxy is the kind of buddy character that almost always would have been a man in the movies Kingsman is spoofing. It's refreshing to see a young woman in a non-stereotyped role in an action film. Likewise, it’s a credit to the film that Eggsy sees her as a friend and colleague, not as a booty call or potential love interest.
On the love-to-hate side are Valentine and Gazelle, playing an over-the-top cartoon villain and his muscle, respectively. Samuel L. Jackson is clearly enjoying the role, chewing up scenery when Gazelle isn't literally destroying it with her lethal legs.
Valentine and Gazelle are a pleasure to watch — this is pure Austin Powers-level spoofing here — but they bring up the only really uncomfortable aspect of the film. The "good guys" in Kingsman come from all backgrounds in terms of money and gender, but they are all white, whereas the top villains are almost all people of color.
Are they great characters? Certainly. But I was uneasy with the implicit dichotomy. Kingsman does well with other aspects of diversity that tend to be short-thrifted in these kinds of movies: Women have a place at the table as active agents, and there is a good deal of honest discussion about class privilege and how it affects one's place in the world. So how did it end up with these weird racial politics?
Outside of the racial oversight, the movie is refreshingly self-aware. There are moments when it flirts with fourth-wall-breaking, without tripping all over itself. In one scene, Galahad and Valentine have dinner and discuss spy movies. All but winking at the camera, Galahad claims he likes the older ones, as the newer films tend to be too serious these days.
Less is more with self-referential humor, and Kingsman is wise to apply it sparingly.
Kingsman is deftly produced. There's a lot of love for the source material that it's sending up, and a clear understanding of what makes an action-comedy work. It's confident in its ability to go all the way over the top for a joke, and just as comfortable giving its audience something to think about in terms of class and gender. In every way, Kingsman is smart about its silliness.