Some superheroes fly solo, some have sidekicks and some form partnerships, spinning gold out of thin air when together, capable but never quite complete without someone at their side. Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman first collaborated on the screenplay of Stardust, based on Neil Gaiman’s novel, then Kick-Ass from the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr before working on X-Men: First Class, relaunching in stunning style the once successful movie franchise which had fallen badly from grace. Stepping out together for their fourth adventure they’ve chosen The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons as their target, but can they create the magic a fourth time?
Opening with a black ops mission gone bad, the year is 1997 and an interrogation of a captured enemy agent leads to the heroic death of Kingsman Lancelot, saving his team including Harry Hart, codename Galahad, his friend and mentor.
Harry returns to London to deliver the news to his devastated widow Michelle, unable to reveal the circumstances of the tragedy but promising that the debt will be repaid. Angry, she refuses the offer, so Harry instead gives the proffered pendant to her now fatherless young son Gary, telling him that should he ever find himself in trouble, to call the number on the back and repeat the phrase: “It’s Oxfords, not brogues.”
Slipping to the present, Galahad finds himself in the same situation as seventeen years before; the latest Lancelot whom he also recruited has been killed in action, a solo mission involving the kidnap of Professor James Arnold, expert on climate change and Gaia theory.
The Kingsmen are called together by their superior, Arthur, and asked to consider a replacement, while across town a young man who goes by the name of Eggsy has just found himself on the wrong side of the law after joyriding in a stolen car, allowing himself to be arrested to give his friends a chance to escape. With nothing left to lose, he remembers a promise made many years ago from the stranger who told him his father was dead…
From the opening moments, it’s obvious that director Vaughn will not be observing cultural sensitivities, the main titles tumbling together from masonry blown off ancient monuments by rocket fire from an assault helicopter in a manner which would make Team America proud, but this is an altogether more sophisticated endeavour as befits its British origins, though the Kingsmen are, in the words of Galahad, “an international intelligence agency operating at the highest level of discretion.”
Leading the cast as Harry “Galahad” Hart is Colin Firth, respected actor of the stage and screen best known for his prominent roles as English gentlemen, even royalty, in such productions as Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech, though with his trusty umbrella as useful deflecting bullets as the British weather, he is more John Steed on speed than Fitzwilliam Darcy; if anything, Firth demonstrates what a loss it was that Ralph Fiennes was cast in the misguided feature film of The Avengers rather than the unflappable Firth.
Beside him is relative newcomer Taron Egerton as Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a good kid in a bad place; his mother’s boyfriend is the thug who runs the local estate, and he can’t leave her knowing she wouldn’t be safe, nor does he have anywhere to go to nor any prospects if he stays.
He was a gymnastics champion at primary school and he’s smart, fast and intelligent, but his only option – military service – was curtailed by his mother’s fears that she would lose him in action as she lost her husband.
Invited to what Mark Strong’s Merlin describes as “the most dangerous job interview in the world,” screen legend Michael Caine’s Arthur is less convinced that Eggsy can fit in, his misgivings that the young man isn’t “one of us” ironic from the working class actor who has struggled his whole career to rise above the perceptions of his background, and that prejudice is reflected in what Eggsy encounters, the Cambridge and Eton gents who immediately form a clique with only Sophie Cookson’s Roxy accepting of him.
With Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson’s soundtrack deliberately recalling the magnificence of John Barry, the pacing of the film is reflected in the rapidity of the training scenarios; every time, neither the audience not the candidates have time to think or adjust, they must simply react, analyse and adapt immediately, or die, but Eggsy is among the best of them.
Full of kinetic camerawork, crazy gadgets, globetrotting locations concealing secret bases and a genuine supervillain lair, it’s the anti-Bond, a knowing and affectionate pastiche which never fails to lose its own identity nor descend into farce even as it joyfully plays endless games of ridiculous one-upmanship.
As supervillain Richmond Valentine, Samuel L Jackson is having a ball, though his diabolical masterplan is pure Bond villain, a conversation Valentine and Galahad actually have, specifically Drax from the film version of Moonraker: save the planet by killing the people. “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot,” Valentine says, wistfully recalling his preference for the spy thrillers of bygone years, though he’s also correct when he says “This ain’t that kind of a movie.” Whatever the influences, this is Vaughn and Goldman’s film, and nobody does it better.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is now on general release