Ok, that’s it, we need a name for this. The practice of consciously rejecting the previous trend of gritty realism in genre films, in favor of a more old-school, colorful sense of fun has become so commonplace that I think it’s time we just acknowledged it as a cultural trend on its own – and we need something to call it. Post-Nolanism? Anti-Grit? Post-Grit? Post-Grit – Post-Grit! Ok, I like that. And if anything’s bloody post-grit, it’s Kingsman, the new spy film that might as well be subtitled I Don’t Care for Those New Bond Films. Or maybe Nudge-Nudge, Wink Wink for how crammed it is with post-modern references to the well-worn tropes of classic spy movies. It’s pretty damn hard to look at Kingsman and not see it as about as reactionary a film as possible: an unapologetic love letter to the camp and zaniness of the Bond movies of yesteryear, embracing all the gadgets, doomsday plots and tongue-in-cheek humor that modern Bond movies have cast off with the coming of Daniel Craig. Of course, this is also a Matthew Vaughn movie based on a Mark Millar comic, so it’s a tribute to classic Bond mixed liberally with cussing, violence, and a sense of the gleefully juvenile. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. Kingsman isn’t a classy movie – you basically have to accept that going in. There are exploding heads, people getting cut in half by weaponized prostheses, and if you can stay till the end, there’s even some butt stuff. But if you’re cool with that, if that’s your thing, it’s about as fun a time at the movies as you can hope for.
Taron Egerton stars as Eggsy, a teenager who finds out that his long dead father was a member of Kingsman (not “the kingsmen” as 90% of the audience are likely to mislabel both the organization and the movie), a secret agency dedicated to preserving peace through all manner of spy shenanigans. He learns this through Colin Firth’s Galahad, a seasoned Kingsman agent who takes Eggsy under his wing, and begins training him as a spy and a gentleman, a difficult task since Eggsy’s vocabulary contains more than the allotted number of apostrophes, ‘iff you ‘atch my drift, ‘innit guv’. While all this is happening, Sam Jackson’s Valentine, a wealthy philanthropist, sets in motion a plan to avert climate change that naturally involves killing a very large number of people, and only Eggsy Kingsman can stop him.
As I mentioned before, Kingsman is both a loving tribute to spy films of old and an extended post-modern riff on the tropes of those same spy films. At times, the latter can get a bit tiresome. Oh yeah, it’s fun when the characters talk about how modern spy movies aren’t their cup of tea, and crack jokes about how “this is the part where the badguy tells the hero his plan before dropping him into an elaborate death trap” but after a while the nudge-nudge in-jokes can wear a tad thin. There’s also kind of a sense that the movie is trying to have its cake and eat it to, cracking jokes and post-modernly subverting the tropes of old spy movies, while at the same time embracing them with all the gusto and fury of impassioned lovers at the airport after a long absence. But I think what’s really going on is that Kingsman isn’t subverting these tropes out of a sense of early 2000s cynicism, but out of a genuine love and affection for the material, warts and all. It’s like a Terry Pratchett novel or something, wryly pointing out just how silly all this is and how easy it is to subvert the tropes for comedic effect, but then turning around and going “all the same, as long as we’re here, let’s have fun with it, shall we?”
And fun it most certainly is. Especially when the third act arrives and everything shifts into high gear, it feels like Vaughn really lets his hair down and goes into full-on kid in a sandbox mode, indulging every creative impulse no matter how juvenile or anarchic. Things get pretty damn ridiculous, and everyone is clearly having enough of a good time with it that it’s hard to resist spending the last half hour or so with a big ‘ole smile plastered across your face. Which isn’t to say the first two thirds of it aren’t fun, either. The action scenes are this hyper kinetic blend of sped-up motion, slow mo, quick little digital zooms a-la Snowpiercer, and enough shaky-cam that it doesn’t become a bother, and all of them fun and inventively choreographed.
The cast are all clearly having a ball, and Taron Egerton manages to have enough charisma as a leading man that it isn’t hard to see why Disney allegedly approached him about playing a young Han Solo. Sam Jackson clearly enjoys playing a villain enough that I won’t be surprised when if we start seeing him in more villain roles in the future, and Colin Firth is great, but really that’s to be expected. Even Mark Hamill has a small role, and while he doesn’t exactly steal the show, he’s good enough to make up for the preposterously bad turn he gave in Sushi Girl. If there’s any one weak link, it’s Sophie Cookson as Roxy, one of Eggsy’s fellow spies-in-training. She isn’t bad, but as far as being multi-dimensional goes, she isn’t exactly The Crisis on Infinite Earths. She’s basically an afterthought in the long run, and you can feel the script straining to give her something interesting to do in that bombastic third act before more or less forgetting about her. Hopefully she gets an expanded role in the inevitable sequel, since Cookson does seem to be trying and frankly deserves more than the paper-thin material she’s given.
And really there isn’t much else to say about Kingsman. It’s just fun. It’s a rollicking, often juvenile, occasionally clunky but never in a deal breaking way, fun as heck day at the movies and we don’t have enough of those outside of summer movie season, and even then ones with actual charm and wit are depressingly few and far between. It may overdo it on the meta jokes but if you’re in the right mindset you’re basically guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face.