In 2006, Matthew Vaughn came within a whisker of rebooting the James Bond franchise with Daniel Craig, believing for 24 hours that he’d been given the job of directing Casino Royale. While he ultimately missed out on the gig to Martin Campbell, almost a decade later Vaughn has been given the chance to finally make the spy movie of his boyhood dreams with Kingsman: The Secret Service, a frenzied sugar-rush of a film that sends up the spy genre with visual panache but occasionally becomes too overblown for its own good.
With his fifth film as director, Vaughn does to spy movies what Kick-Ass did to superhero films. Kingsman nods and winks to the classics of the genre like John Steed, Harry Palmer and, of course, 007, whilst also audaciously subverting conventions by going to places that those movies always feared to tread.
Que a rapid explosion of hyper-violent, slickly stylish action beats that ooze with the whizz-bang vigour of a Vaughn hyped-up on fizzy pop. Two sequences stand out for their spectacular violence: Firth’s despatching of a gang of thugs in a local pub that is so gloriously OTT it makes the pub-fu of The World’s End look like a mild scuffle; and a thrilling Battle Royale in a church that comes on like The Raid meets Shaun of the Dead.
But Vaughn also proves he can create the thrills without the slick tricks and slow-mo, bullet-dodging acrobatics, with a stripped-back sky-diving sequence that is edge-of-your-pants tense. Maybe Vaughn isn’t such a bad fit for a Bond film after all.
Though Kingsman has the tone of a virtual love letter to the colourful Bond films of yesteryear, the actual story plays out like a superhero origin story as Firth’s stylish superspy Harry Hart recruits Taron Egerton’s chavtastic rough diamond – a petty criminal who’s wasting his potential by hanging with the wrong crowd – and training him in the elite art of international espionage.
Through Eggsy’s transformation from streetwise hoodlum to suave gentleman we see Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman (working from a comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) make a surprising attempt to challenge the class divide. The central story is ultimately about a young man trying to escape the perceived limitations of his council estate upbringing to give his family the quality of life he feels they deserve.
To do so Eggsy must prove his mettle against a bunch of Oxbridge-brat cadets and the archaic landed gentry that control the Kingsman. Vaughn and Goldman may paint the class system with the broadest of strokes, but the inclusion of this admirable and hopeful plight is what makes Eggsy such a rootable hero.
Egerton is outstanding in a role that is a stark contrast to his recent turn in Testament of Youth, adroitly selling himself as both a belligerent young offender and as a smooth super-spy. Crucially, Egerton never loses the cheeky smirk that reveals the kind-hearted kid underneath – a trait that is vital in keeping the audience onside when he loses his way.
Firth, as well, is a hoot as seriously suave agent ‘Galahad’, deploying that cut-class accent that is the epitome of upper-class Britishness to dead-pan effect and throwing himself into the kind of ultra-violent activities that could earn the 54-year-old a spot among the geri-actioners – especially after a Sunday service brawl sees Firth clock up a body count to rival Stallone’s career best.
Kingsman is not entirely perfect, however, and there are a few faltering steps to be found. The action is, for the most part, a visual delight, but there are also times when the violence is so outrageously cartoonish – such as a groovy fireworks display that wipes out many of the world’s most high-profile public figures – that it quickly looses its shock value.
Vaughn also spends too long grappling with a fairly conventional training section (there’s a reason most superhero movies swiftly despatch these in a montage) that unavoidably keeps Eggsy and Hart apart and deprives the audience of the joy of seeing their chalk ‘n’ cheese relationship develop.
This structural misstep also leaves the film with barely enough time to explore Samuel L. Jackson’s lisping-villain’s Machiavellian scheme, which hinges on a madcap idea to spark a global genocide by controlling people’s minds through mobile satellites, and as a consequence Valentine hardly registers as a larger-than-life villain.
These are but minor quibbles of course, and ultimately Kingsman succeeds in its desire to be a riotous, subversive slice a good fun that cranks the action-man antics up to 11 and has its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek. A classic style that feels positively refreshing in this modern era of the moody, hard-boiled spy thriller.
Running time: 128 mins; Genre: Action/Thriller; Released: 29 January 2015;
Director: Matthew Vaughn; Screenwriters: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman;
Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L Jackson, Mark Strong
Click here to watch a trailer for Kingsman: The Secret Service