Sunday, February 15, 2015

Class, Style and Substance: Kingsman: The Secret Service, Reviewed

(Spoiler-free, as always, but there's quite a few gossipy bits at the end. Fair warning and all that.)

Matthew Vaughn is fast becoming one of my favourite directors.  His keen eye and appreciation for the fantastic covers an immense range, from the charming neo-fairytale of Stardust, through the coarse violence of Kick-Ass, and he split the difference between these extremes quite handily with X-Men: First Class.  He was supposed to follow that up with the sequel, Days of Future Past, but opted out so that he could instead do another comic book adaptation: the much lesser known Kingsman: The Secret Service, written by Mark (Kick-Ass) Millar and illustrated by Dave (Watchmen) Gibbons. This worked out famously for fans, as it brought original X-Men director Bryan Singer back behind the lens for DOFP and got us a tremendously entertaining action/adventure spy film in the bargain, one which might have more to say than is immediately apparent.

In case you haven't seen the trailer, Kingsman centers around a young Londoner, fatherless and aimless, named Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin (Taron Egerton), someone whose lower-class upbringing and difficult family situation have seen him ignoring his potential and getting into all sorts of trouble, culminating with a joyriding spree that sees him sent to the lockup.  With his free phone call, he dials the number on the back of his father's posthumous medal, mysteriously presented to him and his mother as representing 'a favour', and finds himself sprung shortly afterwards by the dapper and disciplined Harry Hart. Hart is immaculately portrayed by the wonderful Colin Firth, makes his displeasure of Eggsy's lack of direction extremely clear.

In short order, Eggsy discovers this judgmental, upper-class ponce is, in fact, a member of a highly trained, deeply financed private intelligence organization called The Kingsmen. Unburdened by the foibles of politics, they dedicate themselves to protecting their country and maintaining the peace as best they can, aided by a nearly ridiculous assortment of covert equipment and weapons and an unmistakable sense of style that never descends into swagger.  When an opportunity to undergo Kingsman selection presents itself, Eggsy has a go.

The remainder of the film divides itself between Hart's investigation of the film's villainous technocrat, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), and Eggsy's experiences at what is essentially Hogwarts for spies, under the tutelage and evaluation of Merlin (Mark Strong, in a rare and compelling turn as a non-villain).  Nothing tremendously surprising about the way the plot slowly draws these two stories together, but in the end, it is a spy movie, so certain forms are to be expected, right? Perhaps even anticipated.

It's an R-rated action film, so there is a significant amount of violence in the movie, although they take tremendous care about 'spilling the claret' as it were, perhaps in deference to Valentine's aversion to bloodshed:
Valentine: "I have no stomach for violence. Literally!  I see one drop of blood, that is me, done.  Like, projectile."

Despite their gore-free nature, the action sequences are unsurprisingly well done, and Vaughn brings his trademark kineticism and judicious use of slow-motion and 360 degree pans to bear, along with a handful of "Whoa!" moments. He never lets the viewer lose sight of what the scene is about, whether it is triumph, escape, or in one tragically brilliant scene, something else entirely.  While such scenes often demand a fairly high amount of CGI, it is done with a light touch throughout most of the movie, and when an exception is made for the point of art or humour, it is completely on point.

There is also a liberal amount of f-bombing throughout the movie, so if that is an issue for you, well, forewarned is half an octopus.  It never feels particularly gratuitous, and in fact, it's difficult to imagine a fight in a dingy scouse pub with some miserable chav without hearing a surplus of carnal verbs tossed about.

As Kingsman operative Galahad, Colin Firth needs to convey two disparate and often incompatible elements: the aforementioned sense of style and gentlemanly manner (aided by a brilliant wardrobe and accouterments) coupled with the intrinsic ability to visit damage on those who oppose him.

Now, I like Colin Firth quite a bit, especially his comedic work, but I believe he brings his best to the table when he is required to blend humour and pathos together, such as he did in The King's Speech. With all that behind him, I would have forgiven Vaughn if he had the stuntmen doing the heavy lifting for Firth in the movie's demanding and highly engaging action sequences, a la the later Roger Moore Bond films.  Imagine my surprise then, when the 54 year-old fellow from Mamma Mia starts not only competently kicking ass in job lots, with an undertone of ruthlessness, and never without losing that same sense of style.  (Mind you, after seeing how well Vaughn handled Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, maybe I shouldn't have been so shocked, eh?)

No matter what he is doing in this movie, Firth is nothing less than credible, and I hope he gets more opportunities to show this newer side.

Taron Egerton does an amazing job carrying off what could have easily ended up a cardboard caricature of 'working class kid does good'.  The screenplay gives him a number of facets to work with, and he takes full advantage of all of them, from the dedicated son who is helpless to pull his mum away from her abusive, hard-man boyfriend, to the whip-smart military drop-out who doesn't dare appear like he is trying to be better than his social peers.  Whether it's laughing to show how little he cares for the scorn of dangerous people, or the actual anger he feels at how little control he has over his life and opportunities, this young actor shifts effortlessly from braggadocio to humility, and conveys deep emotional honesty as well as an ability to crack wise and bring laughs with the best of them.

(Egerton is rumored to be in consideration as Cyclops in the next X-Men movie, which is some pretty non-intuitive casting, but something I'd be curious to see.)

Speaking of class, though, this is where there appear to be a couple of interesting subtexts in Kingsman. Early in his training, it becomes clear that Eggsy is a bit of an experiment, as he is the only candidate without money or an aristocratic background. This societal gap gets brought up a few times in the course of the movie. Similarly, while Valentine's nefarious plan will bring wholesale destruction to a significant portion of the planet's population, he is also keenly interested in preserving the cream of the crop: royalty, heads of state, prominent academics and the extremely well-off.  The movie does a wonderful job playing the upper and lower class against each other without becoming a ghastly polemic, but given the eventual dispositions of these two groups during the film's climax, I wonder if there might be more to it.

I discovered something interesting about Matthew Vaughn this morning that made me wonder it even more.  I had no idea that there was any connection between him and American actor Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), but Wikipedia informed me that he was involved with Vaughn's mother, socialite Kathy Ceaton in the 1970's, and had initially insisted that young Matthew be given his last name, and favoured him with presents and the like.  At some point though, he dropped all contact, and the reason for it didn't come out until an interview published in 2002, just prior to the director's marriage to German supermodel Claudia Schiffer.

When asked if he would be attending the wedding, the actor slowly and deliberately stated, "That matter was resolved in the Eighties in America, both scientifically and legally in the Superior Court of Los Angeles. The litigant lost. That's all I'm saying. You understand what that means?" indicating that he was not Matthew Vaughn's father.  He refused to be drawn in as to how this could have remained for unknown for so long, especially given the persistent and remorselessness of Britain's tabloid culture, and it appears that the son himself had no clue whatsoever.

In a follow up article two years later, it appears Vaughn's mother confessed that his real father was actually a minor British aristocrat, and Vaughn now goes by the name Matthew de Vere Drummond in his private life.  Being illegitimate precludes him from someday becoming the earl of Oxford and Mortimer, but with his brilliant moviemaking career (both as a producer and a director), a supermodel wife and two healthy children, he seems to be doing all right for himself despite all that.

Still, with having grown up in a single parent household, with a completely incorrect notion of your father, overcoming obstacles (colour-blindness and ADHD) and transitioned from the working class to the upper crust through a combination of good timing, unrecognized talent and perseverance gives Matthew Vaughn a fair bit in common with Gary Unwin, wouldn't you say?

Where was I going with this again? Oh right!  Many of my friends in the UK would call Kingsman a 'cracking yarn', with action, thrills, laughs, and a bit of sadness and suspense to boot, a cheeky film that has its fun both within and outside the conventions of Britain's 'Gentleman Spy' genre, gleefully having its cake and shooting it with an umbrella too.  On top of that though, director Matthew Vaughn, perhaps due to his own interesting background, appears to have some pithy observations about society and class struggle that are an unexpected treat in what stands a good chance of becoming a new action franchise*.  Like the titular agency itself, Kingsman does good work, and looks good doing it.

* Oh, and if that doesn't work out, the filmmakers have also created a Kingsman line of fashions and accessories, vended by British online retailer Mr. Porter.)

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