A film that manages to mildly poke fun at the British spy genre while still embracing its tropes and succeeding at being a terrific action work all at once, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE begins as a recruitment story and becomes a full-blown save-the-world adventure, all while its stars look good doing it.
From the Mark Millar (KICK-ASS) comic book series and directed by Matthew Vaughn (LAYER CAKE, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, and, yes, KICK-ASS), Kingsman lets you think for a time that it's the story of a Harry Hart, aka Galahad (Colin Firth), an esteemed member of spy organization the Kingsman, whose accomplishments are so hush-hush that no one even knows the exist. On that rare occasion when a member is killed, each Kingman recruits a young candidate to replace, and the handful of young men and women enter into a series of trials until one is left. Galahad selects Eggsy (relative newcomer Taron Egerton), something of a punk kid but also the son of a former Kingman who was a true friend of Galahad's.
But at a certain point in the second half of the film, KINGSMAN reveals itself to really be Eggsy's story, as he works his way through test after test, under the watchful eye of Mark Strong's recruitment overseer, Merlin, and Kingsman's chief, Arthur (Michael Caine). While Eggsy is working his way through the ranks, Galahad is tied up figuring out the evil plot of billionaire tech guru Valentine (a lispy Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Gazelle (Algerian powerhouse Sofia Boutella), who has nasty blades in place of her legs.
As nasty as that sounds, it's actually 10 times nastier. In fact, the same holds true for KINGSMAN as a whole; the violence level, cartoonish as it may be, is exceptionally gory. One lengthy sequence in particular, involving a massacre in a church filled with white supremacists, is so kinetically brutal it may make you heave from both the blood and guts and the crazy camera movements.
Working from an adaptation by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE works so well because, frankly, it doesn't give a fuck how crazy its various stories are. It exists in a world where spy movies and TV shows are a big part of pop culture (James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer are all mentioned...as fictional characters), and in many ways the Kingsman are trying to show that those Hollywood spies are pussies compared to the real deal. Vaughn has never been more assured and confident as a director given what appears to be total freedom to lose his fool mind in this world.
As much as the big special effects moments and large-scale action sequences with explosions and gunplay are fun, KINGSMAN in never better than when it scales things back and gives us great hand-to-hand (or hand-to-razor feet) combat, like an early scene in a bar between Galahad and a small army of local thugs, or the aforementioned church sequence. Watching the perfect British gentleman Firth go through the action paces is an unexpected and much welcome treat, and he handles both the humor and serious moments with a deft wit. And he's quite nimble at kicking ass with an umbrella.
Matthew Vaughn has established himself not only as a great adapter of comic book properties, but he has a keen sense of what makes a particular set of characters interesting on the page and finds ways to make them equally enjoyable on the screen—sometimes by reinventing them. And he's also quite gifted at adapting his style to the property and adding or subtracting from the pacing to fit the mood of the material. He has a producing credit on the upcoming FANTASTIC 4, and I hope some of his style has seeped into that reboot the way it did with X-MEN. But we're here to talk about KINGSMAN, and it's a whole lot of subversive, twisted, nasty fun in a custom-tailored sit.