Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

If you want to claim that I am overthinking things in the review, I won't necessarily argue. Sometime in the middle of his run on The Ultimates, I just got sick of Mark Millar seeming to have nothing more in his quiver than bigger destruction, cheap pop-culture gags, and just generally doing the sort of "mature readers" comics that are basically the same story as the other but with more blood. I dropped Fantastic Four for a few months while he was on it, even though I figure he wouldn't quite go the same route there.

I do not like the guy's work, but I liked the idea of Colin Firth as a Harry Palmer-like spy enough to give it a try, especially since Matthew Vaughn has done good work elsewhere. Ah, well.

Anyway, the over-explaining of the over-thinking involves talking about the end, so scroll down past the excerpt from the eFilmCritic review for that.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

Comic book writer Mark Millar has come up with a good racket in recent years; he may be far from the best storyteller in the medium, but he's unmatched in pitching ideas (usually "familiar concept with a twist that makes it more violent") and self-promoting in a way that gets both readers and Hollywood to buy in early, especially since he's had enough prior success to attract talented collaborators. What comes out the other side is generally good-looking but cynical junk, and Kingsman - talented director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of The Secret Service, a comic Millar did with talented artist Dave Gibbons - doesn't buck the trend by much.

The film posits a privately-funded intelligence agency that fancies itself knights of a modern-day round table, run by "Arthur" (Michael Caine), with the knights nominating potential replacements when one of their number falls. The deaths of two agents - one in 1997 and one in 2014 - set things up, with "Galahad" Harry Hart promising a favor to the son of the first and nominating the grown Gary "Egsy" I win (Taron Egerton) when the second dies investigating the kidnapping of a climate-change researcher (Mark Hamill). So while Galahad follows a trail that leads to internet mogul and philanthropist Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), working-class Egsy finds himself in a potentially-lethal "job interview" against aristocratic competition.

There are actually kernels of interesting ideas in here, whether they come from the original comic or the screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman: The script isn't cute about hiding that Egsy is very far out of place among the upper-class types that populate Kingsman, and Valentine's scheme is born out of extreme environmentalism. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't have the courage of its apparent convictions. Put aside the fact that for all its early platitudes, it's still set up as a bunch of white guys saving the world from a self-made African-American man and his differently-abled partner (Sofia Boutella) - if class is a thing you're going to give lip service to, maybe having the most principled character be an actual princess isn't the way to go. Or maybe, on the way to attacking Valentine's base to stop his horrifying plan, you could actually deal with how many apparently intelligent people he is able to convince of its necessity. There's a moment of blood and guts near the end that could have been hugely cathartic, but because the movie doesn't let its well-earned resentment actually go all the way to the core, it just wins up being the sort of violence that begs for attention by how extreme the artists are willing to be.


I focus a lot on the social class resentment that the movie should be full of but isn't in the review, both because the film makes a point of talking about it early on and because the big supposedly-shocking scene toward the end only works if you go at it from that angle. It's a big deal that needs to be given some weight, but the filmmakers seem to avoid it.

See, I think what they're going for is the idea that blowing up all those heads is supposed to be cathartic - everyone in Washington and other corridors of power, presumably corporate as well as governmental, has basically sold the people out, buying into Valentine's scheme so long as they can save their skins, and thus they're getting what they deserve for doing so. Unfortunately, Vaughn/Goldman/Millar don't make that clear in the movie, and so it basically comes across as just "look how badass the characters/writers are - they killed all those people without blinking!" Which is weak, though, because the reason why Merlin, Egsy, and Roxy are doing this on their own is that they don't know who to trust and who not to, so they're doing this thing as a purely defensive measure. We're supposed to laugh, not actually feel anything.

It reminds me of the last scene of Escape from L.A., except that John Carpenter took a moment to make sure that it was clear that Snake Plissken knew exactly what he was doing. Folks decry how many people he must have killed in that moment, but that actually just made it a legitimately impressive moment - there's conviction to Snake shutting the world down so that it can be built back up, whereas Kingsman is just flailing.

And then the last scene is just people going about their business like nothing had happened, further undercutting what should have been a moment with consequence. Instead, it's just violence whose entire purpose is to make people look cool because they didn't hold back. That only works, though, when there's a sense that the folks involved know what holding back means, and that's something this movie seems to lack.


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