One of the first things my friends and I said to each other as the credits started rolling for this film was something along the lines of “I can’t believe a studio let Matthew Vaughn make this.” This was one of the most insane films to come out of a Hollywood studio in years. You had brutal violent and stylized action sequences, socio-economic themes at play, a hilariously over-the-top violent scene that basically holds a middle finger to everyone in the world who holds power, though it was based on pre-existing material, it wasn’t based off a popular one – and to top it all off, it was rated R. Hard R. Like insanely hard R. A film like this just doesn’t get made by Hollywood studios anymore, but here it was, and it was actually really great.
The plot follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a young street kid who is recruited into a top secret spy organization called Kingsman by agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth). As he goes through the training process, a billionaire tech genius named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) prepares to annihilate the earth’s population.
The film is well cast from top to bottom. Colin Firth has always carried the air of a gentleman throughout his performances in his career, and this time he gets to play it all tongue-in-cheek with the flair of a badass superspy. You’ve always been convinced he’s a gentleman, but now you’re also convinced he can kick ass. Taron Egerton is a star in the making as Eggsy, carrying the film against a cast filled with seasoned talent. He goes through the film with the same enthusiasm and wonder that you would if you were plucked to be a spy, but handles the darker and dramatic moments as well. Eggsy is having a lot of fun becoming a spy, and you get the sense that Egerton is too.
Samuel L. Jackson is having a blast as the film’s quasi-Steve Jobs villain Richmond Valentine. Sporting a lisp and a Yankees hat, Jackson milks every bit of screen-time and word of dialogue for all it’s worth. He pulls off multiple moments of comedy, spouting the f-word the magnetic way that only Jackson can. His right hand woman Gazelle is enjoyably performed by Sofia Boutella, a martial arts master with knives for legs that make for great action sequences. She may end up being Best Gun for Hire this year.
The action scenes are energetic and astounding to witness. Matthew Vaughn is the type of director that can get you the biggest bang for your buck. His action scenes have a kinetic and heightened aesthetic that always holds the audience, milking genuine anticipation and anxiety in their do-or-die moments. Possibly the greatest action sequence to be seen this year can be found in this film, when Harry Hart fights off scores of raging psychotic people inside a church. Much of it filmed in one take, it is absolutely jaw-dropping and inventive as Hart mows through them all one at a time doling out brutal and bloody punishment that induces more cringes and relief laughs with each takedown. Even with The Raid 2 and John Wick still fresh in memory, this action scene is still among the best of recent cinema. Look for Firth in my Action Hero Power Rankings at the end of the year just for that scene alone.
There have been complaints that the film mistreats its female characters, and those complaints aren’t coming out of nowhere. The film has some problems in this department, with most of the female characters an afterthought or punchline at best. One female character literally shows up to say her name and then die. One character ends up being – while in the moment working as a smirking punchline for Vaughn – a reward to have anal sex with. One of the other Kingsman candidates, Roxy (played admirably by Sophie Cookson), is treated as an afterthought side character despite her proficiency and participation in the climax. However, I was pleased to see that she didn’t just result as a romantic prize for Eggsy. It’s sad we live in a world where that’s a win, but we’ll take them where we can get them.
Throughout the film there is a running commentary on the state of the spy film that makes this film stand out as an excellent postmodern work. Early in the film Harry tells Kingsman leader Arthur (played respectfully by Michael Caine) that the times have changed and that they need new blood from outside the sophisticated upper class. In one scene Firth and Jackson’s characters talk about how they love the old escapist spy films, that the modern ones are too dark. In a later pivotal scene, the two comment on how their current scenario would play out in a spy film like the ones they reminisced over earlier. This film manages the admirable feat of dissecting and riffing off various spy films while also being one of the best spy films this century.