Friday, February 13, 2015


For a few years in the late 80's and 90's, one of the hottest names in science fiction blockbusters was an eccentric Dutchman named Paul Verhoven (Robocop, Total Recall). Part of the director's appeal - apart from a contagious enthusiasm for splatterific violence - was the way the films balanced wild appeasement of the id while also being a lot smarter than they let on. The mix of genre-savvy idea-driven film-making and biting satire were sometimes so skillfully folded into his movies that some missed the joke entirely (see: the initial reactions to Starship Troopers).

The reason I bring this up in relation to a spy movie from a different director? Because, in short, Matthew Vaughn is playing the exact same sort of game. And doing a damn good job of it too.

Kingsman: The Secret Service re-teams Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, X-men: First Class) with comic book writer Mark Millar. The two previously collaborated on the superhero send-up Kick-Ass, which, though it features one of the finest Nicholas Cage performances of the century, couldn't quite find its way to a coherent theme or consistent tone. Their new film has some of the same tonal problems (some of the irascible nihilism just doesn't jive with the unabashedly fun way the Vaughn shoots pretty much everything), but the movie knows exactly the main point it's trying to make, and hammers that home like as though wielding Mjolnir itself.

At its core, Kingsman is very much a James Bond homage/spoof by way of British boarding school fiction. If Harry Potter had been invited into "Baby MI-6" instead of Hogwarts, you're halfway to knowing more or less what's going on during this entire enterprise, but that's part of the movie's genius that threads through the film. Young hoodlum Eggsy gets invited to replace a fallen Kingsman because the aristocratic Agent Galahad (yes, they take their names from the Knights of the Round Table, and yes, that's awesome) owes a debt to Eggsy's father. Galahad believes that the world has moved on and the Kingsmen can no longer rely solely on the aristocrats and social elite to fill their ranks, the movie has more than few bones to pick with class issues (though, interestingly, a near-fetishistic obsession with the upper-class accouterments like suits, glasses, watches, dress shoes and umbrellas that house the Kingsmen's Q Branch-worthy gadgets). But the real feather in this film's cap is less in Eggsy's social background than his age.

The James Bond movies have always been, just as the novels were, adolescent power fantasies, and with this movie Vaughn and company have chosen to confront that truth head-on by making the hero a literal adolescent. Eggsy may be technically an adult (old enough to have a beer in a pub and enlist in the Marines, anyway), but in everything from appearance to mannerisms to boarding school melodrama, he's absolutely a boy. It makes everything seem so much more honest (and is a great lampshade on some of the less tasteful jokes) while never undercutting the escapism of a young man trying to improve his circumstances. . . by saving the world from super-villains.

It also helps that Matthew Vaughn has serious knack for delivering escapist thrills that let the viewer feel as gleefully indulgent as its violent protagonists. Vaughn has emerged as one of the best action directors in Hollywood, and Kingsmen is a movie where he throws in everything, including the kitchen sink and all the dishes that were soaking in it. It's wild, dirty, flashy, crude, and absolutely mesmerizing, striking a great stylistic balance between the cartoonish Roger Moore Bonds and the slickly polished Brosnan era (though the movie leans on the cartoonish, as it's working with less than half the budget of your average Bond movie). There's one particular sequence in a church (you'll know it when you see it) that is an absolute stand-out, but also so brutal, hateful, and cynical that it's amazing that a major studio let it into the film in the first place.

And make no mistake, this movie is furious, and will likely infuriate its fare share of viewers. You're definitely going to get the laughs and thrills that the trailers have promised (and yes, Samuel L. Jackson is every bit as entertaining as you'd hope as "Bill Gates by way of Blofeld"), but the anger with which the film attacks even its own inspiration (while at the same time affectionately aping it) is at times overwhelming. It doesn't help that the tone and focus of the movie don't quite find their footing until the finale when the "Boarding School for Spies" and "Colin Firth does one of the best damn Bond impressions ever" storylines finally dovetail. But for all the shabbiness and snarkiness, there's a real thematic point about our concept of the "spy vs. spy" world or 007 literally being a schoolboy's wet dream to be found.

"Let's just call this what it is," the movie says. But it does so with a wink and a smile and an invitation to the audience to enjoy  most of the ride regardless.

No comments:

Post a Comment