Friday, February 13, 2015

Kingsman: Gleefully vicious carnage

Kingsman (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and very strong violence

By Derrick Bang

At its more entertaining moments — which are many — this is a wildly audacious, totally bonkers spy spoof in the classic 1960s mold; the best echoes hearken back to James Coburn’s two grand Derek Flint flicks, Our Man Flint and In Like Flint.

When Harry (Colin Firth, center) brings Eggsy (Taron Egerton, left) to a posh tailor's shop
in order to outfit the young man properly, they're surprised to find Richard Valentine (Samuel
L. Jackson) present for the same reason. "Surprised," because Harry and Valentine already
have learned that they're mortal enemies...
It’s clever, funny, exhilarating and ferociously paced by director Matthew Vaughn and editors Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris.

Unfortunately, it’s also atrociously, grotesquely violent in spots: “wet” to a degree that makes a mockery of its R rating. Such intentions are signaled quite early, when one of our protagonists is dispatched in a manner more appropriate to gory horror flicks ... and, indeed, I recall seeing precisely such butchery in the gruesome 2001 remake of 13 Ghosts.

Comic-book sensibilities or not, this is pretty repugnant stuff for a mainstream production sporting an A-list cast topped by Colin Firth and Michael Caine. And while this early scene is the worst, it’s by no means alone; one particular character — the aptly named Gazelle, played with panache by Sofia Boutella — is responsible for quite a few sliced and diced limbs.

At the same time...

There’s no denying that Vaughn is playing to his fan base, which enthusiastically embraced his similarly über-violent 2010 adaptation of Kick-Ass. Such folks are guaranteed to cheer an all-stops-out melee that erupts in the third act: a brutally choreographed display of hand-to-hand slaughter on par with Uma Thurman’s assault on “The Crazy 88’s” in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

So be advised: This is humor at its darkest, and definitely not for the faint of heart.

Such cautionary notes aside...

Vaughn and frequent co-scripting colleague Jane Goldman open their film with a couple of prologues that introduce both Harry Hart (Firth) and Kingsman, the outwardly genteel super-super-secret spy agency for which he works, under the code name of Galahad. As befits an organization that bestows such sobriquets, the Kingsman operatives answer to a chief dubbed Arthur (Caine), who dispatches his agents to handle, ah, “messy” world situations that evade both conventional policing and standard-issue covert agencies.

The most recent puzzle involves a series of high-profile kidnappings and disappearances: scientists, politicians and even celebrities from throughout the world. Oddly, while some of them vanish completely, others are absent only for a short time, thereafter resuming their normal lives as if nothing unusual has taken place.

This mystery aside, Harry has taken an interest in Gary Unwin (Taron Egerton), a working-class “council estate kid” who prefers the nickname “Eggsy.” Back in the day, Eggsy’s father died while saving Harry’s life during a Kingsman operation; Harry has been waiting for an opportunity to repay that debt. It arrives when he’s able to bail the petulant, headstrong Eggsy out of jail, following a juvenile delinquent-type scrape with the law.

Challenging the young man to make something of himself — insisting that background and upbringing aren’t as important as what one makes of himself — Harry takes Eggsy under his wing, and enrolls him in the standard Kingsman training course.

But the young lad is reminded constantly that he’s “low class,” compared to all the other wealthier, posh trainees. Indeed, the Kingsman credo emphasizes suave, gentlemanly conduct (even from female operatives); Firth’s Galahad is an updated version of Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, from Britain’s gloriously beloved cult TV series, The Avengers.

In another nod to classic spy-TV, access to the Kingsman nerve center is via an aristocratic men’s clothing store: certainly a deliberate echo of Del Floria’s tailor/dry-cleaning shop, where Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin gained access to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.

The training sessions faced by Eggsy and his new mates are a crazily contrived giggle: all deadly, all designed to weed out the cowardly or unfit, and all supervised with a bland air of command by Merlin (Mark Strong, his lofty deadpan expressions never better).

Ah, but while Eggsy may lack his companions’ suave finesse, life on the streets — and a spot of military training (abandoned at the request of his nervous mother) — have turned him into a resourceful and quickly formidable student. This doesn’t go unnoticed by fellow student Roxy (Sophie Cookson), about whom Eggsy comes to care quite deeply.

Elsewhere, the aforementioned global mystery is revealed to us, if not to Harry and his Kingsman colleagues. It seems that former software titan-turned-gazillionaire Richard Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), wanting to take positive action against the global warming threat that he believes endangers our entire planet, has embraced a rather novel — albeit horrific — “solution” to this problem.

After all, he insists quite reasonably, all problems trace to overpopulation. Ergo, the best way to reduce humanity’s impact on Mother Earth, is to ... reduce humanity. Wanting to surround himself with the best and brightest, following this planned “culling,” Valentine has cherry-picked those with whom he hopes to share his eventual paradise.

Some come on board immediately, thoroughly impressed by this mad scheme. Others, uncooperative but deemed too important to be left behind, find themselves imprisoned until such time as they can be released.

Although their film is an exaggerated burlesque, Vaughn and Goldman nonetheless score serious censorious points here: most aimed at venal, self-centered politicians and world leaders who, in Valentine’s words, “stand for nothing but elections.” On the one hand, this is a viciously cynical jab, and yet ... it doesn’t feel that wrong.

Nor is Valentine’s “solution” that unreasonable, in a darkly satirical, Jonathan Swift-ian way (see the latter’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal”).

Everything builds to a predictable boil, leading to a breathtakingly crazed finale that packs in at least one jaw-dropping surprise ... and perhaps several, depending on how well one anticipates this story’s gleefully vicious streak.

Firth is spot-on as the pluperfect agent and seasoned mentor: a deceptively mild dandy who delights us each time he lowers his voice, because we know a generous dollop of whup-ass is in the offing. And despite the obviously embellished nature of his character, Firth grants Harry several moments of nobility and genuine emotion; we definitely care for him, and quite deeply.

Young Egerton also is fine as the self-defensive Eggsy, burdened by a chip on his shoulder the size of London. Egerton thaws at just the right pace, Eggsy not entirely buying into this potential career, despite its obvious perks and potential thrills. He’s just right as a street-hardened kid naturally suspicious of those on the high-born side of the tracks. As a debut feature role, this should cement Egerton’s career quite nicely.

Jackson is a hoot as the monomaniacal Valentine, whose brutal tendencies are leavened by both a hilarious lisp — which the actor milks for maximum humor — and a pathological aversion to violence and spilled blood. Which is deeply ironic, of course, considering how much of both he’s responsible for.

Jackson makes a wonderfully iconic villain in the James Bondian sense — a reference this film deliberately makes — as we already know, since he previously occupied similar shoes, in 2000’s Unbreakable.

Boutella displays plenty of ’tude as Valentine’s lethal lieutenant, and Cookson is an engaging blend of pluck and uncertainty as a Kingsman recruit who isn’t quite sure about her potential new career. Finally, Mark Hamill has an amusing cameo as a nervous university professor.

Kingsman is based on the six-issue comic book series The Secret Service, co-created by writer Mark Millar and artist Dave Gibbons; Millar will be recognized as the hot scribe also responsible for the Kick-Ass franchise. According to report, Vaughn and Miller concocted this new plotline while enjoying a pint in a pub, and lamenting the dearth of good, old-fashioned spy flicks.

What’s interesting is the degree of divergence that occurred after that chat, when each went off to deliver his take on the material. Millar and Gibbons struck first, with their six-issue comic series hitting shelves from April 2012 through April 2013. Vaughn’s film “adaptation” covers the same important plot beats, but the execution is quite different ... and, indeed, more satisfying.

Millar has a tendency to be disgusting and unpleasantly sadistic; I’ve yet to forgive him for having a villain execute a gaggle of schoolchildren in his first Kick-Ass sequel. While it might seem odd to claim that Vaughn and Goldman are restrained by comparison — in light of the warning issued at the top of this review — it’s absolutely true.

Tone counts for a lot, and Vaughn’s Kingsman is a lot more fun than Millar’s aggressively nasty Secret Service.

But do be advised: This is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.

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