by Will Ross
Well, maybe there’s some version of it that I’d be down with, and the opening shot hints at it: the camera tracks from an old boombox playing Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing”, and pans to a helicopter assault on a desert compound synchronized with Mark Knopfler’s iconically jagged riff, with each missile’s explosion forming the credits in a blocky yellow font. It’s the kind of goofy over-the-top, laid-back cool that, when done right, is hard not to smile at, and it transitions to a torture scene where the victim and one of his distinctly British interrogators is killed in the former’s suicide-by-grenade. Neither scene matters at all, beyond a smidgen of character setup: one of the surviving interrogators, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), feels guilty about the death of his protégé, and pledges to do right to his widow and toddler son any time they need help in life. He gives the boy, Eggsy, a medal with a phone number on the back; when Eggsy grows up he can use it should he ever be in great need of help. Then Hart is gone.
In many ways, this opening sequence is as near to a microcosm as a movie like Kingsman, a dismembered spread-eagle of a movie, can get. The airstrike has no logical connection to the torture scene that follows (besides a nonsensical transition gimmick and sense of aridity). The torture scene raises some pretty major ethical qualms about these British agents (whom we will later learn are from a non-government agency of self-proclaimed benevolent aims), which are never seriously addressed again. Hart’s visit to the bereaved family to deliver a prized memento of the father echoes the gold watch scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but unlike that director, Vaughn doesn’t have the good sense to de-emphasize the gruesome trauma by not showing it, thus emphasizing the character’s connection to the artifact over the audience’s shock at the torture; as Kingsman progresses, that inability to convey character motivations through anything but flamboyantly illustrative plotting is the most distinct failing of its storytelling. The stereo and the music it plays have absolutely nothing to do with anything, besides the fact that they give an excuse to play “Money for Nothing”, which is actually harmlessly silly and cool.
When Vaughn gets to indulge those whims at their most utterly arbitrary, Kingsman is fun. Sometimes. Not often enough to really pass muster as absurdist entertainment, and anyway, an action film is impossible to sustain with a parade of pop-violence fetishisms, no matter how good-natured and amusing they may be; it’s got to have a solid handle on the characters driving it. Matthew Vaughn, unfortunately, does not give a rat’s ass about his characters, especially not in comparison to their toys. He either can’t or won’t move or position to emphasize a character’s thoughts or feelings in anything but the most perfunctory way, but never misses a chance for a smash cut or wooshing camera or stylish wipe to emphasize a gadget or piece of action choreography or anything exotic and “cool.” That dichotomy takes the cool out of “cool” in a hurry, and if there’s one lesson that Kingsman hasn’t learned from the films it homages (Bond, the 60s Avengers TV series, et al), it’s that the reason why lighthearted spy larks are so enjoyable isn’t their outlandish tropes and exotic trappings, it’s their emphasis on having fun with the characters at their center. The really entertaining thing about Goldfinger’s opening sequence wasn’t that Bond had electrocuted a would-be assassin by throwing a plugged-in fan into his bathtub, but his devil-may-care reaction to the results: “Shocking. Positively shocking.”
This blithe sense of humour is the defining mark of the James Bond character, and particularly in the early decades of that franchise its good humour was dependent on the absurdness of the action. The silliness, even impossibility of the Connery and Moore eras was what made 007’s utter indifference towards the sanctity of life so easy to swallow, so forcefully did they position themselves as fantasy. But as the trends of action filmmaking have changed towards a constant pursuit of grit and perceived authenticity, Bond’s quips have seemed ever-more thuggish and morally uneasy, and though the franchise changed to address that, one can’t help but feel nostalgic for the more innocent high-camp offered in years past. This is where Kingsman comes in: it’s plain that Vaughn (and perhaps the film’s source material, a comic by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar which I’ve never read) wants to offer a modern equivalent to those films, one which captures the mock-seriousness and camp of the early Bond movies, but with sensibilities attuned to a modern audience. It doesn’t aim much higher than the Spy Kids franchise, though I won't hold that against it.
But Kingsman unknowingly admits defeat, first by opening with torture, then by continuing with any number of other scenes that beg for our interest via appeals to political and topical interests. First off is its vague sense of self-righteous class struggle: when Eggsy grows up (Taron Egerton), he becomes extremely intelligent and resourceful, but pinned to an unproductive life by his low-class upbringing and a devotion to his mother, who is abused daily by Eggsy’s stepfather. After being arrested for a spontaneous carjacking and joyride, Eggsy calls Hart, is released from jail scot-free, and promptly enlisted in the recruitment program for the Kingsman secret service. The Kingsmen, a century-old, absurdly well-funded collection of agents and technicians, hold deep class prejudices, especially the head of its training program, Arthur (played by Michael Caine, the kind of excruciatingly unchallenging role that seems to be par for his course these days). But Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s screenplay, for all its derision for upper-crust snobs, reserves even more derision for lower-class rep Eggsy, who succeeds only through the hand-picking and “up by your bootstraps” urging of Hart; Kingsman, in the final analysis, affirms and protects the place of the wealthy as gatekeepers of status and proper conduct.
Kingsman’s preaching of class conformity extends to its villain, Richmond Valentine, a squeamish, nerdy environmentalist megalomaniac whose against-type casting and performance by Samuel L. Jackson may be the single most consistent pleasure on offer here. But that pleasure is negated by the film's distinctly elitist rejection of his Otherness: Valentine is mocked for his lisp, aversion to violence, and disdain for the going political order. He is an environmentalist more interested with principle than profits (Kingsman is also loaded with muddled suspicions of global warming and its defendants). Along with these overtly disdained traits is Valentine’s skin colour; he is the only black character in the film, and the most direct threat to the white-dominant class system that the heroes safeguard.
This is why Kingsman is not the lark it purports itself to be: it is interested, first and foremost, in justifying violence against political and topical frustrations, and then indulging itself and its audience in that violence. The best-crafted and most disturbing scene in the film comes when Valentine forces a caricatured hate group in the southern US to savagely murder each other. Regardless of how repugnant their bigotry is (and make no mistake, I find such views repugnant), its purpose is to draw an analog to a contemporary, real-world set of beliefs, and then unleash its own hyper-stylized, elevated hatred via whimsical ultraviolence. In this particular scene, it indulges its political revenge fantasy with a series of fantastically choreographed, ingeniously violent, extended shots set to — in a particularly mordant touch — the guitar solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”.
The scene is politically deplorable and spectacularly hypocritical, but on a purely technical level, it’s momentarily redemptive of Vaughn’s direction. Kingsman’s action scenes use cranked-up shutter speeds and flailing camera moves to move the on-screen guns and bodies in sharp, continuous jerking motions. Sometimes, the dizzying effect of this works, especially when Vaughn keeps the audience barely grasping the rapid choreography until a big, splashy beat of violence that holds just long enough for us to register it and go “WHOAH, they did not just do that!” Other times, it’s just trumped up energy without any rhyme or reason. Often, he gets both results within the same scene. Either way, the faster things happen, the more fun they tend to be; the moments of Kingsman where it lingers over an especially exotic feat of murder (as in an early scene where a character is split in half with perfect symmetry) feel more like the work of a director trying to impress us with how far he can go than with how he gets there. Maybe it’s because Vaughn’s brand of showy action plays more as a parlour trick when it flashes by, and narcissistic when it’s lingered on. Maybe Kingsman’s attempts to function both as an earnest 80s spy movie throwback and a hard-R comedic subversion à la Tropic Thunder are contradictory, and so render its more demonstrative moments at best as a hedged bet, and at worst as an awkward crisis of genre identity.
That identity isn’t bolstered any better by the musical score. After Jupiter Ascending reminded me of what a cavalcade of symphonic pleasures a film score can be, Kingsman is a brutal comedown. Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson’s work here is exactly what you’d expect of the most dronish graduates of Remote Control Productions, boasting a small handful of ultra-simple, unaffected melodies as themes, repeating them ad nauseum with the emotional backing of blasting chord changes in the backing orchestra, with the modern sheen of electronic beats on every other scene (this is especially foregrounded in scenes with Valentine, whose leitmotif is, I kid you not, a single, repeated note). Jackman and Margeson make a few nods towards the two-note, horn-blasting, semitone-dropping “What a twist!” stingers famous to John Barry’s Bond scores and the spy genre in general, and these references are both the movie's most amusing pieces of music, and completely out of place in a score that otherwise hasn’t a trace of parody or humour in it.
Kingsman is frustrating in many ways, but there’s one scene in particular that gives away the game, and it cannot go without remark: Hart goes incognito for a meeting with Valentine, attending the latter’s home for dinner. Valentine has an ornate dinner tray brought in for the two of them, and uncovers its contents to reveal a line of McDonald’s meals in brown bags. This has the rhythm of a gag, but it doesn’t make sense, even as a characterizing moment for Valentine (who later lavishes his wealthy collaborators with high-class food and drink); it is simply a bald-faced, out of nowhere attempt to pass out-of-place product placement off as a topical gag, and it’s far from the only instance of that (woefully far from it). I’m not a total puritan in matters of in-film advertising, but when a film so baldly expects you to accept blatant intrusions of corporate dealings into the story ostensibly being told, it’s pretty clear where its makers’ values lie.