I used to be something of a fan of Mark Millar. Back in the early 2000s, when he was making Wanted and The Ultimates, I almost started to think of him as this generation’s…well not Alan Moore, but maybe Garth Ennis? Anyway, a few years on, after the disasters that were Kick-Ass 2 and Civil War, I think that my enjoyment of him has soured a bit.
My enjoyment of director Matthew Vaughn remains unabated however. Kick Ass was a pretty solid movie, X-Men: First Class is one of the best X-Men movies and I don’t care what anyone thinks, I liked Stardust. So when I heard they were reteaming up for another action vehicle I was…I guess somewhat interested, is the best approximation.
The plot is, at the bare bones level, very similar to Kick Ass, i.e. a troubled youth finds his route to manhood via the trappings of a classic action genre. In this case the youth is Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), a young hooligan living in London, whose father died while being trained for the Kingsmen, the titular spy organization, that fancies themselves a mix between James Bond and the Knights of the Round Table.
Lucky for Eggsy, his father died saving Agent Galahad (Colin Firth) so when circumstance causes there to be an opening in the Kingsmen, Galahad nominates Eggsy as opposed to the usual upper class youths the others nominate. Most of the movie is devoted to Eggsy working his way through the tests put before him, while in a concurrent storyline, Galahad investigates a plot by a tech billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) to, guess what, destroy the world.
Despite my description, and the plot itself, putting the emphasis on Eggsy and his journey through the training, I don’t think that it’s the best part of the movie. Part of the reasons is that it’s the least original part of it (if you can imagine the testing montage from Men in Black stretched out over a third of a movie, you’re about 80 percent of the way there) but it also winds up feeling pretty repetitive. All of the tests are variations on the same theme; you have to be a bastard to make it through this, oh wait, never mind.
The actual spy plot on the other hand is where the movie actually manages to come alive. There are a handful of solid action sequences, a couple of clever parody of Bond movies and the like, and even a few moments where it manages to get entertainingly tasteless (you’ll see what I mean). I feel like the movie might have been better off if they’d jettisoned the training, or put it in the first act with the rest of the movie devoted to the spy stuff.
During the good parts of the movie, the main thing it has going for it is its action scenes. Oh, the vast majority of them are preposterous and the movie twists itself into knots to make them happen. A perfect example happens around the midpoint, where the movie bends over backwards to get Galahad in a Westboro Baptist Church style hate church, at which point circumstances force him to brutally bludgeon his way out.
Contrived? Absolutely. Tasteless? More than a little. Absurd? Extremely. Satisfying to watch? Oh my, yes. It’s an entertaining little diversion into absolute pointlessness, that unfortunately goes on just long enough to draw attention to how pointless it is. It’s still highly entertaining, and I’m surprised how credible Colin Firth is as an action hero, but it doesn’t feel like it’s living up to its full potential.
The whole movie is like that, giving us fun concepts and ideas and completely failing to execute them properly. I really like Valentine’s blade legged henchwoman (Sofia Boutella), but we never find out what her deal is (where she got the blades, why she’s so loyal to Valentine, etc.). Valentine himself is a ball of villain ticks and tropes that don’t add up to anything.
This even extends to the subtext: the metaphors in the film are fun, but they go in circles. The villain is a metaphor for American imperialism, fine, but the heroes are metaphors for British imperialism. The film spends its entire runtime talking up the heroes younger new energy and ideas, but ends on the note that Eggsy needs to embrace the older ideas in order to become a hero.
The degree to which this film can be said to work is based entirely off its cast and crew. Matthew Vaughn may occasionally have issues with story and pacing, but he’s never had an issue with directing action. With the exception of one scene towards the end, the action sequences are clean and easy to follow, even if it’s clear the budget is middling.
The entire cast is exceptionally game for their roles, especially Colin Firth, who really dives into his “Exceptionally Violent John Steed” character (and is pretty well cast, at least from that angle). Taron Egerton is surprisingly credible as an action lead, even if he does seem to be a little too inspired by Mark Donovan from The Inbetweeners at times (one more reference to British TV and I think I win a prize). And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, king of hilariously over the top villain characters, is obviously as into this role as he can be.
I’ve never read the comic this is apparently based on, but I feel like reworking it into a Kick Ass analogue was a bad choice. It doesn’t quite sink it, but it does keep it from ever being as good as I think it could have been, or as good as it hints at being in its better scenes. That doesn’t mean its bad, just never as good as it could be. But hey, if you’re looking for a movie to see in February, you could do a lot worse.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s decided that this movie is a sequel to The King’s Speech.
– good action scenes
– it’s pretty funny when it feels like being tasteless
– I actually like Colin Firth as an action hero
– occasionally weak screenplay
– has problems figuring out where to direct its focus
– it’s definitely not as original as it thinks it is