Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Kingsman - From Irreverence With Love

In 2012 Matthew Vaughn, fresh off of saving 20th Century Fox's biggest superhero cash cow with "X-Men First Class", was given his chance to make a sequel.  That film would be "X-Men: Days of Future Past", a huge time travel epic.   However, Vaughn, despite being offered a mountain of gold and several virgin concubines by Fox, decided not to make "Days of Future Past".  He was more inspired by an obscure comic book series called "The Secret Service", created by David Gibson and Mark Millar.  So what has Vaughn's gamble given us?  What kind of a movie was worth giving up the chance to direct Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence in a tight blue body suit?

Having seen "Kingsman: The Secret Service", I can say that Matthew Vaughn made the right choice.  Powers greater and more unfathomable than myself for some reason have declared that 2015 will be the year of cheesy 1960s espionage throw-backs.  After "Kingsman" will come "Spy", an ugly Melissa McCarthy parody that appears to be mostly fat jokes.  Then comes a film remake of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E", which was a TV series that your parents or grandparents might have seen, directed by Guy Ritchie.  And then in comes the granddaddy of all them, the new James Bond movie, "Spectre".  Everybody wants to put a modern spin on classic secret agent narratives.  But if your new wave spy film is aiming for cheesy un-serious action fun, you have already lost, because "Kingsman" has won that battle.

"Kingsman" has a simple kind of formula:  action, flash, more action, and sillier flash.  This is not a deep interpersonal character narrative.  Vaughn creates a nice tempo with just enough self-aware lightness to not be a biting satire, and just enough ridiculous action while not being a circus.  Veteran British actors such as Colin Farrell, the ever-awesome Mark Strong, and the ever-slumming Michael Caine mix well with the new-comers, Taron Egerton and Sophia Cookson.  This cast of good wholesome British Whiteness must fight a very hammy Samuel L. Jackson with a lisp who seems to be conjuring Steve Jobs by way of Spike Lee.  This is the sort of movie that room for a patently ridiculous role such as that.  Altogether "Kingsman" is an energetic piece of action fluff:  humorous, comfortable with it's own ideas of cool, and topped off with an irreverent wit.

When a trailer features a young handsome actor I have never seen before, such as how Taron Egerton was featured in the "Kingsman" trailers, warnings begin to go off in my head.  Young, handsome, and pale of skin are three of the main features of the Bland White Guy deluge that has been choking cinema for a very long time.  They're pretty, they're inoffensive, they have no charisma, and they are entirely interchangeable.  Replace Aaron Johnson-Taylor with Joel Kinnaman or Jamie Dornan in "Godzilla" and the movie is entirely the same.  Luckily Egerton in "Kingsman" is directed with some edge.  He is a White Guy, but far from Bland.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier... DIE
Egerton's character is the hero of "Kingsman" is Eggsy (pronounced like "EX-see"), a twenty-something British punk living in London's slums.  His mom is banging a local leader, he's failed out of the marines, he steals cars for fun, and he's going nowhere very quickly.  When Eggsy is finally nicked by the police for his latest crime, he tries his last life line.  As a child he was given a strange number on the back of his late-father's war medal.  With nothing to lose, he calls the number, leading straight to Harry Hart (Colin Firth), code-named "Galahad".  Galahad is a member of a knighthood of dapper spies working out of what appears to be an innocent tasteful men's suit tailor shop, so secret and well-funded that even the world's highest intelligence agencies do not know they exist.

Since one of the Kingsman agents recently got messily sliced in half by the villain's main heavy, there is a position that has just been opened, and Eggsy could have a nice career on his hands.  However where he is a rough streetrat dressed in oversized ghetto sweats, his competition are the highest breed of aristocratic Oxford and Cambridge tightasses.  Eggsy's accent is so thick that we Americans might need subtitles, and his fellows are speaking the Queen's English with language so posh that their diction comes with it's own butler and trust fund.  The tech wizard of the Kingsmen, Merlin (Mark Strong) leads the cadets on a brutal top secret training exercise, starting with flooding their barracks.  The young flower of English nobility come up with a complicated plan using shower heads to breathe out of air pockets in the toilet plumbing.  Eggsy's plan is much simpler:  punch out a glass window.

Though Eggsy is a small celebration of street smart slobs defeating quality breeding snobs, "Kingsman"'s own relationship to classic refined James Bond-style spying is a bit more complex.  The most badass person in the movie is Galahad, who can destroy an entire room with lightning fast strikes and elegant style.  Yet he's full of old-fashioned wisdom.  "A gentleman's name should only appear in the paper three times:  his birth, his wedding, and his obituary."  Eggsy, while in his spy gear has to wink at the absurdity of being dressed to the hilt, yet a bespoke suit is the ultimate in "Kingsman"'s sense of cool.  The cloths make the man, and Eggsy in a flash is transformed from fool to superhero.  The villain is all crash Americanism:   McDonalds platters and awful baseball caps, the heroes are humble British fashion:  polished shoes, ironed pants, and cufflinks*.

"Kingsman" is the kind of movie that will make you want to blow your entire savings on a suit and tie that you will wear exactly once. And never once while kicking ass.
"Kingsman" is a movie that wants to satire spy thrillers, yet is desperately in love with the cliches of the genre.  That makes it a film completely at cross-purposes with itself, yet somehow it works.

No sequence better represents "Kingsman"'s schizophrenia than a huge battle sequence set in a right-wing Westboro Baptist-esque Church.  Colin Firth is compelled to go completely ape crazy, slaughtering indiscriminately an entire legion deranged Right-wing nutjobs, to the manic tune of 'Freebird'.  It is a hyperactive festival of violence, shot with a frenetic explosive pace.  Yet the hero is also butchering what are completely innocent people, only being mind-controlled by the villain.  While he is rushing forward in extreme bloodlust, so are we, drunkenly eating up the massacre while our hands reach for more popcorn.  This is the first truly great scene of 2015 managing to be both joyful fun and very disturbing.  Yet that is hardly the end of "Kingsman"'s bag of tricks.  Just wait until heads start exploding like fireworks.

If Matthew Vaughn ever needs a resume to prove his worth as a great action director, "Kingsman" is probably the only reference he needs.  Sure Matthew Vaughn can whip around the wacky cartoon sensibilities, and can create a movie with it's own style.  We knew that.  Samuel L. Jackson's villain, Richmond Valentine is terrified by the sight of blood - while trying to destroy the world.  His scheme is actually an environmental measure so tempting that none less than President Barack Obama himself signs up for it**.  Valentine's lair is classic Blofeld dungeon-design, though the cliches are worn so heavily you may consider the art design more inspired by Austin Powers than Ian Fleming.  Where modern James Bond films have generally ditched the gadgets for edgy character stories, "Kingsman" aims for a different tone.  Enjoy flights into outer space, bullet-proof suits, and umbrella-fu.

Yet "Kingsman" is still an innovative action statement.  Yes, we have the ridiculous set pieces, such as Samuel L. Jackson's main heavy being an amputee ninja using razor-sharp ski-legs as swords.  But more than that, Vaughn clearly has been watching Gareth Evans closely, aiming for very fast action scenes with his own spin.  The movement is unnaturally fast, the camera spins around wildly, CG and traditional choreography mix together with flourish.  Colin Firth is the stuttering monarch from "The King's Speech", and suddenly he is kicking ass with all the illogical talent of "Scott Pilgrim".  It is all shot very close up with highly focused editing.  These fight scenes never feel overly clean like too many CG fights do, they feel rough and brutal, with each cut another jolt of adrenaline whiplash onto your spine.  I want to see more action in this style in the future.

Eh, this villain is okay, but if you want really weird Samuel L. Jackson supervillainy, try watching "The Spirit".
I was officially tired of serious Oscar movies by this Sunday, and "Kingsman" is exactly the nonsensical romp I needed.  It is a puff of clearing unintelligent unpretentious air, breaking apart the maudlin drama.  Just last month I was watching movies about WWII and segregation, now I'm watching a movie that features an anal sex joke that will be the talk of legend for decades to come.

Sure "Kingsman" is not perfect.  The only female character of any note is Roxy (Sophia Cookson) who is basically given a custodial side mission to keep her away from the main hero work that Eggsy has to do.  She's so underwritten that they do not even bother with a romance, forced or otherwise.  Dramatically this entire movie is a dud.  But in a movie with more important things to do like kidnap Swedish princesses, nuke Mark Hamill's head, and leap around in high-flying action, I cannot fault an overly-busy movie for not trying to be a romance or emotionally-shirring.  Yeah, this is not really the kind of movie where you really go in depth describing script balance and underlying themes (there aren't any, don't worry).  It is just ridiculous well-made comedy Blockbuster fun.  As long as "Kingsman" has its suit and tie, it will show you a few things.

* I have no idea what a cufflink is.  I think if I ever made more money this might be something I would need to know at some point.

** Thanks, Obama!

1 comment:

  1. Well this seems fun.

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