“Manners Maketh Man”: Colin Firth (center) as the super spy known as Galahad prepares to demonstrate that one can be polite, refined, and extremely well-dressed and still be deadly in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a heartless homage to James Bond and other light-hearted spy movies and TV shows of the 1960s that pretty much misses the point.
Early in Kingsman: The Secret Service, when Colin Firth as the movie’s super-secret agent hero, strolls into a pub where danger awaits, dapper, well-tailored, obviously possessed of impeccable manners and taste, his grip light but ready on his furled umbrella, I applauded inwardly. Firth plays Harry Hart, known by his aptly bestowed code name Galahad, the top agent of Kingsman, an elite and private organization of modern self-styled knights devoted to counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, and excellence in haberdashery. Firth doesn’t lean on the umbrella with one leg crossed in front at the ankle but the nod to Patrick Macnee as John Steed and the 1960s British TV spy series The Avengers was unmissable.
A little further on, I thought, “You know, someone really should cast Firth as Steed in a remake of The Avengers. Maybe with Emily Blunt as Mrs Peel.”
A little further on from that I thought, “Damn. Now they don’t need to do the remake. They’re doing it here.”
A little further on from that I began to wonder why it was taking so long for director Matthew Vaughn to introduce his nod to Diana Rigg and Mrs Peel.
And then, a little further on from that, about a third of the way through the movie when I realized there wasn’t going to be a Mrs Peel and that Firth’s nod to John Steed was amounting to that, no more than a nod, I thought, Ok, so we can still have an Avengers movie. Emily Blunt will look terrific in the cat suit she didn’t get to wear in the other Avengers franchise because she turned down the role of Black Widow and Firth can probably pull off wearing the bowler.
And about five minutes after that, I gave up imagining that Avengers movie and started thinking I couldn’t wait to get home to binge-watch a full season of the TV show just to wash this vulgar, witless, pointless mess of a movie out of my memory.
Kingsman sells itself as a homage to those spy caper movies and TV shows of the 1960s and early 70s and their heroes, Bond and his big and small screen imitators, Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Napoleon Solo of The Man From U.N.C.L.E, John Drake of Secret Agent and, some would argue, its weird we’re-not-quite-sure-it’s-a-sequel sequel The Prisoner, and John Steed. But mainly Bond. I’m not sure who it’s selling itself to since the Bond movies Kingsman seems to be riffing on are Roger Moore’s and the movie’s target audience appears to be fifteen to thirty year old readers of comic books and players of video games who, if they know Bond, know him in a very different way than Galahad and Valentine, either as Daniel Craig or, either through Craig, their parents, or serendipity, as Sean Connery, the definer of the role whose Bond contained all the various aspects of the character emphasized by his successors, including the deadly earnestness of Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig.
In case we’ve been missing the obvious, about midway through Kingsman, long after I stopped caring, there’s a scene between Galahad and the villain, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson having a high old time not being Nick Fury of that other Avengers franchise), in which the two push hard against the fourth wall discussing the spy movies they both loved as kids and in the process tell us what kind of spy movie we’re meant to be watching.
Valentine and Galahad agree that what made those movie enjoyable was their light-heartedness. Their heroes always seemed to be in on the joke and didn’t take themselves or their movies’ outrageous plots and stunts too seriously, unlike the more earnest and, to them, boring heroes that came along later---presumably Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, and Daniel Craig’s Bond.
But that’s where director Galahad and Valentine and Matthew Vaughn make their bloomer.
The light-heartedness of even Roger Moore’s Bond movies (At least, the best of Moore’s Bonds) covered Bond’s essential seriousness, his coldhearted commitment to doing his job as a spy with a license to kill. To parody Bond---as opposed to lampooning him---you have to understand what made him serious and take him and his movies seriously.
The weakest of the Bond movies, which happen to be ones starring Roger Moore---Moonraker, Octopussy, and A View to a Kill---are the ones that are most mechanically imitative of previous Bond movies and least interested in Bond as a character. They reduce Moore to self-parody and treat his current adventure as merely providing bridges from one overly-elaborate stunt to the next.
There are high-concept movies. Then there are all-concept movies. Those bad Bond movies are all concept. And those are the Bond movies Kingsman is most like, except in not being as good or as fun.
In fact, next to Kingsman, Moonraker, which is basically Thunderball in space, is Thunderball.
Kingsman isn’t either lighthearted or coldhearted. It’s heartless. It doesn’t take itself too seriously because it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. If Vaughn had any fun making the movie or cared about the story or his characters it you can’t tell it from what’s up on the screen. The only aspect of making the movie that seems to have focused his attention and energies is the staging and editing of the very long and very brutal fight sequences. And the staging and editing are brilliant. It’s just that they owe more to Vaughn’s own Kick-Ass than to any Bond movie. As for that, you’d never know from Kingsman that Vaughn has directed any other movies besides Kick-Ass. Whatever heart and humor he was able to put in the making of X-Men: First Class appear to have been lost to him on the set of Kingsman.
That should be all I need to say about Kingsman---No heart. Some good jokes but no real wit or humor. Lots of concept. Not much suspense. Fairly routine adventure movie stunt work, except for the fight scenes which are mainly not routine in their appalling brutality. And barely enough plot to provide bridges between the stunts and the fights---but as regular readers know, it’s not like me to be content with saying all I need to say. I always need to say more than I need to say. This is why I warn my students not to use my reviews as models for their writing.
The minimal plot of Kingsman: The Secret Service, such as it is has the typically megalomaniacal billionaire villain Valentine atypically not trying to take over the world but actually save it. Unfortunately, it is the world he wants to save, the planetary entity, not the human beings who live on it, and the plan requires the deaths of a few billion or so people. Galahad’s mission is to expose and thwart this evil scheme, but first…
Kingsman is short-handed these days, due to the villain’s evil scheme requiring the kidnapping of scientist who fails to get rescued the way he should, and Galahad has to recruit a new knight.
Kingsman knights are more suave and sophisticated than James Bond at his most debonair and more efficiently and ruthlessly and over-the-top violent than Bond at his most deadly, and the aptly code-named Galahad is the best dressed, most well-mannered, and deadliest of the knights. Galahad is the ultimate gentleman and a gentleman is always in control of himself and a situation. He never loses his cool or his head or his temper or lets his manners slip. When it comes to matters of manners and taste, next to Galahad Bond is a vulgar slob and, when it comes to killing, next to Galahad Bond’s a pacifist.
Galahad’s choice for a new Kingsman comes as an unpleasant surprise to Kingsman’s snobbish director (played by an ironically cast Michael Caine) who is committed to the principle that the best gentlemen make the best spies and believes gentleman are born not made. Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a working class twenty-something and an apparent ne-er-do-well with lots of potential but no direction, no ambition, and no purpose but to be on hand to get in the way when his abusive father-in-law gets in the mood to beat his mother. This last item on Eggsy’s short resume shows an inherent chivalrousness that Galahad recognizes and sets out to reward.
Told that his training as a secret agent will involve not just a change in direction but a character make-over, Eggsy professes bafflement. What does a spy need to know besides how to sneak in and out of places and occasionally kill people who try to stop him on his way in or out? How to walk, talk, and think like gentleman, Galahad informs him. How to double-knot a tie, not to drop his aitches, and what color and vintage of wine to order with what dish. Eggsy is still confused. Galahad tries to explain with references to movies. Has Eggsy seen Trading Places? Pretty Woman? No. But then a light dawns.
“Like My Fair Lady!”
And that’s it: Our first and last hope that Eggsy will turn out to be an interesting character and not just a trope---the sorcerer’s apprentice---and a part of the concept.
From there, the story continues along two threads, Galahad’s chasing after the villain and Eggsy’s training, which, disappointingly involves some perfunctory stuntwork, very little of Colin Firth acting as Henry Higgins to Egerton’s Eliza Dolittle, and an adorable little dog. Don’t ask.
The thing is, that side of Bond’s character, suave and sophisticated jetsetter and playboy, which gives him the ability to pass as a gentleman, is not just part of the concept or a conceit. And it isn’t simply his cover or a disguise. It’s intrinsic to his character because it’s the basis for his success as a spy. His epicureanism, his love for fast and expensive cars, his talent for picking up and speaking languages fluently, his instinctive grasp of local manners and customs, his appreciation for and ability to charm a certain type of aristocratic woman are all part of the same general and essential skill---infiltration.
Of course his job is to infiltrate bad guys’ hangouts and the evil mastermind’s lair and other places he needs to sneak into to look for clues. But he’s also an infiltrator of the exotic locales his adventures take him to. Bond’s not only an action hero on our behalf, he’s our surrogate traveler and explorer, at home and at ease the way we’d like to be in a Paris cafe, a Tokyo bathhouse, the bazaar in Istanbul, at a beach resort in the Caribbean, on a ski slope in Austria, at the baccarat table in a casino in Monte Carlo---whatever picture post card we might dream of entering Bond gets into and survives there in style.Eggsy’s newly-acquired sophistication doesn’t get him into or out of anything except out from under the ridiculous baseball cap he wears at a stupid angle in imitation of British white kids imitating other British white kids imitating American white kids imitating black kids imitating rap artists.
The conceit that a Kingsman knows his wines the way he knows his weapons is there because it’s a convention of the spy movies and shows being parodied. It’s homage that misses the point.
Eggsy’s newly-acquired sophistication doesn’t get him into or out of anything except out from under the ridiculous baseball cap he wears at a stupid angle in imitation of British white kids imitating other British white kids imitating American white kids imitating black kids imitating rap artists.
There’s another aspect of the Bond movies and their imitations and knock-offs that Kingsman doesn’t just get wrong but, weirdly, when you consider how important it is to those movies’ appeal, leaves out.
Actually, for all they matter to the plot or to the heroes, women.
It’s not simply that Kingsman, the organization, despite having two female recruits, appears to be even more of a boys club than MI-6 was before Judi Dench took over as M. It’s that Kingsman, the movie, and its heroes along with it are as oblivious to women, either as persons in their own right or as objects of desire, as an old-fashioned boys’ own adventure story like Treasure Island, in which the only female character is Jim Hawkins’ mother. In fact, the only girl in Eggsy’s life is his mother.
And Galahad appears to be celibate.
Like I said, this is weird considering how important his effect on women is to Bond’s mystique. But it’s also weird to be paying tribute to John Steed without even a glancing reference to Emma Peel.
Part of the joke behind The Avengers is the same one Kingsman draws on with Galahad, that Steed’s elegance, polish, and charm served him as well or better than Bond’s PPK served him, and in fact Steed was often at his most dangerous when he was at his most gentlemanly. But the other part of the joke was that the reason Steed could keep his head while all around were losing theirs and remain dispassionate, level-headed, detached, unperturbed and unruffled---and his suits unwrinkled---was that he had Mrs Peel by his side to handle the dirty work.
Steed couldn’t do his job without Mrs Peel which is a way of saying Steed couldn’t be Steed without Mrs Peel. It worked the other way round too. They were true partners. Equal partners. Complements. The perfect couple. The show regularly teased viewers with the possibility that the couple would couple. What kept them apart, ostensibly, was Mrs Peel’s missing husband. What really kept them apart was that they enjoyed working together more than they would have enjoyed sleeping together. This meant there was an essential seriousness to them and the show.
There’s no Mrs Peel in Kingsman.
There’s no female lead in any form at all, not even in the sexist form of one of the types of Bond Girls.
There are three popular types of Bond Girl. The damsel in distress, the evil temptress and assassin, and the cool but seducible aristocrat I mentioned above.
There’s a fourth. The independent and active heroine in her own right who’s able to fight alongside Bond, like Honey Ryder, Kissy Suzuki, and now, if Spectre continues what Skyfall started, Moneypenny. Her most fully-fledged incarnation, however, is Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore, who, by the way, was played by Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg’s predecessor on The Avengers and first-wearer of the catsuit. But it’s mainly the first three types who dominate our imaginations when we think of Bond and his women.
And while the aristocrat is usually the dullest of the Bond Girls, she is equally important to the concept of Bond as the other three because what she is, basically, is a princess and Bond---the movie Bond, not Ian Fleming’s original---is the commoner of myth and fairy tale, like Aladdin, Simple, Jack, or the third brother, who by guile and pluck sneaks into the castle and finds himself at home. Winning the heart of the princess or at least her temporary sexual favors proves he belongs there. That the princess often ends up dead or, if she’s lucky, loved and left, is necessary to there being another movie. She doesn’t matter, anyway. Her role is symbolic. She’s there to to establish Bond as a born prince among men. He is natural royalty lifted above his station by talent, skill, grace, and virtue (not to be confused in Bond’s case with goodness and niceness).
There’s an actual princess in Kingsman but she’s quickly locked away in an actual dudgeon guarded by expendable henchmen who might as well be trolls or stormtroopers before she and Eggsy catch even a glimpse of each other. When they’re finally brought together it’s for an anal sex joke that isn’t funnier or less vulgar and debasing for its being delivered in a cute Swedish accent and Hanna Alström who plays the princess presenting the camera with one of the prettiest naked behinds in movie history.
Like I said, there’s no Mrs Peel in Kingsman, no female lead in any form at all, no truly significant female characters at all in that removing her from the story would leave a hole in the plot. Valentine’s chief assistant and bodyguard Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is a henchperson, pure and simple, a female Odd Job or Jaws except articulate and obviously smarter than her boss and allowed to demonstrate it. There’s Roxy (Sophie Cookson) a female Kingsman---not called a Kingswoman, for what that’s worth---but although she’s shown to be if not as good an agent as Eggsy then at least able to keep up, she’s basically a sidekick and not a particularly useful one. She’s barely on the scene for the final battle, relegated to a job that could have been done by a low-level technician back at headquarters pushing a button at Eggsy’s command. To the movie’s credit, I suppose, she and Eggsy aren’t made lovers or friends with benefits. They’re pals. But that serves to emphasize the fact that Eggsy’s only serious romantic attachments are to Galahad and his mother.
Vaughn, who wrote the screenplay with Jane Goldman, adapted Kingsman: The Secret Service from an ugly and disturbing mess of a comic book originally titled just The Secret Service by writer Mark Millar and artist Dave Gibbons. I read it. Don’t bother. Gazelle, Roxy, and the Princess are additions to the source material and represent a net gain of two female characters with something to do. The Princess is original. Gazelle and Roxy replace male characters with similar roles---in Gazelle’s case with the same name. Vaughn and Goldman have eliminated the villain’s girlfriend and replaced her with no one. They pretty much eliminated the villain too, but I’ll get to him in a minute. The point here is that the comic book, which is even more of an homage to Bond---although it’s hard to say which Bond. The grittier, bloodthirstier, more psychopathic aspects of all of them, maybe.---is weirdly even more male-centric. Slight and as nearly irrelevant as they are, the additions of Roxy, a female Gazelle, and the Princess are an improvement over the book by the movie.
Vaughn and Goldman have made many other significant changes, almost all of which are also improvements---although that’s not saying much. One of my favorites is the difference in cameos by Mark Hamill. Yes, he appears in the comic book too. And replacing the comic book’s bland villain with a character Samuel L. Jackson could have fun with was a smart decision. Jackson plays Valentine as an overgrown little boy with a childish lisp and an almost innocent certainty that his plan to save the world by arranging the deaths of billions of people is something all the grownups will approve of, as if he’s come up with a first prize winning project for the science fair. In some of his scenes he seems to have slipped into Kingsman through Dexter’s Laboratory rather than by way of Dr. No’s island, if you ignore the depraved indifference to pain and death shown both by Valentine and in Vaughn’s staging of the violent outcomes of Valentine’s scheming. But the most improving change, the one that could have made Kingsman a good movie if Vaughn had made more of it and that does give it something worth watching is the transformation of the hero from a stand-in for James Bond into a tribute to John Steed, allowing him to be played by Colin Firth, who is absolutely smashing in the part.
Too bad “smashing” doesn’t describe just his performance but also what he’s required to do too much of in his fight scenes.
Taron Egerton is likeable enough as Eggsy and when the time comes he wears his tailored suit well. Mark Strong as Merlin, who is sort of the Q of Kingsman and also its chief drill instructor, delivers another variation of what is becoming his expectation-subverting trademark shtick of playing good guys as if they’re bad guys and bad guys as if they’re good guys. I was thinking of saying Micheal Caine is wasted in the role of Kingman’s stodgy and snobbish spymaster but Michael Caine is never wasted in any movie because he won’t allow it. I read there were plans to do more with his character possibly based on his having starred in his own series of spy movies back in the day. The black plastic frame glasses Firth wears as Galahad instead of a Steed-esque bowler might be a tribute to Caine’s character in The Ipcress File and its sequels, the thinking-man and woman’s secret agent and anti-Bond Harry Palmer. That subplot was dropped. Probably for the best, considering how Kingsman misses the point of every other spy hero it pays tribute to.
And even though she has almost no character to play, Sofia Boutella has a ferociously compelling screen presence that has me convinced she can really act and wishing to see her in a movie that lets her prove it.
I wonder if, were he alive and reviewing, Roger Ebert would have been as hard on Kingsman as he was on Vaughn’s Kick-Ass:
Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.
I haven’t seen Kick-Ass and don’t ever plan to. I did like Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, which is why I was looking forward to Kingsman and was shocked by its heartlessness. Here’s my review from 2011: The superhero as the only adult in the room.
Kingsman: The Secret Service, directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sofia Boutella, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, and Mark Hamill. Rated R. Now in theaters.