at the movies: kingsman: the secret service

Deep, bitter cold didn’t keep your intrepid reviewers from heading over to the Cinemax this afternoon for the first movie day of the year. (Movie days are going to be fewer this year due to scheduling issues, but still, February. Yikes.) We had been wanting to see Kingsman: The Secret Service since last summer, when we began to be bombarded by incredibly stylish trailers for what seemed to be a post modern spy school story combining humor, violent action and someone who looked like Colin Firth impersonating 60s/70’s Michael Caine.

Yes, this is a stylish flick and there was a spy school in it, and some humor (including one spectacularly hysterical joke about Elgar, of all things) and lots and lots and lots of extremely violent action, and many Michael Caine impressions by a variety of actors, including Colin Firth. And also Michael Caine. Read more under the cut, because I am going to spoil things a bit.You’ve heard people say that certain works of art are a “triumph of style over substance”, right? Kingsman is the best example I’ve seen in a while of how frustrating that can be.

There are a lot of excellent“good junk” movie components here: a huge budget lavishly spent, interesting set and character designs, a reasonable functional plot, a moderately clever (though sometimes terribly heavy-handed) script with a few brilliant moments, a villain who is great on paper, a great evil henchwoman for the same, and a quite interesting title organization for the heroes to belong to. Kingsman is an elegantly traditional private spy service that is having trouble adapting its 20th Century founding values to the realities of 21st Century life. There’s enough meat in all of this to easily elevate a movie from junk to “good junk”, but unfortunately Kingsman never quite rises to that level.

There were some good performances: Colin Firth can’t help but act, and personal favorite Mark Strong puts in his usual solid outing as Merlin, the trainer and armorer. Michael Caine was effortless as the leader (and style model) of the group and the symbol of the old fashioned values that hold his organization back. Samuel L. Jackson is the odd, lisping megalomaniac bad guy, sporting an ever changing snappy  wardrobe of ball caps and worry beads and the usual villainous line of bull. His performance is erratic at best, but has occasional moments of a kind of self-aware irony that was supposed to link his character with Firth’s.

The main failing of the acting was the performance of Taron Egerton in the main role of the young trainee spy who is supposed to represent the fusion of a modern sensibility with the best traditions of the past. You can see the classic character concept the creators were looking for: a smirky modern kid with a chip on his shoulder who still has the old fashioned good stuff in him. But unfortunately most of what you got was more smirk than heart.

And then there needs to be a word about the violence. As regular readers know, I am not opposed to violence in a film. I’ve become quite a connoisseur of bloody action movies over the years and a high body count doesn’t scare me a bit. But there is an awful lot of intense, sustained, gory and very deadly killing in this movie, often compiled into long sequences and set to jarringly -but- cleverly chosen music in a way I can only assume was intended as irony. It is not treated realistically, and it is not treated with respect, and it can get to be a bit much, even for me. The individual fights were good, these drawn out set pieces less so.

In fact, that was true in general: as the plot progressed, the scale of the storytelling grew, and the movie seemed to spiral out of control. Let’s call it pretty good junk: entertaining, but not something you are going to remember vividly, or think about much.

All right. You are going to remember the Elgar joke. And maybe the evil henchwoman, who has some of the greatest trick weapons ever.


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