Friday, February 20, 2015
Imagine putting the James Bond movies into a cinematic blender with the Austin Powers comedies, and you’ll see what British director Matthew Vaughn does with his outlandish movie “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” For the record, Vaughn made his first film as a director in 2004 with the murderous mobster melodrama “Layer Cake” (2004) starring Daniel Craig. Three years later he followed up “Layer Cake” with “Stardust.” This imaginative Neil Gaiman fantasy romance bore little resemblance to the gritty “Layer Cake.” Vaughn didn’t come into his own until he adapted Mark Millar’s subversive graphic novel “Hit Girl” as the Nicolas Cage actioneer “Kick Ass.” This controversial revenge thriller about a dad and daughter who dressed like comic book super-heroes to destroy a dastardly gangster spawned a sequel. Vaughn’s biggest success came with the incomparable Marvel Comics “X-Men” prequel “X-Men: First Class” about the costume-clad mutants in their youth during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Vaughn has recycled many of the themes and characters from those movies for his adaptation of Mark Millar’s graphic novel “Kingsman: The Secret Service”(***1/2 OUT OF ****) that features Colin Firth, Michael Caine, and Mark Strong. This uneven but entertaining homage to the James Bond movies provides an overdue departure from the usual formulaic, testosterone laden fare that sacrifices wit and style for realism and gore. Mind you, Vaughn grinds his action gears during the early scenes as he sets up his improbable plot. Happily, he has everything running smoothly for an explosive finale. The big problem that Vaughn had to contend with in launching a new franchise was pairing relatively unknown actor Taron Egerton with veteran actor Colin Firth who rarely plays armed and deadly heroes. Meanwhile, sympathetic heroes and treacherous villains tangle mercilessly in this larger-than-life, hyperbolic espionage escapade that could easily qualify as “50 Shades of Blood” for its sensational number of mind-blowing action scenes. Hundreds of thousands of people perish when an evil megalomaniac plans to solve overpopulation by implanting SIM cards into their heads, controlling their thoughts, and converting their cell phones into improvised explosive devices. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” qualifies as the kind of silly but stout, R-rated saga that might repel squeamish moviegoers.
Matthew Vaughn and his wife Jane Golden, who has collaborated on every film her husband has helmed except “Layer Cake,” have adapted Mark Millar’s graphic novel with the same audacious abandon that they infused in “Kick Ass.” Indeed, they have made some extreme but inspired changes to Millar’s narrative. For example, without giving anything away, the villain in the graphic novel was Caucasian; the villain’s second-in-command was male, and Mark Hamill played himself rather than a scientist. “Kingsman” concerns an independent, international espionage agency hidden behind the façade of an elite tailor's shop on London's Savile Row that operates at the highest level of discretion like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” television series. This private outfit makes Navy SEALs look like second-rate shrimp. Indeed, if such an ultra-secret organization existed, world peace would be guaranteed. Latter day British knights of the realm with appropriate code-names like Lancelot and Galahad, these dudes cut dashing figures in their globe-trotting missions to preserve peace and solidarity. The cream of their crop, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), ranks as their top agent. He is at his best when he has little more than an umbrella to vanquish the villains. British actor Colin Firth, who plays the impeccably clad protagonist, has been acting since 1984, but he is known largely as a lightweight leading man in romantic comedies like “Mamma Mia!,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” In 2007, he ventured out of his comfort zone and played an armor-clad knight in the above-average medieval swashbuckler “The Last Legion.” During one of Vaughn’s many impressively staged action set-pieces, Firth devastates a hatemongering Westboro-style church congregation in a no-holds-barred, free-for-all fracas.
As “Kingsman” unfolds, Harry Hart’s closest comrade, Lancelot (Jack Davenport), dies during a mission but saves Harry’s life. Predictably, Harry consoles Lancelot’s grieving widow and son. Understandably distraught by her husband’s mysterious demise, Michelle Unwin (Samantha Womack of “Breeders”) wants nothing to do with Kingsman. Nevertheless, Harry persuades her only son, Eggsy, to accept Lancelot’s medal inscribed with a phone number and a code word should he ever require help. Seventeen years later, as an underprivileged teen living in the projects, Eggsy finds himself in deep trouble. Our wild, impulsive hero steals an automobile belonging to a gang of loutish British lads who have been badgering him. Commandeering their vehicle for a joyride, Eggsy careens through congested London traffic, driving the vehicle in reverse, with the police following him nose to nose, as he executes several complicated maneuvers. Vaughn excels with suspenseful scenes like this careening car chase. Later, with nobody to help him, Gary ‘Eggys’ Unwin (newcomer Taron Egerton) contacts Harry. After Harry gets Eggsy out of the clink, he takes him for a tour of a local tailor’s shop that serves as a front for Kingsman. Since he feels guilty about the death of Eggys’ dad, Harry helps the lad compete with other candidates for the job-of-a-lifetime as a Kingsman. After surviving the gauntlet of an incredible obstacle course, Eggys stands poised to become a top agent who can match wits and swap fists with either James Bond or Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, our hero commits some interesting mistakes before he can redeem himself in the eyes of the Kingsman and save the world.
Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as goofy looking, Internet billionaire philanthropist Richmond Valentine. Adopting with a quirky lisp, Jackson wears his baseball cap askew like a gangsta. Clearly, Valentine represents Jackson’s best performance since “Pulp Fiction.” Although the tongue-in-cheek Jackson overshadows handsome Harry Hart and his unusual arsenal of weapons, Valentine’s number one henchman--perhaps ‘henchm’am would be better--is a gravity-defying dame equipped with razor-sharp, 'Flex-Foot Cheetah' blade feet, who slices up her adversaries like deli meat. Nothing can prepare you for Algerian dancer Sofia Boutella of “StreetDance 2” when she performs her breathtaking acrobatic feats in a variation on Oddjob and his razor sharp bowler hat from the Bond groundbreaker “Goldfinger.” Altogether, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” amounts to amusing but polished nonsense.