The end of Oscar season is finally in sight, and after months devoted to covering a parade of prestige pictures (nothing against those films, which nobly cover a wide range of deadly serious topics -- from racism to disease -- with varying degrees of artistry), even we critics welcome a bit of mindless, palate-cleansing fun. This may go a ways in explaining why I find myself so enamored with "Kingsman: The Secret Service," the knowingly goofy homage to old-school James Bond flicks from director Matthew Vaughn (whose "X-Men: First Class" contained many of its own Bond film influences).
Loosely based on comic books written by Mark Millar ("Wanted" and "Kick Ass") and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Vaughn's film seems as much a response to the darkening of the current run of Bond films, post-Jason Bourne (both series are name-checked in "Kingsman"), as it is to his honest love of retro spy capers. Staging scenes of cartoonish violence with zestful glee, the director clearly relishes the chance to go nuts with the material. This is a movie that features a candy-colored montage of exploding heads set to the swelling sounds of a symphonic orchestra -- you won't get that kind of subversively kicky thrill from "The Theory of Everything," that's for damn sure.
Colin Firth plays impeccably-coiffed secret agent Harry Hart, who recruits a working class bloke named Eggsy (newcomer Taron Egerton, in a star-making performance) to join an international order of gentlemen spies whose headquarters lie beneath a bespoke tailor shop on Savile Row.
Under the leadership of Michael Caine's Arthur (each Kingsman goes by a codename taken from the Knights of the Round Table: Firth is Galahad, Mark Strong's quartermaster is Merlin, and so on) the order operates without government affiliation, which allows them to conduct their business outside the bounds of traditional political diplomacy.
The order's members have each been tasked with nominating a replacement for a recently fallen Kingsman; their various candidates will be subjected to a death-defying training course, with the last man (or woman) standing becoming the order's newest agent. Eggsy's father was a former Kingsman who laid down his life to protect Harry, and the agent has been looking for a way to repay the favor ever since. Smart, confident, and physically capable, Eggsy seems the ideal candidate, despite his low-class upbringing.
Eggsy's main competition throughout the film is a capable female recruit by the name of Roxy (the appealing Sophie Cookson), though it's disappointing that (minor spoiler) when the film bothers to make her a Kingsman, it immediately finds a way to keep her as far from the climactic action as possible. The script's occasionally regressive attitude toward women is offset ever-so-slightly with some equal-opportunity ogling, courtesy of a bit of shirtlessness and some clingy pajama pants sported by the film's hero during an underwater escape.
Meanwhile, a nefarious plot is being hatched by a suitably over-the-top, megalomaniacal villain: Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, clearing having a grand old time), a lisping, tech billionaire with a distaste for the sight of blood and an overwhelming desire to destroy the world. In the grand tradition of Bond henchmen with bizarre hardware enhancements, Valentine also has a lethal sidekick named Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who sports a set of prosthetic metal legs that double as deadly swords. The modifications are obviously impractical, but they sure look cool when she's flipping through the air, slicing and dicing anyone with the misfortune to get in her way.
With his wicked sense of humor, Vaughn doesn't shy from the gratuitous, most notably during a bloody church melee that's sure to rank among the most memorable action scenes of the year. The sequence skirts the edge of bad taste (as much in the movie does), but is so kinetically staged and attains a level of such absurdity that you can't help being thrilled, even if you feel bad about it afterwards (which in fairness, is sort of the point). Vaughn's script adds just enough of a nod to deeper ideas of class and society to maintain the appearance that there are some brains beneath all the mayhem. Firth makes for a surprisingly convincing action hero -- I never knew how much I wanted to see the actor take part in some no-holds-barred ass-kicking until it happened.
The Bond films have always been loaded with saucy, winking double entendres, and in keeping with Vaughn's style (subtlety isn't really in his wheelhouse), the director cranks that up to 11 as well, concluding his film with a tastelessly sexist joke that unfortunately ends things on a sour note. It's a frustrating reminder that reverence is one thing, but some traditions just aren't worth keeping.