Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (Vaughn, 2015)

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I have never walked out of a film but Kingsman: The Secret Service tempted me to leave with every agonising minute of its runtime. I managed to make it through the whole sordid, mind-numbing affair, hoping that at some point the film would redeem itself. It didn’t. It may just be one of the most morally corrupt, inane excuses for cinema of the 21st Century.

Supposedly a homage to the spy films of the 1960s, Kingsman cobbles together a barely passable story out of thin air, stitching its crude fragments together with a multitude of fight sequences which aim for the ‘more is more’ approach to action. Colin Firth, the epitome of upper class sophistication (for Americans audiences, at least) plays a Kingsman agent called Galahad. Recruiting the son of a former Kingsman who once saved his life, Galahad takes street thug ‘Eggsy’ (Taron Egerton) under his wing in order to transform him into the ‘man’ he knows Eggsy can be. Alluding to the Pygmalion narrative of My Fair Lady (the film’s only semi-decent gag), Kingsman seems to suggest that to be a cold-blooded murderer is fine as long as you’re in a smart suit whilst committing such atrocities. And so begins the film’s ‘plot’.

The film has a hazardous relationship with screen-violence, clashing ultra-violent comic book antics with gritty depictions of domestic abuse, effectively putting everything onto the same spectrum of cinematic ‘banter’. One particular sequence in which Firth kills dozens of innocent – let me say that again, INNOCENT – people in cold blood (admittedly under the influence of some dubious, macguffin cued mind control technology) where the carnage is played out like a video game to be cheered on and laughed at, left this writer particularly repulsed. The film’s only attempt to justify this sequence is the fact that it takes place in a thinly-veiled version of the Westboro Baptist Church, known in real life for harbouring racist, homophobic and downright unpleasant world views. But using the cinema to fulfil a brutal revenge fantasy does nothing but equate such hatred with the hatred of the people being targeted. The depraved logic of this type of wish fulfilment, which even Quentin Tarantino, perhaps cinema’s most notoriously violent director, was able to side step and satirise in the final act of Inglourious Basterds, with his sly indictment of the Basterds’ brutish mentality as a mirror of the on-screen carnage of Nation’s Pride, is a fact completely lost on director Matthew Vaughn. Such sequences (and Kingsman has many) are nothing more than the inane, adolescent day dreams of a man-child using the silver screen to play out the most explicit game of toy soldiers imaginable. What was more frightening, however, was that the people sat around me in the cinema were completely won over by the film, laughing as one bystander was stabbed in the eye whilst an innocent woman took an axe to the neck. This is way past gratuitous violence – this is outright sadism, plastered on the screen for popcorn scoffing bros to chuckle away at without giving a thought to what they are watching or the fact they are enjoying it. Sure, the director’s earlier film Kick-ass was violent, but at least it gave consideration to the idea that Hit-Girl’s behaviour was a sad by-product of having a rogue vigilante for a parent. Here, violence is the name of the game and that is exactly what the film makes of it. There are no consequences. No rules. It makes a spectacle out of a civilisation in the grips of a chaotic violent breakdown and has its audience laugh at it without a hint of satire or intellect.The film seems to be at lengths to defend it’s brash no-brains buffoonery as a homage to the spy films of the 60s, summed up by Firth’s line heard repeatedly in promotional material for the film: ‘Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day’. But there’s no knowing irony or element of satire in its approach – it’s simply digging up past relics of bygone, backward eras and dressing them up with even more bloodlust and flashy camera work. James Bond is discussed as if he were a saint with the other ‘JBs’ – Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer – in tow. This is a step backward not forward, despite the director’s call to arms for an injection of ‘fun’ back into the multiplex. Really? Is this fun? I’m reminded of that Mitchell and Webb sketch where the comedians discuss Bond as if he were a recent dinner guest: horrified by his violent aggression and blatant misogyny. Vaughn’s film, like Bond in that sketch, is completely unaware of the immorality of it’s own behaviour. Simply referencing the spy genre of the 1960s in the script does not make Kingsman witty or intelligent. It simply betrays its own misguided idealisation of a type of film which until now had been consigned to the ash heap of history – intelligently spoofed on the rare occasion by the likes of the Austin Powers series or Johnny English.

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Taking a step back from the film’s violence doesn’t hold any further promise of finding something redeemable in the mess of Vaughn’s monstrous creation. Character development is non-existent, a cardboard world of stereotypes and walking clichés. The Britain depicted here is one in which there are only two types of people: extras from This is England and first prize winners from Monty Python’s Upperclass Twit of the Year – Michael Caine being the obligatory hybrid of the two. There was a more realistic depiction of contemporary Britain in Paddington and that film was about a talking bear! Maybe Firth was a bit too hasty with all the ‘conscious uncoupling’ business. Furthermore, its level of humour, when not playing dismemberment for laughs, amounts to the upkeep of a cultural word association game perpetuating the link between the word ‘German’ – not ‘Nazi’ – with the automatic miming of a fascist salute complete with a toothbrush – finger to the nose – moustache.Sure, there is a plot the film makes no attempt to really piece together. No one cares. The characters don’t and the film’s target audience definitely don’t either. All it needs its audience to know is that Sam Jackson is the bad guy; discussing his evil plans with a lisp which appears to have only been introduced to the script for the sake of one very unfunny, throwaway line half-way through the film. It just has no class, shamelessly throwing out product placement, plot holes and disturbing levels of violence because – ‘fuck it, let’s just sell our soul and give in to the crass, voyeuristic, bloodthirsty desires of the lowest common denominator, the brain-dead audience looking for a good way to start off a beer-soaked, amoral lad’s night out.’
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