Monday, March 16, 2015

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE Is Another Kick-Ass Action Flick from Millar and Vaughn


- KINGSMAN is one of those everything-and-the-kitchen-sink action movies that, if you're of a certain geeky sensibility, is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Like many, I've become a big fan of director Matthew Vaughn over the last several years. And I think that the creative partnership of him and comic book writer Mark Millar is a winner. Millar is a guy whose books always interest me. He is one of the best premise people out there - his comics always stem from a great high-concept idea, and yet, Millar always puts character first. The one issue with Millar is sometimes that of tone. His comics sometimes, quite simply, go a little overboard in terms of delivering shock value - and the shock value can on occasion undermine the story he's trying to tell. Enter Vaughn, who is a perfect ying to Millar's yang. Vaughn has a knack for distilling Millar's stories down to their core themes - he keeps the gonzo action and over-the-top sensibilities, but tends to cut out the stuff that distracts from the big-picture storytelling. So here's the thing: I really dug Millar's comic miniseries The Secret Service, on which KINGSMAN is based. But I freaking loved the film. It's got incredible action, tons of self-referential wit, insane action, humor, and a number of incredibly entertaining performances. After a long delay and an underhyped theatrical release dwarfed by the behemoth that was 50 Shades of Grey, it might have been logical to assume that KINGSMAN was a dud. But - good news! - it's actually one of the most fun and flat-out entertaining action films in quite some time.

The basic premise here is that a London street kid called Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is recruited into a top-secret international spy organization by Harry Hart - aka Galahad (Colin Firth) - a veteran spy who once worked with Eggsy's deceased father. The members of said organization - The Kingsmen - are mostly recruited from the upper crust, and the standard agent is a James Bond-ian blend of dapper, suave, and impeccably posh. Suffice it to say, the lower-class Eggsy doesn't quite fit in, and seems a longshot to make it all the way in the group's series of recruitment challenges, designed to narrow down the field of rookies to a select few. But the Kingsmen will soon need all the help they can get: a mad man named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) - who happens to be the head of one of the world's largest communications companies - is formulating a plan that would cull the world's population, by mind-controlling regular people (via their cell phones, of course) and turning them into crazed, homicidal lunatics.

I was sort of blown away by KINGSMAN's script. There's a ton of plot, character work, and action packed into the film's running time, but nothing feel's overly rushed or truncated. I will say though, in an era of action movies in which plot is so often just "Big Bad trying to steal all-powerful item", it's pretty refreshing to see an action movie villain with a.) a well-thought-out scheme, and b.) actual conviction. Samuel L. Jackson's Valentine is a great villain - not just because Jackson is funny and fully committed to the part, but because there's a lot of thought put into his plans. It's not just the plotting that's impressive though. The character work is razor-sharp. The dialogue zips and zings. The characters each feel distinct and full of personality. The humor works. There's great quips and memorable lines aplenty. Good stuff all around.

Colin Firth kills it as Galahad. Many seem surprised at how well Firth adapts to action. But really, the Galahad character is sort of an extended riff on Firth's gentlemanly persona. And a big part of the fun of KINGSMAN is seeing Firth kick all kinds of ass in gentlemanly style. "Manners maketh man" is Galahad's credo, and that extends to everything from sipping tea to taking out a roomful of thugs. Firth really is fantastic though - it's one of the most fun and memorable action movie performances in a long while. He nails every quip, but also brings a lot of heart to the role - especially as pertains to his father-son relationship with Eggsy.

Taron Egerton is a huge find. He makes Eggsy anything but generic. Rather, the movie's protagonist is a street-smart, big-hearted hero-in-the-making who adapts in My Fair Lady fashion to the Kingsmen's ways, but who also holds strong to what he learned from the ol' school of hard knocks. I really admired that the film seemed to pull no punches with respect to the theme of class and class warfare - instead going all-in and making it a driving force of the film's plot and characters.

There are many additional noteworthy turns in the film. I'll mention Mark Strong, because he's just generally awesome, but also because he makes the Kingsmen's resident trainer and mentor figure Merlin an all-around badass. I'll also mention Michael Caine, as senior Kingsman. Caine is on point here, and has some surprising moments that are key plot drivers. And then there's Sofia Boutella, who plays Valentine's chief henchwoman - a fierce and fiercely loyal assassin with gleaming razors for legs. Yep, you heard me. Boutella is a villain for the ages - a pulp-fiction femme fatale who destroys in several action scenes that leave you on the edge of your seat.

The overall vibe here is reminiscent of Vaughn's Kick-Ass, but even more amped up - with a Tarantino-esque genre-mash, anything-goes feel. And again, the fact that the film has a few things on its mind - class, wealth, etc. - gives it a bit more meat to chew on than your average over-the-top action-fest. But action-fest it is. The movie is pull-no-punches violent and gory - but in a mostly cartoonish way that fits with the film's comic-book tone. Vaughn goes big - and he retains Millar's fanboyish sense of merry-prankster glee at giving the audience a little something extra with the action and gore. But there's also an almost Spielbergian optimism to the film that is not necessarily drawn from the comic. Despite the uber-violence, the big set-pieces and action beats are just plain fun, and almost entirely character-driven in nature. It's how the movie is able to pack so much in - every big action set-piece is jammed with great little character moments that advance the story while also being decidedly awesome.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE is one of the best cinematic surprises of 2015 so far. I hope the Vaughn/Millar collaboration continues, because the two definitely seem to bring out the best in each other. And while we're on the subject, I wouldn't mind seeing a KINGSMAN sequel. The characters and universe that the film introduces us to are so fun and likable that I was left wanting more. And that, to me, is the sign of an action movie's job well done. Manners maketh man, and Millar and Vaughn maketh another movie that kicks some serious ass.

My Grade: A-

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