Movie Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

I’d like to get this out of the way at the outset: Kingsman is a fantasy—a very much masculine one at that—and conjures a world that, arguably, only ever existed in the (possibly male) imagination. And I am well aware of that. This is a movie that needs to be appreciated on its own terms. I am also aware that not all of it is worth appreciating and this is my attempt to do justice to what is worth appreciating about Kingsman.

Kingsman is a clandestine private intelligence agency founded by and comprising of (mostly) aristocratic English gentlemen. It is also a…tailor shop, albeit a rather unique one. The Kingsmen are code-named after the Knights of King Arthur’s round table. What better code name, then, for the head of the organisation, than Arthur (a reliable Michael Caine)? As the movie opens, one of the Kingsmen, Lancelot, dies protecting another, Galahad. Galahad is the code name of Harry Hart (played to perfection by Colin Firth). An agent in training named James (a suave Jack Davenport) becomes the new Lancelot, only to get spectacularly slaughtered in half (literally!) seven years later.

So let’s just say that as the movie truly opens, the Kingsman position of Lancelot is, once again, vacant. We get to see Harry again, as an aging, wise, self-effacing, world-weary spy who, in appearance, is an immaculately dressed, bespectacled Englishman, complete with Oxfords and umbrella. However, when the need presents itself, he is still capable of kicking ass and delivering punch lines with the same polish, poise, and cool good sense he employs in his dressing. The scene where he takes on a group of ill-mannered hooligans in a bar will forever remain, at least in my mind, as the most perfect hero introduction scene ever. (It had me wondering what prevents writers of Tamil genre movies from imagining and writing sequences of this kind. Not that they don’t exist, but they never (never) achieve this kind of mythic perfection.) And speaking of heroes, Harry isn’t this film’s protagonist. That honour is bestowed on the rather ridiculously nick-named “Eggsy” (Gary Unwin, played by Taron Eggerton). However, Harry Hart remains its true hero. Eggsy is Harry’s Lancelot-nominee and is in fact the son of the Lancelot who died trying to protect Harry. To cut the proverbial long story short, the rest of the movie follows Eggsy as he trains and competes with the other Lancelot-nominees under Michael (code named…Merlin, played by an excellent Mark Strong), proves his worth, and finally takes on the movie’s villain and ends up saving the world. Suffice it to say that Eggsy does not become Lancelot (and that, believe me, isn’t a spoiler), but becomes who he is destined to be.

I feel Kingsman works best when it treats the mythos of gentlemen-heroes with respect. When the tone of the movie turns irreverent, as it does in the second half, and it shifts gears from old-fashioned-spy-movie-with-a-self-effacing-sense-of-humour to a self-aware-sendup-of-old-fashioned-spy-movie-tropes, it loses in story telling power what it gains in postmodern comic currency. And, in my opinion, it’s the worse for wear. Of course, one has to make concessions to the realities of making a movie, one of which is that you can’t get away with making half of it. And in the case of Kingsman it’s difficult to see how anyone could have dreamt up a second half consistent with the style of its first, without having re-made one of the many preposterous denouements from the Bond movies of old. So the makers (Writer Jane Goldman and Co-Writer and Director Matthew Vaughn) opt for a comic send-up instead. I get it. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a sillier megalomaniac villain than Valentine, who is made interesting only by Samuel L. Jackson’s performance and his blade-running, throat-slashing henchwoman and girlfriend, Gazelle, played with relish by Sofia Boutella.

And as the movie comes to a close, and Eggsy saves the world and ends up kissing (actually, more than just kissing) a Princess, the credits start rolling. However, the movie doesn’t really conclude until the scene at the bar from the beginning of the movie is reprised—but this time with Eggsy instead of Harry, as he takes on his hooligan-of-a-stepfather and takes back his long-suffering mother. And it’s hard not to cheer along when he repeats Harry’s dictum, “Manners. Maketh. Man.” And that is perhaps a far more telling sign of what kind of movie Kingsman, at heart, is, than all the words of this review put together.

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