I expected to like KINGSMAN: The Secret Service (2014) much more than I did (all rights to image with current holder). While it pays lip service to deconstructing James Bond and challenging the tradition of the aristocratic spy (“snobbery with violence” as someone once put it), ultimately, like November Man, the film’s ideas are just gloss on a stock action adventure (though the good parts are better than the Brosnan film by far)
The Kingsmen are an independent, non-governmental black ops group, set up by wealthy men after WW I to keep the world safe. The Kingsmen are upper-class types headed by Arthur (Michael Caine) who believes the lower orders just don’t have what it takes. Kingsman Hart (Colin Firth) disagrees: his first working-class recruit died saving him some years ago so he repays that debt by bringing on the man’s son Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as a new recruit.
The male snobs in his class all wash out during the grueling training (the training is a high point of the film) leaving Eggsy and a female candidate, Roxy (Sophie Cookson). The final exercise is for them to shoot the dogs they’ve trained as partners (with blanks but they don’t know it) and when Eggsy balks, he’s out.
Then computer billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) kills Hart as an obstacle to his Big and Evil Plan — using a hate ray to make most of humanity murder each other, reducing the population enough to end global warming (a few powerful individuals, including Arthur and Barack Obama, in return for their support). Can Eggsy, Roxy and the Kingsman’s tech whiz Merlin (Mark Strong) save the day?
The movie make several references to how unrealistic but fun the Bond films were, and to their colorful villains (Firth: “I rather fancied a future as a colorful megalomaniac.”). When Valentine has his final confrontation with Hart, they both joke about the Bond villains’ death traps in Bond films before Valentine declares “this isn’t that kind of movie” and shoots Hart dead. Of course, Austin Powers was making that joke 15 years ago, but playing with Bond cliches has still plenty of potential— after all, Casino Royale (1967) played with them 30 years before Austin Powers. Unfortunately the movie stops playing and develops into a mix of Bond thriller and violent action film, culminating in a supposed-to-be-spectacular massacre and Eggsy getting anal sex with a captured princess as a reward for saving the world (an obvious Bond riff, played straight). I wish they’d played more.
I really wish they’d done more with the classism angle too. Nobody makes much fuss about Eggsy’s blue-collar origins, not even Arthur, nor do they make any difference to the plot: if one of the upper-class Kingsman had been the hero, it’s hard to see him doing things differently from Eggsy. And at the film’s end, as AV Club says, Eggsy turns into a suave gentleman just like Hart. The film doesn’t challenge the Gentleman Spy mystique, it just assumes blue-collar guys can become James Bond too, provided they dress well and act “U” enough.
The film’s handling of gender doesn’t impress me either. Roxy is a cipher, with zero personality traits other than being Eggsy’s buddy, and with a much smaller role at the climax than Merlin’s (and while the Kingsmen admit women, it’s an all-white group).
Then there’s the kill-your-dog thing. I have enough trouble believing that black ops groups who answer to no-one are the solution to anything; a black ops group that requires such unquestioning obedience you’ll kill your dog for no reason beyond “Because I said so!” seems an even worse idea. I wish the film makers had deconstructed that stuff instead of accepting it unquestionably. And given Eggsy does save the dog, why not have it play a role in his adventure, just to drive home he’s not the old-school Kingsman?
Admittedly Egerton’s dullness onscreen hurt my enjoyment more than the analytical aspect. He’s an uninteresting actor, more so because he’s paired with the delightful Firth. If he’d been Firth’s equal, I might have liked the movie despite its flaws.