Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Kingsman: The Secret Service"

 2.5 / 5 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is such a full-throttle assault to sensibility, an attempt to be both retro and modern that seems so off-balance that I found myself in a quandary: I loved it except when I hated it.  After it was over, I wondered, was it a gloriously excessive romp or a frustratingly failed spoof?  Like Betty White says in the census-taker sketch from Saturday Night Live, "There's really no way of knowing."

Amid some of the worst visual effects in a big-budget studio release and violence that crosses the line from gratuitous to relentlessly excessive, Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers a long stretch of giddy inventiveness as it reveals the existence of a spy ring so secret even its members seem unsure if it exists.

The Kingsmen are named for a Savile Row tailor, or maybe the shop is named for them, it's never clear and it doesn't matter.  What matters is that they are the special agents that MI6 would call on for help if MI6 knew about them.  They are the kind of spies James Bond could only aspire to be, ruthlessly effective yet impeccably cultured.

The movie begins with a thoroughly botched scene of a thoroughly botched mission.  For the first 10 or 15 minutes of Kingsman, director Matthew Vaughn seems incapable of telling a story using modern tools -- in fact, Kingsman opens with what has to be the most amateurish effects shot in recent memory.  The visuals don't even rise to the level of a cheap video game.  In an effort to plunge the audience right into the action, nothing is clear and the movie itself is distracting.  Things get even worse when Kingsman introduces Eggsy (Taron Egerton), an East London thug whose life is so stereotypical thuggish (baggy pants, hip-hop music, fast cars, thick accents) that Kingsman has nowhere to go but up.

And it does.  It rises, it rises, it rises, and finally it doesn't achieve lift-off as much as it shoots straight into the cinematic heavens, finding its way after the first blind stumbles and morphing into exactly the kind of movie we wish James Bond films could be again.  It's fast on its feet, clever and charming, and more than a little thrilling.  It's all going so well.

Then, as Kingsman does time and again, it comes crashing back down, falling hard when it introduces the lisping, curious character played by Samuel L. Jackson, a multi-billionaire who, it comes to pass, has a plan to take over the world.  True, total global domination is a villainous motivation we see far too little of in spy movies anymore -- they've all become so literal, so real, so gritty.  Kingsman is figurative, silly, lighthearted.  But neither Jackson nor the script (based on a graphic novel) can figure out this bad guy, and the movie suffers for it.  His plan, when it's finally revealed, seems so full of gaping holes, and is presented with such impossible-to-believe amateurishness, that there's no way Kingsman could expect us to take it seriously -- but it does.

Jackson's prodigious talents fail him this time around, and even Kingsman's script points out that the plot is only as good as the villain -- and when your villain is presented as a lightweight, lisping Russell Simmons knock-off, it's hard not to think what might have happened if he had been Scaramanga or Blofeld rather than a character who's a quarter-of-a-step up from Dr. Evil.

The villain's name is Valentine, and without giving too much away, his plan involves using billions of cell phones all over the world to emit a signal to -- well, exactly what it does (and, more importantly, why) are never entirely clear.  For those who may be familiar with the story, imagine he gets his way: Then what?  You knew what Goldfinger had in mind, Valentine not so much.

But nevertheless, the Kingsmen are going to stop him, including the newly recruited Eggy, whose training and indoctrination into the Kingsman program form the best part of the movie.  Eggy's training by the no-nonsense Merlin (Mark Strong) and by Firth's Harry Hart (code name: Galahad) -- all the Kingsmen are named for Arthurian legends -- is endlessly entertaining.  Watching the London lad become a gentleman spy is as entertaining as the name-checked transition of Eliza Doolittle.  More, even.  For this long, long stretch of time, Kingsman had me believing it had not only overcome its early difficulties, but that it was introducing us to a situation and characters that could form the basis of sequel after sequel -- all of which I was already envisioning myself going to see.

Kingsman is fast, funny, cheeky, clever and, most of all, suave and sophisticated, as any spy who received a bespoke-made suit from Savile Row must be.  Eventually, Eggy even learns how to order the perfect martini (hint: only look at the bottle of vermouth).

Then, just as the Kingsmen should be making the plans for a final attack on Valentine's mountaintop compound (another digital mess of a location), everything goes kablooey. I mean that literally.  During a stop at a Southern evangelical church that may hold a secret to uncovering Valentine's plot, something happens.  I won't say what it is, I'll say only that it leads to the most excessive, depressing, ugly and out-of-place outburst of violence, one that is so spectacularly ill-conceived it made me want to leave the movie then and there.

I didn't.  I stayed, even though I didn't want to.  And I'm glad I did.

If you think that last paragraph is confusing, it's nothing compared with the emotions I felt watching Kingsman.  I was angered, I was disgusted, I was shocked, I was confused and, more importantly, I felt I had been betrayed.  True, the movie's opening scene also contains some rather over-the-top violence, and the rest of the movie will have lots of exploding heads and splattered brains, but this particular scene stopped the show in its tracks.  It presents violence for no other reason than to get us to laugh at big wooden poles being shoved into someone's head, at bullet blasts to the face, at body parts falling off.  Maybe Vaughn intends to convey some sort of "meta" message through the over-the-top violence, but it doesn't work.  (And if it's not, if he means it solely as entertainment, it still doesn't work.)  It comes close, at least twice, maybe even three times, to ruining the film.

But Firth, Egerton, Strong and Michael Caine (as Arthur, naturally) are there to bring it all back.  When the violence turns cartoony and silly as people's heads blow up in multiple colors, shot from above like a Busby Berkeley Technicolor musical, they manage to rise above it all.  These are solid actors with terrific characters.  In Kingsman, they've found a concept that could grow and get better and turn into movies that audiences don't just half-love but whole-love.

Kingsman almost works.  It is wonderful fun.  It made me smile and laugh at exactly the times when it wanted me to smile and laugh.  It sucked me in to its story, made me believe in what I was seeing.  And then, it wasted all of that goodwill by its insistence on being edgy, by bringing in "meta" elements that referred to other (better) films, by spilling blood in such aggressively ugly ways.

As a film, Kingsman should aspire to be exactly like the debonaire Harry Hart/Galahad, but still has far too much Eggy on its face.  Next time around, let's hope they get it right, because I do hope that Kingsman will have a next time around.  I'd love to see what they could do if they figure out how to get the tone right.

Viewed March 28, 2015 -- AMC Promenade 16


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