One of the primary things that has made Mark Millar, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman such a logical and fruitful collaboration is their shared love of the subversion of the overly familiar and a real knack for finding what's fun or interesting about an archetype and turning it inside out. They did it with “Kick-Ass,” and now they seem to have perfected the model with “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”
The easy pitch for “Kingsman” would be “an R-rated version of 'Harry Potter' by way of James Bond,” and that's not inaccurate. But it doesn't fully encapsulate all the ways that “Kingsman” works, and this is as aggressive a slice of mainstream entertainment as I've seen in recent memory. Fast and brash and told with a dangerous amount of cheek, this feels like a reaction to the Bond films in the same way that “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” was a reaction to the old Republic serials.
Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, a super spy a la the Roger Moore era Bond, and just casting Firth is a knowing wink from the filmmakers. After all, the most violent fight that Firth has ever had onscreen was in the two “Bridget Jones” films, where the entire point was that he was hilarious when he started fighting. Here, there's a scene early on where Hart tries talking to young Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) in a pub, only to be interrupted by a group of toughs. The way Hart dismantles the group is beautiful, and once again, the stunt team of Brad Allen proves themselves one of the very best in the business. Trained under Jackie Chan, these guys bring huge energy and creativity to the fights, and each one is full of both character and bone-shattering intensity. Firth does enough of it himself to sell the illusion, and he walks away from this looking incredibly bad-ass.
Likewise, Egerton ends up feeling like a real discovery here. Eggsy's father was a Kingsman who died in the line of duty, and Eggsy has grown up without him, never knowing the truth. When Hart is encouraged to find a new recruit for the Kingsman program, he decides to bring Eggsy in, convinced that he's going to be able to stack up next to the other recruits, who all seem to have been born and bred specifically for this purpose.
With a supporting cast that features Mark Strong, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Michael Caine, and Sophie Cookson, among others, the film is positively sodden with good performances. Samuel L. Jackson is the film's big bad guy, Valentine, and he's having more fun here than he seems to normally have, playing the character with a near-paralyzing distaste for blood and an oddly humanizing lisp. His henchman, the striking Sofia Boutella, has these crazy razor-blade legs that would be right at home in any era of James Bond movies.
It's not just one thing that makes this feel like a Bond tribute, though. It's the love of gadgetry, the way the film celebrates the things that are uniquely British about the characters, the feeling of a larger organization that needs to be both obeyed and occasionally rebelled against. It is crystal clear that Ritchie and his collaborators love the world of James Bond and the trappings of the series, and Eggsy is as eager to take up this sword as British schoolboys once were when they would read the King Arthur stories.
Once you realize where the film is going, you start to wonder just how far it's going to go. Let me assure you that Vaughn is far crazier than he seems at first, and this time in particular, he pushes his film to some places that will genuinely shock some viewers. That's why it's so good, though. For this film to work, it has to really go for broke, and there are images here that are outrageous and obscene and delightful all at once.
This is a case of all the elements lining up and pushing a potentially good film into the great category because of just how well executed it is. This certainly isn't the only Bond riff ever made, nor is it the only way one could pay tribute to something that has endured for 50 years now, but it may be the pinnacle of what Matthew Vaughn's done so far on film, and the best example yet of where his head and is heart are as a filmmaker.
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” opens on Friday.