Review: ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ Is Surprisingly Outstanding

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“You know, I really don’t like Kick-Ass.”

I hear this a lot. I say this a lot. In fact, it’s almost remarkable how much I don’t like Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, an adaptation from Mark Millar’s comic book, compared with how much I love Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, which is also adapted from a Mark Millar comic book.

The sentence that leads off this piece is a fairly usual reaction to me saying, “I really liked Kingsman: The Secret Service.” And that’s a completely fair reaction, considering the brain trust between the two movies is the same, but it’s astonishing how different these movies are when that’s taken into effect. Such is the course for Matthew Vaughn, however.

As Steven Hyden of Grantland also points out in his great profile of Vaughn, he’s a hard director to peg. It’s not every director who can helm the gritty Layer Cake, then follow that up with the fantasy film, Stardust. And then after making Kick-Ass (a modest success of a film that I personally find boorish), he makes what is arguably the best X-Men movie, X-Men: First Class. (At least I will argue to anyone who will listen that it’s the best X-Men movie; Vaughn was rewarded for this by being replaced on Days of Future Past by Bryan Singer.)

When I first heard that Vaughn would be making Kingsman, the news disappointed me. It just felt like he was going back to the old well, a well I didn’t particularly like very much. I actually like Vaughn as a filmmaker because he’s so hard to peg, so the last thing I wanted to see was another Kick-Ass.

Anyway, this is a very winded way of saying: If Kick-Ass leaves you hesitant to see Kingsman, I completely understand, but your fears are unwarranted.

It helps that Vaughn is surrounded by actors like Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson, two actors who (A) look like they are having the time of their life and (B) know how to sell a movie like Kingsman. (Firth, in particular, looks like this is the role he’s been waiting to play for 20 years. It’s as if he’s just really wanted to punch bad guys all along.)

Kingsman: The Secret Service stars Firth as Harry Hart, a member of the ultra-secretive Kingsmen, basically a group of James Bond-type agents, only if James Bond were even more ridiculous. This ridiculousness works by basically owning the fact that this is all nonsense, which basically removes any notion from the audience thinking, Oh, come on. The entire movie is one big, Oh, come on, and it is very aware of that.

Harry Hart takes a young man named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) under his wing as the two try to take down a criminal mastermind named Richmond Valentine (Jackson) – a villain with a henchwoman who has razorblades for legs. What’s interesting here is that Valentine’s plan, at least in his mind, is to save the planet for environmental reasons. Of course, this means killing a lot of people, but this brings at least some sort of justification to his plans and a sense of meaning to a character that most movies like this wouldn’t even bother including. Usually, it would just be, “I am evil.” Here, Valentine thinks he’s the hero.

There’s a scene in this movie I would love to discuss, but, if I did, even with “spoiler warnings,” you would probably hate me. I will say that there’s a scene in Kingsman that I did not see coming at all and it’s played beautifully. And it’s a ballsy scene that not a lot of movies like this would have the guts to do, but it sends the film in a completely different direction that turns out to be quite wonderful.

Kingsman: The Secret Service really has little business being this good, but here we are. I suspect there are a lot of people who will dismiss it just based on the trailers. I’ve run into too many people who seem shocked when I try to explain that this is a good movie. I used to feel this way! But this isn’t a stupid action movie, it’s a knowing action movie. It’s a movie that has the song “Give it Up” by KC and the Sunshine Band playing over its final fight scene. No movie that’s not self-aware would ever do such a thing. What I mistakenly thought of as Matthew Vaughn possibly regressing is actually the exact opposite.