Kingsman: So Much Action, So Few Returns (R)

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Colin Firth has a reputation for playing the underdog. He is an urbane actor and generally makes intelligent decisions in the roles that he plays. But, since his role as Mr. Darcy in the Pride and Prejudice miniseries 20 years ago, he has made a career of portraying a man in an uphill battle, sometimes with other suitors (The English Patient and Bridget Jones’s Diary), sometimes speech impediments (The King’s Speech) or sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder (The Railway Man). For this reason, seeing a be-speckled version of this persona karate-chop his way through a room of heavily armed cockney hoodlums (while armed with nothing but an umbrella, no less) is remarkably cathartic. The unbinding of this particular Prometheus is something that audiences have been waiting for, even though they may not realize it. A sequence like this can make a movie like Kingsman: The Secret Service worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, the action sequences involving Mr. Firth are the only scenes likely to make you think you got your money’s worth.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy movies that are just trying to be “fun” as much as the next twenty-something. But Kingsman cannot decide how to be fun. The movie is some sort of hybrid between comedy and action, but neither genre seems dominant throughout, although it approaches all of the tropes of the spy film in satirical fashion. The film’s ubervillain is cut from the same cloth as we have come to expect. In this case, he is a rampant Malthusian with a plan to nullify the effects of global warming by destroying the 99.99999% so that the 0.000001% can have an eternal yacht sans crew and butlers. The only problem is that, in finding an actor to play Bill Gates’s evil twin, the casting director apparently settled on Samuel L. Jackson. I understand that the incongruity of this is part of the joke, but the joke is only funny for the first five minutes. After that, it becomes distracting and then just perplexing to watch Samuel L. Jackson—best known for his jeremiad intonation of the Quentin Tarantino Edition of the Bible—nearly vomit at the sight of blood. One cannot blame Samuel L. Jackson for wanting to do something else; no one likes to be typecast, but being cast in this particular type is not for him.

That is not to say that all casting choices for the movie are as ham-handed. As was previously noted, watching Colin Firth explore the Ian Fleming dimension of his personality as Harry Hart (aka Agent Galahad) is a rewarding experience. Taron Egerton, in his role as “Eggsy” Unwin, Galahad’s Londoner protégé and the film’s ostensible protagonist, is not as entertaining to watch, but his unflinching loyalty to his mentor is poignant and his role is sincere. The always-excellent Mark Strong rounds out the team as a Q-esque Kingsman techie who appears to have taken the British adage to keep calm and carry on to heart, even when it means assassinating the world’s conspiring leaders with the push of a button.

With such talent, one can only wish that they had been employed for a better action flick. The plot could also have been better executed: The film plods during the training sequences that occupy the hour or so between the first act and the last and it has been seen before in teen action movies like The Hunger Games. Essentially every premise on which the film’s plot depends, from its secret order of government agents named for knights of the Roundtable to its antagonists trying to achieve mass genocide through malicious software products, is silly. But silliness is not a bad thing.  I have always found Doctor Who entertaining, at least in part because of its silliness. And silliness is one of the film’s more redeeming elements—notwithstanding that killing a real, democratically-elected president onscreen is borderline offensive and everyone who cheered in the theater during the scene ought to be ashamed of himself.

But, as an action film, Kingsman is surprisingly ineffective. Action sequences are something that Hollywood has been losing flair for in recent years, particularly when it comes to spy films which try to keep their feet at least partially on the ground. This is attributable to several things, but the chief corruptors are probably comic book movies and video games. As Manohla Darghis once pointed out action sequences are always best when seen with a wide shot—as opposed to the frenetic medium close-ups that are employed prolifically in Kingsman’s last act. This rule of thumb (or eye) might not be universal, but it underlines an important rule which today’s action flicks are ignoring: action in movies ought to be articulate; the characters’ acrobatics should always seem deliberate, bullets in a gun should be limited and so should the number of villains to overcome (because having action heroes who can kill their tens of thousands undermines the sequence’s suspense). Unfortunately, with the ascent of CGI, action directors having been running in the opposite direction, not worrying whether their sequences are articulate so long as they are noisy.

This is all well and good when it plays against the irony of Mr. Firth’s typically serene character. But, once he leaves the reins to his successor, he proves to be too formidable an act to follow. The production team behind Kingsman is to be commended for their imaginative conceit. But their execution of it could benefit from a little more naturalism.

James Banks

James Banks is a recovering writer and academic living in upstate New York. Before a quarter-life crisis drove him to work at a government bureau, he taught (and assistant taught) writing and movie classes at the University of Rochester. He can fake a New York accent when he tries, but he is a West Coaster and graduated from the University of Idaho in 2008.

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