Kingsman: The Secret Service (R)

kingsman_the_secret_service

Editor’s note: If you plan on seeing the film, wait to read the review. If not, or if you’ve already enjoyed it, proceed.

With a film as superficially slick and fun as Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, it’s mightily tempting to view the film on an accordingly superficial level, judging it based on its shallow pleasures and surface flash – and certainly, there are manifold pleasures to be enumerated here. One could list off the film’s many merits, such as Taron Egerton’s assured, star-making performance, or Colin Firth’s delightfully against-type turn as an action star, or Samuel L. Jackson’s even more delightfully against-type turn as a squeamish supervillain. One could point to the charming world of bulletproof umbrellas and exploding cigarette lighters that it creates, or to the thrillingly well-crafted action sequences, or to outrageous, inspired touches like a montage of exploding heads set to Pomp and Circumstance. (There’s no better time than this to acknowledge that, on a superficial level, the film also has a few executional missteps here and there.)

Yet while all this is valid and true (and let it be made clear that I, for one, really do thoroughly enjoy all this superficial stuff), such an approach belies just how intelligent and self-aware this film is, and what it’s really doing by way of its commentary on its genre and influences.

It’s tempting to take Kingsman’s repeated references to its forerunners (James Bond… Jason Bourne… Jack Bauer?) and its predilection to exaggerate these tropes to the point of absurdity as an implicit critique of those predecessors. Perhaps this film is a straightforward satire, criticizing the various negative qualities ingrained in the spy genre through a more “enlightened” modern lens.

The problem with this read is that, for as much as Kingsman critiques the tropes it employs, it also revels in them. This is what makes it hard to pinpoint what exactly the film is doing.

This is also what makes Kingsman the definition of, as a friend of mine aptly put it, having one’s cake and eating it, too.

Because this film is fully aware of what it’s doing, and it’s also fully aware that what it’s doing is really, really fun. At the same time, it’s aware of the problems implicit in a genre that’s been characterized in the past by racism, sexism, casual violence, and a host of other problems, and it’s not afraid to point those problems out. The result is that Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of the most honest blockbusters ever made.

kingsman-the-secret-service-KSS-012_rgb.0 Pictured: Awesomeness?

One sequence in particular is a perfect encapsulation of what Kingsman is doing. In a scene that’s stirred up some controversy since the film’s release (though not as much as certain other scenes), secret agent Harry Hart (Firth) infiltrates an extremist Christian “hate group,” not-so-subtly modeled after the Westboro Baptist Church, where supervillain Richmond Valentine (Jackson) is planning to test his superweapon. As it happens, that weapon deactivates the brain’s inhibitors, turning everyone in the church into a bloodthirsty monster. Losing control of himself, Harry proceeds to violently slaughter the churchgoers (who are doing their best to slaughter him and each other).

What we have here is Kingsman in microcosm. The sequence plays out in a series of deft tonal shifts. It starts out with some hilariously sharp and biting social satire, as the pastor spouts vitriol at just about every hot-button topic there is (most humorously and least crassly, he decries “evolution-spouters”). The biting commentary continues with a hilariously deadpan line reading from Firth, and then as the bloodbath begins, the scene shifts into an impressively well-choreographed ballet of violence. The violence is initially enjoyable and cathartic, thanks in large part to Vaughn’s eye for kinetic, flowing action, and it’s punctuated by humorous reaction shots from Eggsy (Taron Egerton, our protagonist – did I mention he’s great?) and Valentine, who are watching via video monitors (the film gets great humorous mileage out of Valentine’s aversion to violence). Yet as the scene continues, it goes on long enough and becomes so outlandishly gruesome that it becomes uncomfortable and grotesque. The film, which was indulging in an “awesome action scene” mere moments ago, makes you uncomfortable – and then, via Valentine’s reactions to the carnage, makes you laugh at your own discomfort. Once the scene ends, the church is filled with bodies, and the film lingers on this to hammer home that, by this point, you should be feeling uncomfortable. And if that weren’t enough, Harry himself is distraught about what he’s just done – and then he’s coldly murdered. (More on that later.)

Next, I’d like to draw attention to a neat throwaway joke early in the film. Eggsy and Harry get into an underground transportation device that shoots them across the country to the Kingsmen’s base. The camera pulls up, up and away and zooms over miles of landscape, tracking their progress.

And then it just keeps going.

It goes just long enough to be hilarious and call attention to itself, but not long enough to be tedious.

And it illuminates the entire modus operandi of the film.

Every single scene takes a familiar blockbuster beat just a bit too far. It plays every scene just a bit too on-the-nose. Just a bit too over-the-top. Just a bit too violent, or just a bit too stupid. And in so doing, it simultaneously functions as a “turn your brain off” blockbuster and calls attention to the absurdity and silliness of its own content.

Pictured: Absurdity and silliness. Pictured: Absurdity and silliness.

The Relationship Between Art and Audience

Regardless of whether the relationship is addressed, all art aims to interact with and manipulate its audience. There are different ways to do this. Most movies interact with their audience in a basic (but no less valid) way. Take, for instance, Star Wars. It wants its viewers to sympathize with and root for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, and accomplishes this via the magic of filmmaking – writing, cinematography, direction, acting; every aspect of the production is aimed to involve the audience in the film’s emotional arc and make them want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. This is manipulation, yes, but make no mistake, as audience members, we want to be manipulated, and usually, we’ll rebel if a film doesn’t do a good job manipulating us. This can come either in the form of complete failure to involve the audience – take, for instance, that most reliable exemplar of lowbrow cinema, the Transformers movie. On the other hand, the audience will often object if the manipulation is too obvious: hence the backlash against the “schmaltzy” quality of some of Spielberg’s films. Spielberg is a master manipulator, and thus a master filmmaker, but we’ve become so used to his tricks that the manipulation is obvious to us, and thus rings false.

Pictured: Manipulation.

All of which brings us to art that takes a more complicated approach to its interaction with the audience. For example, in a satire, you’re not supposed to take what you’re seeing at face value: perhaps no one in the film acknowledges the ridiculousness of the story they’re in, but the presentation of the film’s content reveals its absurdity to the audience. Satire points a finger at the story it’s presenting and invites the audience to see it as it really is.

Not pictured: Role models. Not pictured: Role models.

Yet some stories point their fingers back at the audience. David Chase, showrunner of The Sopranos, famously reveled in anticlimax, constantly denying the audience the excitement they expected and wanted from a “gangster” story and instead dismantling the American public’s romanticized view of the genre. Martin Scorsese similarly deconstructed the glamor of the gangster lifestyle in Goodfellas, and proceeded to harshly criticize the excesses of movie sex and violence in The Wolf of Wall Street. These are works of art that condemn their audience for taking illicit pleasure in their own content. On the other hand, some films fail to replicate this meta-textual approach, cloaking their problems in the texture of self-awareness but not really saying anything meaningful.

However, none of this quite gets at the heart of what Kingsman is doing. It’s neither outright condemning the spy genre or glorifying it, and the way it falls into this uneasy middle ground makes it difficult to classify. Surprisingly enough, it’s actually comparable to:

Last year’s The LEGO Movie.

In The LEGO Movie, Phil Lord and Chris Miller dismantled virtually all the conventions of modern blockbuster storytelling and then proceeded to put them back together again. It was self-deprecating and honest, snarky and sincere. In its beat-by-beat adherence to the now-stale structure of the “hero’s journey,” it mocked blockbuster’s slavish devotion to formula while simultaneously revealing the meaning behind the formula.

And this brings us back to Kingsman: The Secret Service. It exposes the ridiculous nature of the spy genre, but also insists that that ridiculousness is OK as long as you acknowledge it for what it is. It’s not denouncing lowbrow art – what it’s denouncing is our modern tendency to disguise low art as high art. And yet, in its fervent attempts to be honest about its own lowbrow ambitions, it crafts such a complex meta-narrative that it approaches high art itself.

Case in point: a scene around the halfway mark where the gentleman spy and megalomaniacal villain are discussing classic spy films (yes, the film is this blatant with its commentary) at a dinner table. Harry complains that modern spy movies are too serious. “Give me a far-fetched diabolical plot any day,” he says, wistfully.

Moments later, dinner is served: McDonald’s burgers on a silver platter. Or, in other words, base things disguised with glamorous packaging.

“This Ain’t That Kind of Movie” – Harry Hart and James Bond

In this way, Kingsman reads as a direct response to the most recent Bond film, Skyfall. In its commitment to a “serious” approach, that film made a strenuous effort to legitimize the values of the Bond franchise. The result was technically masterful but morally troubling – particularly in the way it bought wholesale into the series’ longstanding and problematic gender politics. It’s no coincidence that female agent Moneypenny accidentally shoots James Bond and is then relegated to a desk job. (Also keep in mind that Bond callously shrugs off the death of a sex worker, which he inadvertently caused.)

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 10.38.29 AM Not pictured: Seriousness.

In contrast, by taking every Bond trope to its ridiculous yet logical extreme, Kingsman actually treats the genre more responsibly than if it were to take the tropes seriously. It’s perfectly fine to eat a piece of cake once in a while, but it’s not fine to pretend that cake is full of nutrients. Moreover, through this process, Kingsman thoroughly examines which of Bond’s values are harmless fun (typically revealing their absurdity in the process) and which should be done away with. It’s sifting the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. And like The LEGO Movie, even as it dismantles the Bond formula – and there’s no film series more formulaic than the Bond series – it gets at the reason why Bond tropes work in the first place.

Kingsman wears its relationship to the grand tradition of Bond films on its sleeve. “This isn’t that kind of movie” becomes a repeated refrain, but it has an irony to it; the characters’ attempts to be different are frequently undercut by their own actions. In the aforementioned dinner scene, Valentine mentions that, as a child, he aspired to be a gentleman spy. Harry, in return, drily remarks that he always fancied the role of a megalomaniacal villain. “It’s a shame we both had to grow up,” Valentine says. It’s a sly but cutting commentary on the rarity of black action heroes in cinema, made all the more relevant by recent fan backlash over the idea of casting Idris Elba as the next James Bond. These characters may want to be in a different kind of movie, but there’s nothing they can do about it.

And that brings us to the area in which Kingsman may make its most biting comment on Bond tradition: its treatment of its female characters.

Not pictured: Feminism. Not pictured: Feminism.

Firstly, there’s Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who fills the archetype of the gimmicky villain sidekick (see: Jaws’ metal teeth, Oddjob’s razor-brimmed bowler). While she’s not a well-rounded character by any means – her prosthetic legs bring a literal dimension to the objectification of women – she’s a far cry from the disposable femme fatales Bond usually faces, and proves to be a competent adversary for Eggsy. Then, there’s Eggsy’s mother, who is saddled with an abusive criminal boyfriend after Eggsy’s father’s death – which, when viewed through the lens of the class warfare dynamic, seems like a comment on the lowlifes’ tendency to objectify women.

But while the lower class fails to treat women with respect, the seemingly enlightened upper class delivers an even more caustic commentary. In the selection process for the newest Kingsman agent, Eggsy is joined by a female candidate, Roxy (Sophie Cookson) – and it’s here that the film begins to thoroughly dismantle Bond’s gender roles. For starters, note the swapped gender connotations of their names: “EGG-sy” and “ROCK-sy.” Apart from a fear of heights (which really only serves to humanize her), Roxy is just as competent as Eggsy (if not moreso) in every way. “At least the girl’s got balls,” Arthur (Michael Caine) remarks, crudely, after Eggsy fails a crucial test.

Then, in its final act, the film essentially sidelines Roxy. Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong, filling in the Q archetype) get to go on an exciting mission to infiltrate Valentine’s evil lair, while Roxy embarks on a side mission to disable a satellite. (This mission involves going up in a hot air balloon/jetpack contraption with which Sigmund Freud would have a field day – and yes, the fact that Roxy’s mission involves conquering her fear of heights is just another sign of the film’s admiration.) Many critics have argued that the film’s failure to act on its carefully established gender quality reveals that, in reality, it was only paying lip service to the idea of a competent female.

However, I would strenuously argue that the film is absolutely making a case for Roxy’s thorough competence, and is actually pointing an accusatory finger at the nature of the genre’s sexist conventions. It’s no mistake that her mission is endangered through no fault of her own – things only threaten to go wrong when she’s failed by the massive phallic symbol upon which she’s unfortunately dependent. And then she’s falling, potentially to her death, but at this point, Merlin and the audience are completely invested in Eggsy’s escapades. The sequence is cut in such a way that the film keeps prodding us to remember that she’s in peril, but Eggsy’s more conventionally exciting adventures dominate our attention. The point is hammered home in the film’s denouement, in which Merlin congratulates Eggsy on his “great work” – and proceeds to offer a footnote of obligatory thanks to Roxy. The “enlightened” upper class ostensibly offers women more opportunities, but in the end, still fails to recognize them.

And all this is absolutely intentional. It’s meant to make us angry and uncomfortable. By no means is Kingsman saying, “Look, women are incompetent!” Rather, it’s saying, “Look! Women are perfectly competent, but we as a culture are failing to recognize it!” It gives the lie to the ever-prevalent idea of the “strong female character” who is ultimately only relevant insofar as she is relevant to the male protagonist’s journey. The film perpetuates this problem in order to reveal it. Showing sexism is not the same as approving of it. Seven seasons of biting critique from Mad Men have showed us that much.

Everything Old is New Again – Kingsman and the Modern Blockbuster

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 10.35.40 AM Not pictured: Moral betterment.

In addition to thoroughly dissecting its predecessors in the spy genre, Kingsman is participating in a larger dialogue with the current state of blockbuster filmmaking. Initially, Eggsy is a riff on a now-familiar archetype – that quintessentially modern blockbuster hero, the rebellious screw-up who’s given a chance to utilize his squandered potential (see: James Kirk in Abrams’ Star Trek films, any Marvel hero whose name isn’t Captain America). Yet as the film progresses, he undergoes a My Fair Lady-esque transformation into a hero from a bygone age – the “gentleman spy” archetype with which Kingsman is so enamored. However, it’s worth noting that Eggsy undergoes no real substantial change. Between the opening and closing credits, his character has only changed on a superficial level. It’s an extension of the film’s view of the relationship between “lowbrow” and “highbrow” entertainment: the transition from one to the other is merely a matter of appearances. And in the end, a “classic movie hero” doesn’t turn out to be one worth emulating. More on that later.

While Kingsman is disguised as a merely fun blockbuster, the number of hot button topics it hits is a good indicator of what a seething, angry film it really is. Make no mistake, this is an angry movie. At what? Well, for starters – misogyny, politicians, class warfare, elitism, and extremist “Christianity.” And while one could try to unpack the critiques of all these things that are going on, it’s perhaps more profitable to look at the common denominator – which, fittingly enough, ties back into the film’s comment on the Bond franchise, and on blockbuster filmmaking in general: its anger is directed at hypocrisy in all forms.

One of this anger’s more pointed expressions comes through Valentine’s character and plan, both of which gain new layers of meta-textual significance if viewed through the lens of modern studios. Valentine wants to foment violence but can’t stomach it himself – much like the studio executives who want to “tone down” action movies in order to bolster ticket sales. Then look at the way he puts Harry down the moment he shows regrets about being an action hero. If you think this is a stretch, consider the career of Schwarzenegger or Stallone. Once Hollywood sees you as an action star, it’s incredibly difficult to escape that box.

To return to the Bond franchise’s newfound propensity to dress James Bond up in gritty realism, look no further than Valentine’s master plan. Where Kingsman wants to draw thick, heavy lines between reality and fantasy, Valentine wants to blur those lines. Where Kingsman argues that it’s fine to indulge in fantasy as long as its fantastic nature is recognized, Valentine wants to eliminate the gap between reality and fantasy – hence, the contrast between the church scene and the montage of exploding heads.

“Eat, Drink, and Paaaaaarty!” – Violence in the Movies

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 10.38.52 AM Not pictured: Realism.

In 1969, when Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch prompted a widespread debate on cinematic violence, Roger Ebert compared the gunfights we see on the silver screen to those enacted between children.

“The thing to remember,” he wrote, “is that it is conducted in terms of total fantasy. Neither kid believes his victim is dead…

Exactly the same principle works in the movies. When all that lead is flying around, the only reason John Wayne doesn’t get hit is because he is morally superior to his enemies.

Not only doesn’t the hero get hit, the bad guy doesn’t die. Not really. He grabs his shoulder and shouts ‘aargh!’ and staggers around and falls and lies still. But he doesn’t die, any more than the little kids on my block die when the big kids shout, ‘You’re dead.’ The bad guy doesn’t die; he simply agrees to be shot and to lie down in surrender to the superior moral force of the good guy.

The bad guy’s real punishment, see, is that he can’t be in the movie any more. The movie begins with about three times as many bad guys as good guys, but it ends with no bad guys at all (except maybe a few in jail). The good guy lasts until the end of the movie. It is exactly the same in street games; once you’re dead – you can’t play anymore. All you can do is lie there, disgusted, while everyone else races around the side of the house.

So when you go to see a Western, you identify with the good guy and you last. You cheer when the bad guys get it, because they aren’t you. You’re John Wayne.”

Ebert argued that movie violence fulfilled a basic and natural human function, giving audiences “a vicarious sense of power.” Moreover, he argued that there was nothing wrong with this sort of fantasy – that it “may not be a noble emotion or a pure one, but it is honest and human enough.”

In contrast, take note of what exactly Valentine wants to accomplish with his plan: rather than the healthy, vicarious purgation of these emotions through entertainment, Valentine wants to directly involve everyone in violence he himself can’t stomach. We often say, upon coming out of a particularly exhilarating action movie, that we feel like we can take on the world – and Valentine’s plan is to accomplish the same effect in the most extreme manner. Yet Kingsman reminds us that we can’t actually go out and fight each other. What we actually have to do, and ought to do, is watch our heroes save the day and vicariously experience that excitement through them. That’s what catharsis is: transference and purgation of emotions through vicarious experience. And in this way, Kingsman gets at the very heart of adventure storytelling.

Conclusion

The film’s final scenes drive home its points on two of its major themes – misogyny and violence.

Firstly, there’s the crude sex joke on which the film ends. Although some viewers will inevitably chalk it up to just a “funny joke” (and Vaughn has – coyly, I think – adopted this stance in interviews), it’s garnered a surprising amount of controversy.

Not pictured: Role models. Not pictured: Heroism.

And I would vehemently argue that this is fully intentional on the filmmakers’ part. Recall the film’s modus operandi: to take every Bond movie trope and dial it up just a bit too far. In this instance, the film sets its sights on the now-classic Bond cliché of “post-world-saving sex scene with witty double entendre.” Yet here, something that would scarcely raise an eyebrow in a Bond film is now a subject of fierce debate. It leaves a bit of a bad taste in one’s mouth. And I would contend that the scene is masterfully constructed to evoke just this bad taste and show how nasty such a trope really is.

Firstly, note that prior to this, the film (apart from the brief, abortive seduction “training” scene) makes a point of avoiding sexuality, an element that would be omnipresent in just about any Bond film. The utter lack of Bond-esque overt sexuality indicates that, while Kingsman adapts other genre tropes to its own uses, it’s uninterested in preserving this one. Then take a look at the way the scene plays out: Merlin summons Eggsy back to the plane, but Eggsy instead heads to the cell where the princess is kept, eliciting a disappointed reaction from Merlin. It’s bemused, wry disappointment, but disappointment nonetheless – and Merlin’s comically understated reactions to Eggsy’s crudeness have been established as the relationship’s modus operandi. Then Vaughn switches to Eggsy’s POV, which hammers home just how voyeuristic and icky this whole enterprise really is, and in so doing, simultaneously robs it of any titillating quality.

And then Merlin, seeing everything Eggsy does through his nifty spy glasses, closes his monitor, and the credits roll.

The film quite literally ends by saying, “We shouldn’t be watching this.”

Except then there’s another scene, midway through the credits (which could possibly be a jab at Marvel’s credit stingers?). The audience isn’t let off the hook here. Eggsy goes to the pub where his old nemeses are, and prepares to reenact Harry’s beatdown, reciting his “manners maketh man” speech. Then he looks directly at the camera – at the audience – and asks, as Harry did –

"Are we going to stand around all day, or are we going to fight?" “Are we going to stand around all day, or are we going to fight?”

Some will read this as a sort of bizarre altar call, with Eggsy inviting the audience to partake in the same sort of ultra violence they’ve just witnessed for two hours, but to do so is to miss the very point of catharsis. This scene isn’t inviting us to join Eggsy; it’s placing us in the shoes of those who are about to be taken down by Eggsy. Of course we don’t want to fight Eggsy; we want to be Eggsy. Yet here, the film is intent on reminding us: we can’t be Eggsy. We shouldn’t even want to be Eggsy. That’s what the film’s villain wanted – for everyone to think they could be an action hero. But in the end, the film says: Don’t go out and fight. Take this as what it is: simply entertainment, meant to provide a vicarious thrill. Don’t emulate it in real life. You can be better than that.

A footnote: This essay is indebted to Hulk Film Crit’s examination of the James Bond franchise, which is lengthy but extremely thoughtful and worth your time.

Timothy Lawrence

Timothy Lawrence is studying screenwriting at Biola University, where he also attends the Torrey Honors Institute. He writes unceasingly, and enjoys reading books, watching films, and discussing both. He is especially fond of the works of the Coen Brothers.

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