Watching Kingsman: The Secret Service has been the most fun I’ve had at the cinemas in a while. And when I say ‘fun’, I mean pure, unadulterated fun – the kind where you stop caring what’s thrown at you and just go with the flow. It works on a twofold level: as a parody of the James Bond franchise specifically, and on a broader scope, a cinematic statement about a politically anarchic world. That said, Kingsman isn’t a typical genre parody or a comic book adaptation. In fact, Jane Goldman has made so many significant changes in adapting it for the screen that I’m inclined to consider this an original film in its own right as opposed to an adaptation. No stranger to comic book adaptations himself, Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn cleverly intertwines real life sensibilities with comic book elements to great effect here.
The title of the film is the name of an independent covert spy organisation, established after the First World War with the help of Kingsman tailors. This organisation is above any political allegiances or pressures – in essence setting it apart from Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Agent Gallahad (a very suave Colin Firth) survives a botched mission when a fellow agent sacrifices himself in the line of duty. That agent’s son, ‘Eggsy’ soon finds himself in trouble with the law, and to repay his debt, Gallahad steps in to give Eggsy a new lease on life by becoming a ‘Kingsman’. Through this process he meets Merlin (Mark Strong playing the Bond series’ Q equivalent) and Arthur (Michael Caine in the Judi Dench M role). Meanwhile, a villainous billionaire philanthropist called Valentine (played by an uncanny Samuel L. Jackson), who finds the greed and waste of humanity despicable, aims to raze the global population in the creation of a new world order.
It’s easy to see Kingsman as a clear parody of the Bond franchise and a self-aware spoof on the outlandish spy genre as a whole, but there’s something else at work here. What’s really interesting is political messages implied by the narrative, making Kingsman perhaps the most anarcho-nihilistic spy film yet made. Valentine is a megalomaniac but his motives are rooted in cynicism and the inherent disconnect between citizenry and government. He doesn’t believe that leaders of the world can put aside their parochial differences and work together to achieve better outcomes for the future of humanity. That level of disenfranchisement is characteristic of the politically volatile times we find ourselves in. And the efforts of the Secret Service are a kind of reactionary measure to save the world from anarchy, from assured nihilism. They are not just ‘saving the world’ in a summer blockbuster movie kind of way. They’re saving the world from disenfranchisement. They are the conservative ideal that intends to teach the world some “manners”. The tips for proper evening/black tie dressage become a larger metaphor for social order.
If you see the film from this lens, a desire to maintain the status quo, some other scenes start to have a lot more significance. The church scene, likely to attain cult status in the years to come, brims with a sense of political radicalism. The people who go to the church – a physical manifestation of ‘social order’ and the moral fabric of the status quo – are compared with Firth’s character, who questions authority and threatens change. That scene is an ideological fight between the status quo and the prospect of change, having a lot more significance than simply a well shot and cleverly choreographed action sequence.
For the most part, director Matthew Vaughn keeps this ideological struggle boiling under the surface, unfortunately. Vaughn is able to sell Colin Firth as a true blue action star and does what Guy Hamilton did for Sean Connery in transforming the image of Bond from Fleming’s books to the big screen, and the way the action sequences were shot definitely has a lot to do with it. Particularly notable is the use of extreme close-ups that follows the object in motion that really make the audience felt more connected with the subject within those sequences.
In the end, Kingsman wasn’t really as politically subversive as it promised to be. It has shades of excitement and radicalism, but eventually falls into conventional narrative clichés. It intends to subvert and parody the Bond franchise, but falls back on a few Bond conventions without adding much to them. Despite these shortcomings, it’s hard to deny that Kingsman is a fun piece of cinema, a refreshing take on the age-old spy genre.
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