Silver Screen: Kingsman: The Secret Service **
Comic-book writer Mark Millar has a pretty simple approach: Create a proxy version of an established corporate franchise, then jam it full of hyperviolence, profanity, and attention-begging political incorrectness. It creates a veneer of boldness and originality when it’s more like a mean kid coming over to play with your G.I. Joe action figures only to dismember them and make them have weird sex with each other.
Actually, I should probably copyright that idea before Millar writes a series called Real American Heroes about a gay racist military commander who leads his sadistic soldiers into bloody battle against ethnic-caricature terrorists.
Millar’s empty-calorie pop-culture riffs have turned up on the big screen as Wanted (which scrubbed the references to all the DC Comics superheroes for the film version) and Kick-Ass, which bravely wondered aloud, “What if Spider-Man was amoral and talked about jerking off all the time?” His latest gift to fourteen-year-old boys with rage issues is Kingsman: The Secret Service, a sneering, ill-tempered goof on James Bond. The movie reteams Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman. It’s as slick, callow, and sneering as their previous collaboration, so let that serve as either a warning or an advertisement, depending on your preferences.
Newcomer Taron Egerton stars as Eggsy, a cheeky young hoodlum who flavors his fish and chips with piss and vinegar. He lives in a housing project with his absentee mother and violent stepfather, at least until a dapper spy codenamed Galahad (Colin Firth) reveals that his dead father was a fellow secret agent. Eggsy is tapped to audition to be a Kingsman, an underground team of British spies unaffiliated with any government agency.
There isn’t much time to spare. The Kingsmen must recruit a new Lancelot— all the spy nicknames correspond to the Knights of the Round Table— in order to stop tech tycoon Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) from taking over the world using secret devices planted inside smartphones and tablets.
Kingsman is at its best when mashing up frenetic modern sensibilities with old-school British culture, as in the entrance to the team’s headquarters, which is located in a stuffy men’s clothing store. The contrast between Continental refinement and post-millennial brashness makes for some nice gags, and is perfectly personified by a surprisingly adept Firth. Who knew Mister Darcy could be such a convincing ass-kicker? He’s as deadly with a droll aside as with a silenced pistol, and is surrounded by an impressive crew of fellow agents that includes Mark Strong and Michael Caine. Eggsy is far and away the movie’s least interesting character— save for his token female counterpart, Roxy (Sophie Cookson)— but Egerton has a strong presence and does an impressive job effectively carrying the second half of the movie.
Kingsman boasts a few base pleasures. Vaughn’s kinetic camera zigs and zags through a church filled with kill-crazy maniacs as Firth fights his way out the door in the film’s most arresting action sequence. But the movie, like the source material, seems too pleased with its own glibness and dunce-cap humor. (Choosing just one of many examples: Jackson’s eccentric evil billionaire speaks with a Looney Tunes lisp because, well, speech impediments are hilarious! Right?.... Right?)
Kingsman is fitfully spirited but always mean-spirited. Millar’s cynical disregard for his characters, and pretty much all humanity, plays more like a pose than hard-earned misanthropy. The more-than-capable action director Vaughn apparently thinks that’s a scream. Me, not so much.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.