If you ask me, the modern incarnation of James Bond – as played by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and the upcoming Spectre – has been a resounding success. But while I’ve enjoyed Craig’s stint as 007, particularly Casino Royale, it’s fair to say that his Bond films have been lacking a certain degree of levity. Casino Royale was one of the first to follow in the footsteps of Batman Begins’ dark-and-gritty-reboot template, which means it’s a Very Serious Movie. While I’m not in any hurry to return to the self-parodic tone of Roger Moore films like Moonraker, nor the invisible car of Brosnan’s execrable Die Another Day, I admit to craving a little silliness from my Bond films.
Enter Kingsman, which mashes up the James Bond model with a hefty dose of My Fair Lad, a little bit of Get Smart (while deftly doffing its hat to the Bourne and 24 franchises) and a whole truckload of daftness. This is not another Austin Powers, though, nor another one of the many, many James Bond parodies (which Wikipedia has diligently chronicled). Kingsman may not take itself especially seriously, but it has a deep affection for the genre it’s operating within. It’s reminiscent of Scream, a horror movie where everyone in it knew they were in a horror movie – in Kingsman, it’s apparent that every character in the film has a well-worn boxset of James Bond movies at home.
Those characters include:
- Gary Unwin (Taron Egerton), known to his mates as ‘Eggsy.’ A working class lad who’s smarter than everyone around him and is well aware of this.
- Harry Hart (Colin Firth), known to his secret agent pals as ‘Galahad.’ He recruits Eggsy into the ranks of Kingsman, an ancient organisation tasked with protecting society yada yada yada.
- ‘Arthur’ (Michael Caine), doing his disappointed-father-figure-with-a-hidden-agenda thing as the chief Kings…man.
- Valentine, a Mark Zuckerberg-type Silicon Valley multi-billionaire who distinguishes himself from the stereotype by (a) being played by Samuel L. Jackson and (b) having an exaggerated lisp. Also, he’s evil.
- Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) as Valentine’s sidekick/assassin. She’s a twist on Lotte Lenya’s lesbian in From Russia with Love; instead of Lenya’s poison-tipped concealed shoe-blades, she’s packing prosthetic leg-blades à la Pistorious that are actual razor-sharp blades.
As suggested by the last couple of characters, the film’s first priority is fun on an absurdly exaggerated scale. I’ve been fairly lukewarm on director Matthew Vaughn’s previous work – X-Men: First Class was good, but Kick-Ass and Stardust were pretty atrocious. But here he tempers his inclination for aggressive dumbness; Kingsman is just the right amount of stupid.
The film isn’t without its problems. Chief among them is its lack of any female characters of substance (and, no, sweet metal blades for legs doesn’t count as substance). You could count Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who becomes fast friends with Eggsy when they’re each cadets vying for a spot around the Kingsman table (which, despite the Arthurian codenames, is rectangular. That’s either an incredibly subtle criticism of British classism or just incredibly lazy). But she feels more like the product of a last minute ‘oh shit we need a female character’ realisation than an actual, y’know, character; Mark Hamill’s brief appearance as a brainwashed professor has about as much thought behind it.
Really, the whole politics of the film are pretty murky if you stop to think about them for a minute. The big question is whether or not we’re supposed to think about the film’s politics or just enjoy the ride, but we‘ll get to that. Kingsman opens with our heroes torturing an unnamed Arab who, naturally, turns out to be a suicide bomber. As it picks up steam we’re treated to Colin Firth murdering dozens of white supremacists (in a church! Scored by “Free Bird”!). And the film concludes with our hero being rewarded for his efforts by anal sex with an actual princess.
To take this all on surface level is probably a mistake. Because it operates as a self-aware James Bond riff, there’s a persuasive argument that these elements are intended to function as a critique of the sexist, imperialistic overtones of that series and its many imitators. If you align yourself with this reasoning, then the reduction of female characters to sidekicks is inspired by the persistent marginalisation of women in the genre. That church scene – where Colin Firth beats old women to death with his bare hands – reminds us of how casually we regard the deaths of nameless henchmen in action films. After all, is that ridiculously racist old lady more worthy of our sympathy than Generic Balaclava Bad Guy Number Four? And the film’s said anal sex, uh, climax any different from the many Bond films that concluded with innuendo-laden implied intercourse?
Hyperbole isn’t exactly satire, though, which is why we all realised that Frank Miller wasn’t the satirist he appeared to by the time A Dame to Kill For rolled around. And you have to question the motives of any film that’s inspired by a … shudder … Mark Millar comic book.
But what other film can offer Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson sharing a dignified dinner of McDonalds on the finest silverware? What other film can offer a montage of world leaders’ heads exploding in clouds of colourful fireworks? (I am not even close to exaggerating.) With most blockbusters descending into depressive gloom, it’s refreshing to watch an action film with high production values that’s content to be enjoyably silly. If I’m being honest, though, I can’t say I care all that much if Kingsman is a little retrograde in its politics because it’s just so much damn fun.