Centring around a covert organisation made up of nine gentleman spies, Kingsman opens with one of their number, Lancelot, being assassinated as part of a cover-up by communications billionaire Richmond Valentine. Each of the Kingsmen are asked to put forward a prospective replacement and Harry Hart, aka Galahad, chooses teenage tearaway Gary "Eggsy" Unwin, the son of another former agent. If he can survive the rigorous entry procedure and overcome the agency's snobbery about his working class upbringing, only gentlemanly conduct will help Eggsy face up to the unique threat posed by Valentine.
It may be an immediately obvious comparison, and one that I'm sure the distributor will encourage, this is for spy movies what Vaughn's Kick-Ass was for superhero movies- exploring more realistic consequences in an even more cartoonish way, with graphic violence and a "Holy shit!" attitude. Vaughn tends to explode genres rather than surgically deconstructing them- the film never gives off the impression that it's better than the films that inspired its snarking post-modernity.
While the script, by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, wouldn't go for a line like "I think he's attempting re-entry", it's not above a Michael the Geordie-style "HE MEANS HIS COCK!" This is a film where even British treasure Colin Firth stabs, shoots and comprehensively beats the shit out of adversaries. The plot itself is a fairly mild subversion of the spy adventure genre and if it were played straight, the more obvious twists in the tale, including character deaths and heel turns, would be more irksome. But Kingsman is committed to non-stop shock value, and also manages to bury each of its more predictable beats in the sheer audacity of each progressively more subversive twist.
There hasn't been much competition for maniacal villain plots in the last two decades of the Bond franchise proper, so this one trumps them nicely, with Valentine cooking up a scheme that's both absolutely bonkers and marvellously in keeping with the film's overall theme. Eggsy, brought to life with an instant star-making turn from Taron Egerton, would be more suited to Attack The Block than Casino Royale, and his battle with the snobbery of Harry's colleagues, especially Michael Caine's Arthur, gives the film more pluck than its exploitative leanings would usually allow.
Amongst the older stars, only Samuel L. Jackson is properly acclimated to this type of ironic genre fare, but everyone seems game. In particular, Firth seems to relish the chance to cut loose, dishing out bloody beatings and gadget-wielding warfare while retaining a mannered Harry Palmer-like exterior. Elsewhere, Mark Strong makes a fine deadpan quartermaster and there are welcome cameos from Jack Davenport and Mark Hamill. That leaves Jackson to go even crazier than usual, as a lisping caricature of old school Bond villains, flanked by Sofia Boutella's awesome blade-running henchwoman, Gazelle.
She's the star of many of the film's action sequences, which should still stand amongst the best of the year come December. Highlights include a car chase in which one of the cars only drives in reverse, a five vs. one bar-room brawl and a much discussed skirmish in a Southern hate church in which absolutely everyone takes on absolutely everyone else. Inevitably, these are all ultra-violent but very well staged, with a finesse that continues through the X-Men: First Class-lite training sequences at the Kingsmen's estate. The depraved entertainment value lacks some of the charm that made the first Kick-Ass so engaging, but it's no less fun to watch.
Kingsman strips the wiring of the spy genre, but also re-sheaths it in something even more ridiculous and inflammatory. The result is explosively fun, even if it rehashes certain bits of Matthew Vaughn's previous comic book movies. Vaughn is still the only director to find a usefully demented channel for Mark Millar's more anarchic impulses in cinema, but it's the stellar cast, having the time of their lives, that sets this one apart. James Bond will return, but you can bet your arse he won't be having nearly this much fun.
If you've seen Kingsman, why not share your comments below? Is it just me who misses the Matthew Vaughn who made Stardust?
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.