Kingsman imitates old fashioned spy movies and in the process demonstrates why they went out of fashion in the first place.
I was really looking forward to Kingsman. It had an impressive cast, I’d enjoyed the directors turn making an x-men movie and the trailer made it look like enormous fun. That, however, just set me up to be sorely disappointed. It’s not only bad but in places actually rather nasty.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things to like in Kingsman. Colin Firth is clearly enjoying his turn as an unlikely action hero and that in turn is fun to watch. Samuel L. Jackson delivers as an unhinged villain and the couple of scenes where he and Firth are on screen together are by far the best in the film. Some of the action sequences are impressive (at least if you haven’t seen the Matrix) and I might be more fulsome about them had the much praised church scene not fallen prey to Vietnamese censors. And it would be fair to say that while I didn’t enjoy much of it, I wasn’t bored either.
However, the films driving conviction appears to be that we need more Roger Moore era James Bond films. I beg to differ. There’s a reason that the Bond franchise has gone in a very different direction. The Bourne films made a compelling case that secret agent films are (surprisingly) more entertaining if they take themselves seriously and retain a connection to reality. It’s easier to empathise with a hero who finds something unsettling about constantly killing and having people trying to kill them. What kind of monster wouldn’t be? It’s also too easy for a tongue in cheek film with invisible cars, jetpacks or whatever to tip over into outright farce.
Now I remember reading somewhere a quip that ‘if Daniel Craig is your favourite Bond, you’re not actually a Bond fan.’ Well Craig is my favourite Bond and I don’t disagree with that assertion. Nonetheless, I think that even if you look at the Bond films that came before Casino Royale they bear out the contention that darker and more realistic normally works better. They follow a pretty clear pattern whereby the best films of an actor’s tenure as Bond are normally their earlier, more grounded efforts. Then as they go along things become progressively more ludicrous and corny. Compare From Russia with Love to You Only Live Twice or Goldeneye to Die Another Day.
That said if for some reason homage had to be paid to the James Bond films that least deserved it then there could still be a better film to be made than Kingsman. Let’s start with sexual politics. These have rightly come in for quite some criticism, most notably for a scene in which a damsel in distress promises the hero anal sex if he rescues her. You could also point to the fact that the token female Kingsman spends a lot of her screen time whimpering and is wholly excluded from the climatic action sequence. Indeed you could also observe that none of the female characters really have much of a personality. However, that would be an unfair criticism as neither do most of their male counterparts.
It might be tempting to conclude this is an inevitable outgrowth of trying to make a Seventies style spy movie but that there are alternatives. One can push things over into outright parody a la Archer. Or one can pastiche a period without blindly copying its more dubious values: witness how Agent Carter has given 1940s spy serials a feminist twist. Kingsman lacks the imagination or inclination to do either.
In fact, its major flaw is that it is so besotted with retro spy movies that it becomes formulaic. If you’ve seen one of those films then you’ll have no difficulty guessing what’s coming next in Kingsman.