Matthew Vaughn’s gleeful ballet of blood and British wit is an entertaining romp with unusually well-choreographed fight scenes, but also a tendency to revel in its own “awesomeness,” a look-at-me sort of showmanship that would be fine if the movie were more clever or less violent. Colin Firth is a dashing hoot as the Merlin of this secret agent world (they’re nicknamed after King Arthur’s Court, natch), and Taron Egerton holds his own alongside the likes of Firth, Michael Caine, and Mark Strong, each of whom are entertaining in their own right if not exactly the most original casting choices.
While attempting to satirize the spy genre, it’s apparent Vaughn’s loyalties lay with the cornball winks of the Roger Moore Bond era. Megalomaniacal villain Valentine, played with lisp-addled vigor by Samuel L. Jackson, says the Bond movies these days are “too serious,” a passing comment that irked this fan of the Daniel Craig Bond, but not something I can necessarily knock the script for because…that would be bias. Nevertheless, the film could have done with a little more drama, not because a less serious take on the genre is a bad thing, but due to the simple fact that “Kingsman” is not a straight comedy. It’s a cocky, goofy, all-too-pleased-with-itself vehicle for kicking, quipping, and cheeky humor, but it’s not something you watch to laugh out loud for two hours. Therefore, a little more investment in character would have been welcome, a hallmark not completely missing from Vaughn’s smirking display, but by the time the climactic showdown comes around the audience isn’t rooting for Egerton’s Eggsy as much as they should be. It doesn’t help that Sam Jackson steals the show as a corporate titan with a sense of humor and a noble (?) goal. Vaughn utilizes camera tricks and visual effects to speed up some of the action sequences, a choice that’s not altogether aesthetically pleasing as it attracts attention to the fakery instead of selling the violence on screen. Fortunately, such tricks are thrown by the wayside as the clock ticks on, leading to one of the most disturbing but also entertaining brawls ever put to film. Yes, it’s gratuitous, and yes, it’s the epitome of that self-congratulatory tone, but damned if Firth’s smorgasbord of ass-kicking inside a Westboro-esque church isn’t a tickler of that bloodthirsty bone. There’s even a moment when the ass-kicking is done and everyone is dead where Firth’s character stops to survey the carnage he’s just created. It’s almost as if Vaughn is asking the viewer to think about the fun they just had and why that’s a teensy bit disgusting. But come on, he’s having too much fun for this to be genuine subversion.
For all of the seeming want to subvert a tried and true Hollywood genre, the plot isn’t exactly unpredictable. Whether it’s who dies, who betrays, or who gets the best lines, “Kingsman” plays it relatively safe. The closest it comes to risky is Valentine’s master plan which involves thinning the herd of humanity for the sake of Earth’s climate, a plot point only bothersome if you’re a logical human being and you believe in climate change. Regardless, the charms of a dry and sly cast and the thrills of its cool kills, no matter how extreme, make this showy action flick a good way to kill time in the dead of winter.