Kingsman: The Secret Service is based off of a 2012 comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Among his extensive bibliography is also Kick-Ass, a comic series which has been adapted into two major motion pictures. This latest adaptation, henceforth referred to as simply Kingsman, is a spy movie that pitches itself as a contemporary take on the classic old spy movies. Starring Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Tarry Egerton, and Sophie Cookson, the movie is both sophisticated and absurd as it presents a grandiose plot by a billionaire megalomaniac attempting to save the world by causing a whole lot of people to die. The spy agencies working to thwart his efforts are the Kingsman, whom Colin Firth’s character Harry “Galahad” Hart describes as an independent intelligence organization which arose after the Kingsman tailor company lost numerous heirs during WWI and decided to use their wealth to found a secret service instead. Galahad does point out that the suit is the contemporary gentleman’s armor and the Kingsman are the contemporary knights who wear them. The movie is fast-paced, absurd in the best possible ways, and manages to have plenty of fun with the spy genre it simultaneously adores and twists to its own means.
SPOILER ALERT. IT IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED YOU WATCH THIS FILM BEFORE READING THE REST OF THIS REVIEW.
The movies main three characters are Galahad played by Colin Firth, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin played by Tarry Egerton, and Richmond Valentine played by Samuel L. Jackson. All three characters are well realized though Egerton’s character benefits from having far more interaction with the rest of the cast. That being said, Firth and Jackson’s characters are easily the most interesting and compelling of the movie. Firth is the quintessential spy, the movie’s James Bond, and does a magnificent job of playing the sophisticated agent and the underlying violence of his profession. He brings a powerful command of demeanour and presence to the character. His code name, Galahad, refers to a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table who is renowned in those legends for his gallantry and purity. And Colin Firth’s Galahad does embody the movie’s image of the contemporary knight. I’ll discuss the action sequences in detail later, but Galahad’s ability to shift smoothly from the respectable gentleman to the man of violence and back again illustrates one of the main thematic ideas of the movie. His character’s demeanour is almost never shattered except for his pivotal fight scene at the end of the third act. Restraint is a key part of his character and when it is lost it reveals the nature of his character as a man capable of incredible violence tempered and wielded with purpose thanks to a code of conduct and a sense of moral duty. As a result, when Galahad’s purity of purpose is compromised by the films antagonist his character is killed.
The story’s new Galahad following Firth’s death is the character of Eggsy played by Tarry Egerton. Eggsy’s father is killed during a mission with Firth’s character and as a result Eggsy grows up in a world where violence is always just around the corner. His mother has entered into a relationship with a local gang leader in order to afford their apartment and her family’s protection. Her ‘boyfriend’, Dean, and his cronies are an ever present example of the hidden violence that awaits Eggsy. Under Galahad, and as a part of his training to become a Kingsman, Eggsy learns not just the means by which to deal out violence but also the moral and personal code to guide it. As Galahad says “manners maketh man”, a lesson which Eggsy must learn before he can dictate the conditions of his life and protect the ‘damsel in distress’ that is his mother. After completing his training alongside a female Lancelot played by Sophie Cookson, but before becoming an official Kingsman, Eggsy attempts to use what he has learned to fight Dean. However, Galahad interferes and remotely drives the car Eggsy is in away from the encounter. Galahad attempts to show Eggsy that being a gentleman has nothing to do with the circumstances of birth, accent, or anything of the sort. Furthermore, acting with violence when necessary is also not something that prevents you from being noble. Instead, it is about loyalty to an ideal, loyalty to others, and the strength of character to hold onto those ideals. It’s about integrity. Eggsy demonstrates these qualities time and again during the movie as his own personal safety is threatened but he refuses to compromise his integrity. The Kingsman’s King Arthur, Chester “Arthur” King played by Michael Caine, compromises this very integrity by siding with Valentine and attempts to lead Eggsy into this same disloyalty to what the Kingsman stand for. When Eggsy fails to compromise his integrity he proves himself worthy of the Kingsman, his purity and gallantry now unquestionable. He goes on to fight and defeat the villain, earning the knights reward: the princess locked in the dungeon. With, of course, the movies usual contemporary adjustment, which in this case is that his reward is anal sex with the princess locked in the dungeon. However, it is not until the final scene of the movie when Eggsy repeats the words Galahad used, “manners maketh man”, before preparing to fight his mother’s aggressors that he has become the new Galahad. He has earned the purity of purpose and embodied the gallantry necessary to act with violence without compromising what makes him a knight/gentleman.
Finally, there is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Richmond Valentine. The movies main antagonist and reminiscent of classic spy villains, his character cozies up to as many tropes of a spy villain as it undermines. He is a billionaire tech genius who is motivated by a desire to save the planet from global warming and has the support of numerous national governments including the U.S., Sweden, and Britain. He says that he abhors violence and can’t stand the sight of blood. But, his evil plan involves reducing the world’s population through inducing homicidal rage and violence in the world’s population while keeping his supporters, who are all aware of his plan, safe. He includes a biometric scanner so only he can activate his weapon but refuses to watch what happens when it gets tested. After Galahad’s fight scene in the church, Valentine describes the cliché scenario where the villain reveals his evil plan, comes up with a convoluted way to kill the spy, then the spy escapes in an equally convoluted way. But then he informs Galahad that this isn’t that kind of movie and he shoots Firth in the face, though he immediately expresses his disgust and says he found nothing at all enjoyable about killing. Thus, the character throws the typical conventions of a spy villain into question. His evil supporters are people like the President of the United States and, though it is only implied, Iggy Azalea. His goal is to save the planet, though it is at the expense of hundreds of people’s lives. When sitting with Galahad to have dinner – which turns out to be McDonald’s served with red wine, undermining the image of the rich billionaire megalomaniac flaunting his wealth with expensive food – Valentine says he always loved old spy movies and his dream job as a kid was to be a spy. He tests his weapon on what the movie calls a ‘hate church’, populated by a congregation of bigots, racists, and homophobes. He self-proclaims to be Noah on the Ark and therefore not the villain because nobody paints Noah, God, or the animals as villains in that story. Thus, every element of his character is geared towards undermining the traditional image of a spy villain and evil mastermind. And yet, there is no question that he is the evil spy villain because of how his actions are in direct opposition to the nobility of the Kingsman. While he only commits one direct violent act in the whole film, shooting Galahad, he is the architect of a kind of violence that, while attaching itself to a noble goal, lacks the self-sacrifice, loyalty, and integrity of the arguably far more violent Kingsman. Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of this character is charismatic and…well, exactly the kind of potent performance you would expect from Jackson.
As I’ve already highlighted, this movie forms a bizarre relationship between the audience and the violence on screen. During Galahad’s fight sequence in the church the music is up-beat and happy, presenting Firth’s participation in the slaughter of the church goers as almost whimsical. While the choreography of the fight is amazing and the fight is fast-paced and nuanced enough to keep your attention it is also unsettling. Galahad has lost control. In this fight scene we see Firth killing with reckless abandon. Earlier, during his fight in the pub with the gang members harassing him and Eggsy, the violence is no less extreme. Galahad says after the church fight that he did not have control and that he liked it. Are we supposed to believe that this is what the difference between this violence and other violence he has committed? Valentine commits only a single act of direct violence in the film: shooting Galahad. However, he does say that he did not enjoy killing Galahad. But his actions are obviously more evil than Galahad’s. So, the question remains as to what our relationship to violence in the movie is supposed to be. When Merlin, played by Mark Strong, activates the explosive chips in Valentine’s henchman and supporters they die by having their heads explode like fireworks. Having just conspired to save themselves while letting billions kill each other off it is hard to feel like this slaughter is unjustified or evil. In contrast, when Valentine sees his own blood before he dies he throws up. (As a side note, Valentine is killed by being stabbed through the heart. I see what you did there writers.) Thus, violence in the film is both beautiful and disgusting. But it is not inconsistent. Violence, regardless of who is perpetrating it, is visually extreme. Because of how the tone of scenes is undermined and confused by musical choice, because of the conflicting attitudes towards violence from the villain and the heroes, and because of the rapid shifts between beautiful and disgustful violence, how violence looks in the movie is confusing and difficult to nail down. As a result, the audience must look to something other than the appearance of the violence to learn whether it is good or evil. The answer must instead be found in intent and the violence’s connection to the movie’s chief virtues: purity of purpose, gallantry, nobility, and integrity. Galahad’s violence in the church is bad despite its great choreography because it deviates from his code. The death of all of Valentine’s supporters through their heads exploding is good, even though a few hundred people die this way, because their intentions lacked nobility. In a way, the movie’s absurd visual violence manages to tackle the idea that violence is used by both good and evil people and that it doesn’t necessarily look different from one to the other. Or, perhaps, that violence can easily look good or evil depending on how it is presented. This is the opposite of the way violence is portrayed in a Quentin Tarantino movie, for example. Thus, intention and integrity must be more closely examined to mine out what violence is noble and what violence is not.
Overall, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an over-the-top fun spy movie that embraces its absurdities because they help tell the story. The visual element of violence in the movie is both romanticized and used to subtly undermine the very notion of movie violence. The movie is a love letter to the spy genre with a contemporary remix of the tropes and clichés found therein. Firth, Jackson, Egerton, and the rest of the cast all provide excellent performances which really complement the various elements of the genre. The motif of Galahad and the Knights of the Round Table is not squandered as simple window dressing but instead feeds into the style and themes of the story. The movie keeps the intensity alive and rising throughout the full two hour run time. Kingsman is a worthy contemporary spy movie that is humorously self-aware/meta and incredibly fun to watch.
Final Verdict: 8.0/10