From the director of Stardust, Kick-ass and X-men: First Class and the producer of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels comes an over the top spy drama/comedy about a punk kid (Taron Egerton) with a lot of potential who is taken off the streets and taught to be an international gentleman spy by a member of secret intelligence agents called the Kingsmen, modelled off the Knights of the Round Table (In the form of Colin Firth as his mentor Galahad, lead by Michael Caine as Arthur.) Samuel L Jackson is hilariously insane philanthropist and villain Valentine. Of course, with the wholesale tributes to and lampshades of old Bond thriller tropes come a lot of the bad parts of those tropes that I wish would crawl into a hole and die, but that wouldn’t sell nearly as well as a crazy explosion that had no business happening instead. A sort of Moonraker meets Team America: World Police, a movie I enjoyed in spite of itself as much as because of.
The first time I saw the preview for this movie, I thought to myself “Self? This is not the kind of movie you want to watch. Your brow is far too high for this kind of shenaniganing.” Then just the other night, when deciding what to do for the evening, I checked what was playing, watched the preview again and for some reason decided I really wanted to see this movie. It wasn’t until doing a bit of research to write this review that I realised what I was cottoning onto that made me want to see it. Matthew Vaughn produced Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, both Guy Ritchie films that I enjoyed immensely. There’s hints of it dancing around this far more absurd movie. The odd clever turn of phrase, the number of scenes that take place in and around pubs, the occasional bald-faced blasting through what should have been show-stopping nonsense.
The basic premise here is that there is an independent incredibly secret intelligence agency called The Kingsmen, modelled after Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There’s always an exact number of them, so if one dies, they each nominate somebody to be their replacement, who then have to go through a frankly ridiculous training program where only one eventually gets to join the Kingsmen. Our protagonist, Eggsy, is the punk son of a former Kingsman who died when he was only a child. His mother falls in with an abusive step-dad, and he gives into a life of petty crime and general waste. Saved from jail time by Galahad, he’s the candidate he puts into the training program. Meanwhile, Valentine, a genius eccentric billionaire played by our good friend Samuel L Jackson, who I think actually prefers roles the more absurd the better, has hatched a plot to deal with the threat humanity poses to the environment in typical James Bond plot style. Why not start by basically taking over the world, and then doing whatever you feel like? As you can imagine, our erstwhile young Eggsy ends up embroiled in a crazy battle to save the world, stop the villain, and place the single most absurd Martini order on the face of the planet.
So was this a good movie? Well that depends on a few things. This movie was made very much in the mold of the James Bond by way of Batman school. The more absurd the gadget the better. From a bulletproof umbrella that the person behind it can see through, through a pen that turns neurotoxin on and off, all the way to a villain who had razor-sharp blades instead of shins and feet, they really didn’t discard a single idea as too much. Contrary to Bond or Wayne, Eggsy is poor, he has a street accent, didn’t go to a good school, and generally shouldn’t have been anywhere near capable of the things he could already do, except they spent 10 seconds laying out some groundwork to make sure you knew it was all fine. In one short conversation they lay out “Oh you were a championship gymnast who could have been Olympic level if you’d stuck with it, oh also you had the best marks in your school before you dropped out and didn’t go to college. Also you were an in-training marine at the top of your class until you quit. So don’t worry, it will make perfect sense that after a couple weeks you’re backflipping around bullets and killing henchmen by the dozen.” I’m not sure I would have especially liked it more if he’d been bumbling, or already been in the middle of some ace military training.
Where the movie really lost me was that of all the tropes they decided to lampshade, invert or just drop, one of the ones they held onto was the rampant sexism that Bond movies dripped with. I was surprised that there were actually 2 women in the group of 8 candidates for the spot on the team. Of course, they happened to be the two who were sympathetic to Eggsy after the other guys (all Oxford and Cambridge chaps) gave him crap for being poor. The one who actually sticks through the movie also happens to be the one, selected you recall, for an elite spy program, who is afraid of heights, needs Eggsy to rescue her, and generally seems helpless since all of the bits where she presumably kicks ass aren’t shown. As well, there’s a nice scene at the start of the movie where Galahad (Firth) is telling Eggsy’s mother that her husband has died in a way where he can’t tell her anything about it, he also tells a four year old kid that he has to take care of his mother now. Because little kids are totally able to be primary caregivers. They would never have told a four year old daughter to take care of her mom now. It’s only because he was a guy. Throughout the whole movie, the female characters are either objects of sexual interest by the men, helpless maidens needing to be rescued by the men, or in the case of Gazelle, the aforementioned ‘has blades for legs’ character, a vicious villain character who is there to be the final boss before you get to confront the main story villain. She’s about as flat as the blades are, along with most of the women in the film.
While I definitely appreciated some of the ways in which Vaughn and Goldman tried to strike a balance between tribute, lampshade and farce, a balance they managed to succeed on throughout virtually the whole film, I can’t help but take issue with a few of the things they decided to cling to. While it might seem silly to be upset about those issues in a movie that seemed primarily to be an excuse for absurd special effects combat that needed some kind of story tacked on just to make it showable, I feel like that actually makes it more important. It almost did not matter AT ALL what ANY part of this story was about or who any of these characters were. They could have been young, old, male, female, rich, poor, the story works in pretty much any orientation. So why pick the one where the rich white men save the world from an evil black man, and then go on to get the hot princess? Why pick the one that just carries forward the most annoying, objectionable and problematic stereotypes possible? You took the female possible lead, made her the only one to express a fear of anything, made her need to be rescued, and then when she did something our protagonist couldn’t, said ‘she had balls’ as though having testicles was the defining quality of being brave. You took the male lead, made him poor, made him a small-time hoodlum, and then while directly referencing My Fair Lady, put him in a suit, gave him a combat umbrella and made him order a martini.
Early in the film, Colin Firth as Galahad tells Michael Caine as Arthur that he is a snob. That his refusal to adapt to the modern ages and insist on only upper-class white English men as worthy of this organisation was going to cause them problems. So to prove his point, he brings in this hoodlum poor kid with a bad attitude. Good job Colin Firth. You’re adapting to the times. Of course then you spoke at length about his wasted potential, his ability to transform himself and become better, and then in the course of ‘making him better’ made him into yourself: A rich (ly dressed at least, even if not wealthy) white man who is the only one who can save the world.
If you are able, willing and comfortable with just turning your brain off and watching the nice men kick people’s heads off and electrocute them with signet rings, this is a great movie. It has the chops of better films behind it, and they show through just enough to occasionally elevate what would otherwise be pure schlock into something really entertaining. But if you’re a Speculative Post reader, I hope that turning your brain off is a thing you only plan to do at the event of your death, in which case, while a lot of this movie is fun, and some of it is even clever, you’ll find yourself feeling just a little bit dirty for what messages the movie is sending if you don’t find anything wrong with it.