Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service / *** (2015)

“True nobility is being superior to your former self.”

I walked into a dark theater one late afternoon that was showing “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” and emerged two hours later with eyes glossed over by the shock of the experience. What had I just seen? What had my peers in that dark crowded room felt as I was preoccupied with my own dropped jaw and confounded stares? If one of the risks of going to the movies is walking away feeling like our minds have been contorted by the whim of inexplicable ideas, then here is the poster child for the most bizarre of theatrical experiences. Promotional materials suggest that the film is actually “based on a comic book,” and perhaps that says something rather progressive for the medium since I was last a collector. It takes more than just imagination to so thoroughly engage characters in a world this maddening: it requires, I suspect, some level of warped humor as well, and the idea that it is all so thoroughly realized within that subtext gives it a kind of perverse quality, like the artistic delusions of the criminally insane.

That is not to say what we observe is without merit, mind you. Given the eccentric nature of the material, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is distinctly watchable, and made all the more so because it fills the images with a comic sensibility that is endlessly fascinating, even if we are not always reduced to uproarious laughs. I smiled more than I laughed, but I did so quite zealously; the energy of the screenplay does not betray the motives of the direction, and the actors read through their lines as if joyfully intoxicated by the sheer absurdity of it all. Not a single moment of the plot or its ensuing predicaments makes a shred of sense, but that’s exactly the point: this is a story about the most ridiculous secret agency ever seen on film, and for over two hours their antics produce sensations so foreign and outlandish that we walk away thoroughly enamored by the experience, even with the acknowledgment that it all basically amounts to screwball satire.

None of this will come as much of a surprise to fanatics of “Kick-Ass,” a movie with similar energy that too was directed by the mischievous Matthew Vaughn. The nature of his films, even in context of the sarcasm, is that everyone involved makes no secret that it’s all being done with sly winks at the camera. I didn’t find the earlier film all that compelling or funny, but many others did, and it went on to become one of the highest grossing films of 2010 (and spawned a very successful sequel). For moviegoers who have attached loyalty to a filmmaker that engaged them like some kind of ironic version of Quentin Tarrantino or Kevin Smith, “Kingsman” will fall right in line with the sensibilities they desire – except that this time around the ambition leads them down a narrative path that doesn’t betray their emotions. The movie knows it is absurd and heartless, but works within the framework of a tone that permits some level of cheeky enthusiasm.

The plot deals with a British agency (go figure) that is eager to find a replacement for a recently-deceased agent, who in the early scenes is ambushed and killed (quite graphically) while he is attempting to save an abducted college professor. His death spurs his fellow agents – including a prominent one played by Colin Firth – to each volunteer a candidate into an elite training program, and that inspires the introduction of “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton), a rebellious adolescent whose own deceased father was once part of the same secret service, and who may come to see his own possible inclusion as a means to correct the unlawful behavior that has followed him since his dad’s death so many years before. Eggsy is conventional for this kind of distinction, in the sense that his rough exterior and constant run-ins with the law are masks that hide a brilliant mind. But what outlet does he have? When he calls in a favor he is owed by the agency in order to get out of jail, it drops him right into the company of the distinguished Harry Hart (Firth), and on course to learn the intricate ways of espionage.

Meanwhile, the agency is tracking the movements of a mysterious corporate investor named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who in the early scenes kidnaps a college professor played by Mark Hamil for… what, exactly? That is, of course, supplies the foundation to a mystery that Hart pursues with eager distinction, and his journey leads to a trio of memorable scenes in which the depth of Valentine’s menacing plot is revealed in full gratuitous grandeur (the third of these sequences, in which a group of religious zealots beat each other to a bloody pulp during Sunday mass, is a priceless wonder of comic timing). And it all comes to a head just as Eggsy’s trials come towards their own startling climax, effectively setting him up for on-the-job training that leaps past simple assignments and plunges him right into the fire of a plot involving the mass culling of the human race.

The ridiculousness of the details could have been a crippling subtraction from the sensibilities of any film with these sorts of lurid ideas, but “Kingsman: The Secret Service” isn’t the kind of movie easily overwhelmed by the implausibility. It has no time to dwell on such prospects. Instead, what it does is fill the screen with an endless arsenal of scenes that are mystifyingly ambitious, occupying our wonder so endlessly that there is almost no time (or desire) to contemplate their insane nature. Out of context, some would rightfully find many of the scenes – including one involving violent explosions set to the music of “Pomp & Circumstance” – exercises in overkill. But when one ponders the tone that Vaughn and his writers are clearly going for, it becomes easy to detach long enough to find some sick humor in it all. That was not always true in “Kick-Ass,” which contained moments that worked against disbelief; but in a movie about a bunch of quick-witted espionage agents who never stray from the notion that their etiquette and nobility remain intact while they kick serious butt, somehow it all comes with the territory.

The effectiveness of the scenes is enhanced by details that would otherwise have been slighted by filmmakers more obsessed with the visceral implications. Notice, for instance, how the screenplay is so casual to reference British culture by giving all of the secret service agents codenames that are directly lifted from the Knights of the Round Table, or how thorough it is in framing the educational trials on Eggsy and his peers. What other movie would bother resorting to such setups, let alone obsess over the details before dropping them into such colorful mayhem?  We live so deeply in the era of thematic and visual gratuity that it’s almost elusive to see it all delivered under the guidance of some level of cheeky persuasion. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a celebration of the lost art of political incorrectness, and as an underlying statement on the value of context it demands, quite audaciously, that we suspend our need to analyze for the sake of just enjoying the theatrics of cartoon violence.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Adventure/Comedy (US); 2015; Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content; Running Time: 129 Minutes

Taron Egerton: Gary “Eggsy” Unwin
Colin Firth: Harry Hart/Galahad
Mark Strong: Merlin
Samuel L. Jackson: Valentine
Michael Caine: Arthur
Mark Hamil: Professor Arnold

Produced by Adam Bohling, David Reid and Matthew Vaughn; Directed by Matthew Vaughn; Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn; based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons

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