A potent and utterly odious fear of the new runs throughout Kingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s tasteless, bloated, and desperately hip adaptation of Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’s comic-book series. It’s not just the alarming fact that the film features the titular, strictly white society of English spies fighting against a twisted African-American tech billionaire, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), and Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), his Algerian, sword-legged number two. The film’s lunatic finale also hinges on leftover technology from Reagan’s Star Wars program, and one of the opening set pieces features Mark Hamill as a renowned professor. This is all tied to a morally confused, slapdash script that feels as if it were penned by a market-testing cyborg, rather than written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, their second collaboration on a Millar adaptation following the execrable Kick-Ass.
This toxic nostalgia and idealization of the past is clear from the very beginning, as Kingsman follows a familiar “sins of the father” trajectory. As the film opens in 1997, Kingsman agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is just barely saved by a fellow agent while on a mission in the Middle East. The story doesn’t kick into high gear until, 17 years later, Hart sees potential in Eggsy (Taron Egerton), his former colleague’s son, to join the covert spy organization after another agent is literally split in two by Gazelle. And much like Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, the film spends a great deal of its runtime detailing the training that goes into becoming a Kingsman. Most of these sequences go the long way to reiterate ad nauseum how an unprivileged life has given Eggsy more character, skill, and usable intellect than the blue bloods and old money that surround him.
As much as Eggsy is lazily written as the new face of the old guard, Jackson’s Valentine comes on like a neo-con fever dream. With an Omkar symbol dangling around his neck, the character is the epitome of faux-eccentrics, speaking with a heavy lisp and sporting a wardrobe that’s half skater kid, half Larry Page. Valentine’s liberalism and Eastern philosophies, in Vaughn’s vision, is a disease, one that allows a passion to end global warming to lead to mass murder. And yet, Vaughn seems unwilling to choose whether Valentine is a real villain or a walking, talking joke. This tone-deafness reaches also to Valentine’s weapon of choice: SIM cards that offer free Internet and phone calls, but can secretly turn people homicidal.
It’s one of these SIM cards that causes Hart to gruesomely dispatch an entire congregation of Westboro Baptist types, a bizarre sequence that’s soundtracked to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” As out of place as the scene feels, it’s one of the few that taps into the zany, nonsensical chaos that powers the action genre’s more radical, lean works. And per usual, its effectiveness is subverted by Vaughn’s haphazard usage of dark comedy, an element in all of his films that never fits with his otherwise grim depictions of pain and death. For the most part, Kingsman comes off as simply crass, but not humorously or in any way that transgresses the limp material, which is little more than 007: First Class.
As the film launches into the ludicrous climax, it becomes clear that it’s merely acting tough and clever. Underneath the cursing and digitized blood, Kingsman is structured in familiar, safe terms, plays for very low stakes, and appeals to no one so much as white, male teenagers with chips on their shoulders. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t know how to shallowly condescend to other demographics, as proven by the inexplicable sequence where each cadet chooses a cute puppy for…some reason. Even that’s preferable, however, to the closing gag, wherein the Swedish princess offers up her asshole to Eggsy in return for saving the world. In fact, one of the final shots is her bare ass being positioned in front of Eggsy, and if you listen very carefully in that moment, you can hear 100 fraternities bro-ing out in unison.