Tea and Testosterone: The Rip-Roaring Appeal of Kingsman

Matthew Vaughn's new film about an elite intelligence service combines winking spy-film tropes with impeccably choreographed (and very violent) action.

“Manners maketh man.” Thus does an immaculately tailored Harry Hart (Colin Firth) instruct a gang of rude, working-class hoods in a London pub early in director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. He then proceeds to lock the doors and administer a lesson in manners with extreme prejudice. Said lesson begins with his grasping his umbrella by the point and using the curved handle to scoop up and sling a pint glass, hockey-like, into the cranium of the lead hood. Matters proceed from there roughly as one might expect.

It’s a winning joke: the tasteful, well-appointed gentleman delivering a bloody beat down with the aid of his umbrella—John Steed as reimagined by Quentin Tarantino. At the same time, it's an awfully tricky proposition to maintain this contradiction—extolling the virtue of good manners in the most ill-mannered way possible—for the length of an entire feature film. Vaughn succeeds to a remarkable degree. Kingsman is a movie addicted to its own excesses, with cultural undercurrents that are frequently reactionary bordering on retrograde bordering on reprobate. But it's also a tremendous amount of fun.

The movie is pitched simultaneously as a sendup of early Bond and his imitators—The Avengers, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and even Get Smart—and as an over-the-top exemplar of the genre. (There are even gags involving Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer.) The gadgets are self-consciously ridiculous—among its other properties, Hart’s umbrella is bulletproof—and the plot, purloined to a considerable degree from Moonraker, involves a diabolical mastermind with dreams of global dominion. Knowing riffs are scattered about liberally: on martinis (to be stirred for 10 seconds while glancing at an unopened bottle of vermouth); on vintage brandy and scotch (at $58,000 a bottle, the 1962 Dalmore featured in the film is among the most expensive in the world); on haberdashery; and, most of all, on bespoke suits. In one of the movie’s most genial touches, the headquarters of Kingsman, the titular “independent international intelligence service,” is accessed through an eponymous high-end tailor shop on Savile Row. (The pass code, should you require it, is “Oxfords, not brogues.”)

The story progresses along two lines. Early on, Kingsman loses one of its agents, code-named “Lancelot” (Jack Davenport, very good in a too-small part). Each of the remaining agents, all of them named for knights of the Round Table (Hart is “Galahad”), is required to submit one potential recruit, all of whom will compete, under the lethal tutelage of “Merlin” (Mark Strong), to be the next Lancelot. The recruits are a passel of toffee-nosed, upper-class prigs, save for Hart’s selection, “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton), the hard-case, semi-hooligan son of a former agent. Meanwhile, as Eggsy and the others make their way through Kingsman training, a global threat gradually reveals itself in the form of a billionaire Silicon Valley industrialist, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), with a novel remedy for global warming.

Kingsman is based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar—the third to be made into a motion picture, following the guilty pleasure Wanted and the teen-superhero flick Kick-Ass. (The latter was also directed by Vaughn, though less winningly; call me old fashioned, but I prefer that my ultraviolence not be administered by—and upon—children.) Vaughn seems in some way to have been born to direct this movie. He grew up believing his father to be the actor Robert Vaughn, with whom his socialite mother was involved at the time of his birth. Only later did he learn that his father was actually George de Vere Drummond, a minor English lord and godson to the late King George VI. In Kingsman these two patrimonies are intertwined: Napoleon Solo, meet the British aristocracy.

Vaughn’s direction here is operating at a higher level than in any of his previous films, which also include Layer Cake and X-Men: First Class. The violence may frequently be extreme, but it's engineered with exceptional wit and inventiveness. A free-for-all bloodbath set in a Kentucky church is a particular marvel of choreography and spatial geometry set, cunningly, to the guitar solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Free Bird.” It’s exactly the kind of bravura sequence Edgar Wright might dream up if he were high on meth.

In the central role, Firth is precisely as gin-martini-dry as one might hope, and relative newcomer Egerton represents a genuine find as “Eggsy.” Strong gets a nice brogue on as Merlin, and while it’s true that Michael Caine could play his role as the head of Kingsman—“Arthur,” naturally—in his sleep, this is not entirely a bad thing. Jackson, meanwhile, gets far greater comic mileage than seems possible out of the tech mogul Valentine, a lisping villain made ill by the sight of blood. The female characters, alas, are given considerably less to do: Sophie Cookson makes scant impression as one of Eggsy’s fellow recruits; and Sofia Boutella, who plays Valentine’s right-hand woman, is notable principally for her razor sharp prosthetic legs—an ironic updating (and not the only one) of Rosa Klebb’s switchblade shoes in From Russia with Love.

Kingsman: The Secret Service will not be to all tastes. Some of its excesses land with hilarious aplomb (a parade of literally hundreds of human heads popping like mushroom clouds, set to the patriotic standard “Land of Hope and Glory”), while others fall flat (an out-of-left-field sexual provocation involving a Scandinavian princess). I am hesitant to call it as a good movie. But for those open to its tea-and-testosterone premise, I would gladly describe it as a very, very good bad movie. Which is, I suspect, the accolade it would prefer.