If you care about action movies and want to see them rescued from the doldrums, then you owe it to yourself to see Kingsman: The Secret Service. This movie is psychotically violent, to the point where the violence practically shatters the fourth wall, and it shows what action movies can be, if they're willing to go nuts.
Minor spoilers ahead...
Kingsman is based on a comic by Mark Millar, who also wrote the comics that the movies Kick-Ass and Wanted were based on. (Along with chunks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) And it's directed by Matthew Vaughn, who previously directed Kick-Ass (and co-wrote it with Jane Goldman, who's also back.)
So if you saw Wanted and Kick-Ass, you pretty much know what to expect from Kingsman. Along with a few others, these movies have helped define a kind of subgenre of comic-book movies, featuring ultra-violence that's so stylized and crazy as to seem cartoonish. They skirt the edge of satire but never quite become full-on comedies, and they dial in to the ids of young dudes, serving up a massive dose of escapism and "gritty" fun.
Of those three films, though, Kingsman is probably the most fun, because it's the most over-the-top and silly. Vaughn keeps the tone pivoting between the hilarious and the disturbingly grotesque, while serving up social commentary that's so broad, it becomes part of the catharsis. And the most insane mass death is accompanied by cheery music cues, including some bonkers disco in some cases.
Even though it's adapted for the screen by the Kick-Ass duo, Kingsman's story has a lot more in common with Wanted. In fact, it's basically Wanted, except that instead of assassins, they're spies. And the main character is less of a loser early on.
Here's the plot, in a nutshell: Eggsy is a bright young man going nowhere, on a British council estate. Until he gets recruited to join a fancy organization of superspies, which his dead father belonged to. Eggsy has to go through an impossible training program, and then discovers a diabolical scheme to unleash global destruction.
Violence is magic
But that plot synopsis doesn't capture what's great about Kingsman, which is the sheer inventiveness and silliness of its mayhem. There are some sequences in this movie that film nerds will be studying for years, including one scene of all-out slaughter that is so wrong, it's amazing. In the hands of Vaughn, the action in Kingsman is a mixture of gun-kata, wushu, gymnastics, cartoons and Cronenberg.
When a man takes out a whole room full of thugs, only to be sliced neatly in half, lengthwise, early in the movie, it lets you know just what kind of movie this is going to be.
One reason we love action movies is because it's liberating to watch an audience surrogate kick the crap out of a bunch of people who deserve it; it's cathartic. Plus there's the Batman factor, where seeing a supposedly normal human move with so much grace and power, that he/she can take on an army with loads of guns is kind of empowering, and it's probably not unusual to walk out of the theater, feeling for a fleeting instant, as though you could take down all of the rest of the movie-goers single-handed.
Plus there's a cool bulletproof tactical umbrella:
But also, a really great action movie uses action as a vehicle for storytelling, and as a way of expounding on its themes. The kind of cartoonish violence that Millaresque comic-book movies like Wanted, Kick-Ass and Kingsman use is also a kind of heightened reality, with the equivalent of stylized, heavy lines on a page. It's almost like magical realism: a lot of the best action movies take place in a kind of magical alternate world, where ultraviolence, and the ability to emerge from it unscathed, are a kind of magic.
I'm a sucker for really great fight scenes — the fight scenes rescued Man of Steel for me, for example. So many action movies feature bland, rehashed action, or fight scenes that feel obligatory and penciled-in, that when you see an action movie that uses action as a source of storytelling power and has real fun with it, it stands out. Plus the other great thing about Kingsman is the way it effortlessly segues from awesome combat to even more over-the-top carnage, which starts to feel more and more tongue-in-cheek by the film's end.
So what's Kingsman actually about? Like Wanted, it's about a downtrodden white guy who gets to be on top — but it has a very unsubtle theme about social class.
The biggest difference between Kingsman and Wanted might be that Angelina Jolie is replaced with Colin Firth — and instead of a hot chick liberating James McAvoy from a life of being screwed over by evil women, we see Eggsy (Taron Egerton) getting a father figure to replace his low-class, abusive gangster stepdad.
It's a different kind of wish-fulfillment: Colin Firth's character, Harry Hart, is the archetypal James Bond-y "gentleman spy," and he wants to teach Eggsy, who's very working class, to be like him. Eggsy's father saved Harry's life at one point, and now Harry wants to pay back the debt.
And the Kingsman organization is shown as ultra-British, from the fancy suits and sherry to the "King Arthur and the Round Table" agent names. They're very fancy, and Eggsy gets told in no uncertain terms, over and over again, that he's not from the right background to join their organization because he didn't go to OxBridge. Eggsy, meanwhile, has a "chip on his shoulder" about toffs who see working stiffs like him and his father as cannon fodder. For Eggsy to reach his potential, he has to rise above his origins.
The evils of social class are hammered home throughout the movie, and Colin Firth's character offers a rationale for how Eggsy can become worthy of Kingsman status — being a gentleman has nothing to do with your social background, and everything to do with your behavior and pride in your appearance, etc. Pretty much every other working-class person we meet in the film is portrayed as a lout and a crook, but Eggsy is exempt, because he's been lifted up.
The villain, meanwhile, is Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a tech genius who also seems to have risen above his social class and is learning to wear fancy suits — but Valentine has absorbed the wrong lesson from the upper classes and has become a corrupting, rather than corrective, influence.
The film's ending manages to twist the knife of the class commentary, suggesting that the people who looked down on Eggsy are actually too corrupt and evil to be on top — and there's a very satisfying come-uppance for basically all of the ruling classes, as Eggsy wears the smirk that defines his face for most of the movie.
So to some extent, Kingsman is a fantasy about what it would be like to have patriarchy without the class system — you could still have "gentlemen," and the male fantasy of being the ultimate "man's man," but nobody would have to be judged by where they come from.
What rescues Kingsman from being too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy is the insanity of its violence — the way it half-coaxes, half-coerces the audience into actively cheering for mass slaughter by the end of the film. You mostly don't doubt that the tons of people you see dying deserve it, and it's cathartic as hell. But the film still puts you in a position of cheering for wholesale death, and maybe as you walk out, you reflect on how much its hero actually has in common with its villain.
In any case, Kingsman is one of the most memorable, and beautiful, action movies in ages, and it's like a tonic after so much drek.