As a film reviewer, one gets used to films with pleasing content undone by a sense of form that just fails to measure up, but the opposite is much rarer and perhaps more depressing occasion: a genuinely decent film were it not so misguided. And misguided Kingsman: The Secret Service certainly is. Honestly, its quite difficult to make heads or tails of, but the problems, I suspect are shockingly similar to director Matthew Vaughn’s previous film Kick-Ass, although worse here for this film’s greater ambitions. Kick-Ass sought to critique the superhero individualist myth, or at least it purported to do so, but mostly ended up falling head over heels with what it sought to subvert (no wonder Vaughn was soon after hired to direct the relatively straightforward X-Men: First Class on the grounds that he had directed a superhero film and a ’60s style crime film and not placed at the back end of the pile for destroying the superhero myth from the ground-up). Truffaut once said that one cannot make an anti-war film because depicting war on film is an innately exciting act that cannot critique itself. A bold point, but not an incorrect one, and not one that only applies to war films.
Kingsman is even less sure of itself. At some level, it purports to be a critique of the whole cloth of the spy thriller, especially the smarmy British variant, although it stops making even a glance at this goal about ten minutes into the film when it realizes it enjoys indulging in lifestyle porn more than it does mocking it. More problematic: it aspires at some level to critique the nascent classism that is part and parcel with this breed of action cinema, functionally emerging as a sort of exploration of how the elite asks the working class to compete for spots that are readily granted to the upper class (affirmative action being a clear comparison point).
All well and fine, except Vaughn’s post-Tarantino indulgences are more apparent here than ever: he clearly loves directing a spy thriller, and his lame attempts to undercut the form cannot undo the wide, obvious smirk on his face throughout every single second of the film. Time and time again, he veers closer to buying into this idea that main character Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) ought to compete with the idly wealthy of the UK and that a system that allows him any chance to escape poverty, no matter how small and no matter how much harm he has to put himself in to get there, is a benevolent, fair system. That Eggsy’s opportunities are based entirely on his abnormally super-human skill-set and that the large majority of the poor have no such opportunities – that the film is one with the “exceptionalist” myth whereby a system is benevolent simply because it allows the exceptional among the poor to become part of the wealthy without caring at all for the masses in any sense – seems not to bother Vaughn at all.
At some level, it all just devolves into a go-for-broke spy film lost amidst its own flurry of fun. The way it comes to cop out from its darker implications to maintain its flightier sense of fluff feels particularly dishonest due to its tenancy with hard-edged critique; had it been more honest, had it held no higher ambitions, it would have been a better film. The only element that remains subversive to the end is a not-unexpected twist laying the crypto-fascism of just about every Bond movie (and most of the Western world) out for all to see. Still, it’s too little, too late for a film so in love with its own none-the-wiser glee. All of this (not to mention the film’s complete lack of concern for race and gender) is all the more vile for how it all couches itself within the thin veneer of progressive satire, and how it thinks it is much smarter than it truly is.
The end result is a film of nigh-untold cognitive dissonance precisely because it is, at other levels, surprisingly sturdy as a conventional spy film. The big surprise is Vaughn’s direction; although he has never been a bad director by any means, he has not yet shown the level of sharpness and craft on display in Kingsman’s action. Vaughn uses a bevy of tools – pristine shot selection, crisp, hard edits that hurt like shots to the arm, and a whirlwind of a moving camera that hurtles between drug-induced slow motion and a whiplash-inducing tempest that intuitively captures the essence of being in-the-midst of an action scene where actions string together like stop-start moments. Time quite literally bends in on itself, slowing down and starting up again and sacrificing the real-world flow of movement for a hyper-realist form of mania where movement becomes an art form itself, where the camera becomes an active participant in the conflict, and where the changes of speed become a sort of tool to both coax and comment on the action as it clips along with a wonderful sense of its own identity.
Meanwhile, the film is totally fine from a structural standpoint, taking its time as scene flows into scene, never losing itself in a single ounce of extra fat or moving sideways into unnecessary tangents or off-shoots. It moves at a certain reasonable clip, maintaining sufficient wit and breezy candor to justify its narrative forward movement. Really, there’s not a whole lot going on besides “elder spy Harry Hart ( played by Colin Firth) invites working class youth (Eggsy) to compete to join the Kingsman, a secret service organization of spy assassins, whilst they gear up to take down philanthropist media mogul Richmond Valentine (played by Samuel Jackson)”. But it’s well told, sharply written storytelling that clips through with an understanding of how to maintain the breeze without ever losing itself to irony or its own occasionally smug sense of superiority. So we have a decent screenplay and some really sharp direction (even the non-action directing is better than expected, with a number of slight gestures that reveal a wittier director in Vaughn than his sometimes leaden previous works had suggested), not to mention how generally well acted the film is. It ought to be a success, huh?
Then there’s that gnawing would-be subversive quality just throwing everything the film does right for a loop, contradicting itself at every turn and getting itself generally flummoxed about its own identity. For all First Class was a touch under-nourished and mundane, it at least knew that it was just a spy film. It was never actively challenging itself during every second of its existence, and not in the sort of Godard-way where its all entirely intentional and sure of itself in the way it is unsure of itself. No, this is bottom-of-the-barrel satire used to prop up a problematic story of gleefully posh inhumanism and corporate spy-making, a film desperate to hide its true colors and transform its fundamental repugnance into something progressive and well-meaning.
At some level, this vaguely-masqueraded form of amoral action filmmaking is even worse than a more blatantly offensive film, for it is more insidious and sinister about its intentions and hides its true effects underneath a facade of liberalism. It is a neo-liberal spy movie, critical of the arch-elitism of other Bond films but secretly in love with their core essence as long as it is modulated ever so slightly to allow for the inclusion of one or two people of less than aristocratic origins into the elite. It is a curiously perfect film for the modern era, in this regard, very much attuned to the way discrimination and inequality work in the present day, where explicit inequality doesn’t fly but implicit inequality hidden under the veneer of opportunity conditioned on the fact that just enough of the underprivileged can join the elite to make the system seem progressive. It is, in other words, a film that defends the spy movie by superficially challenging its ugliest surface-level tendencies so that it can maintain the core ugliness of its center (very much like the recent Bond films in this regard).
This is a film that would think we have moved past racism because we now have a black President, a film that would cheerily and condescendingly champion its poor/black/disabled/ friend as an “exception” to the rule that poor/black/disabled people are useless so that it can not really think about oppression in its day to day existence. It is a film that thinks it is progressive because it makes just about the safest gestures at progressivism in the world, only so that it can pat itself on the back. That the system it upholds is repugnant and immoral, that it still champions this sort of wealth-based porn-level fetishism with no qualms whatsoever, doesn’t enter into the film’s mind. That it posits that the goal of the poor ought to be to put themselves at physical risk of death so that they can join the elite culture that places them in poverty in the first place (rather than say challenging this culture and more seriously rebelling against this system) doesn’t enter into its mind. That the culture of wealth and elitism that supports the Kingsman (both the characters in the film and the film itself) might be the system responsible for poverty – and not the “benevolent” system willing to “solve” it only by letting one or two impoverished people into its higher-order – doesn’t enter into the film’s mind. It’s a disgusting film. And it’s well made too. Whether that makes it better or worse is a gaping question mark, but don’t dare call it a satire.