When Kingsman: The Secret Service strolled into cinemas earlier this year, tux and grenades at the ready, many appeared to miss the parody. This is understandable: director Matthew Vaughn doesn’t always do silly. His earliest credits include production duties on Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, which were daft yet entirely earnest cash-ins on Tarantinomania, and his first stint at directing was with 2004’s Layer Cake which, although reasonably good, was nevertheless a cash-in on Ritchie’s cash-in on Tarantinomania. Elsewhere, he produced the hard-as-nails Mean Machine and the utterly dreadful Harry Brown, before firing up properly with X-Men: First Class. It’s therefore jarring, amongst all these attempts at unflappable vogue, that Vaughn should also have Stardust and Kick Ass on his directorial resumé; despite being properly tongue-in-cheek, the former was labelled “camp embarrassment” by some, the latter “half-assed”.
But falling short of catching the right vibe isn’t a criticism of the critics in question, because Vaughn’s less serious films balance a precarious, often clandestine high wire of sly British humour, genre satire, genre homage and sucker-punch tragedy (which may also go for Layer Cake, although I would be less prepared to defend it on such terms). Kingsman falls within this category, and it’s an absolute riot; where some have decried its over-the-top nature, well, that’s the best bit. Vaughn has moved away from attempting to glamourise elaborate shoot-outs by arriving at the point at which they’re completely ridiculous, winking every time it erupts into bloodshed like its impossibly suave protagonists. Even its cloying meta moments are forgivable, such as when Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) asks Harry Hart (Colin Firth) whether he likes spy movies, to which he replies: “Nowadays they’re all a little serious for my taste… but the old ones! Marvellous! Gimme a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.”
This is Kingsman getting down on its hands and knees, begging the viewer to be in on the joke. But the deftness of its tonal balance means that its moments of sincerity stand out, albeit sometimes to its detriment. Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a typical South London chav living on a council estate with his mother and abusive stepdad, provides a lovely narrative trajectory out of the slums and into the secret service, being bullied during training by his Oxbridge-educated competitors along the way. Kingsman ostensibly denounces the posh life, which is rich coming from a guy married to Claudia Schiffer, with whom he owns homes in Notting Hill as well as the massive Coldham Hall in Suffolk. As such, working-class folks such as I could easily find some of Eggsy’s representations irksome, such as that his saving grace at one point is his background in petty theft, because poor people obviously spend most of their time robbing stuff. Furthermore, blasting Margaret Thatcher is no redemption when Eggsy’s narrative is essentially one about social mobility.
While it may seem pedantic to pick up on thematic flaws in what is probably the most fun movie of the year, it’s these aspects that linger once the initial rush has died down. But although Kingsman appears not to know how to properly weight its action, it’s worth its salt for the visceral effect alone: it’s filled to the brim with Chekhov’s guns, deus ex machina, theatrical codswallop and stupid one-liners, and is hilariously exuberant as a result. It almost takes pride in being completely all over the place, and stars Michael Caine as Kingsman leader Arthur (the most Michael Caine name ever), Samuel L. Jackson as the ridiculous villain (only a lisp away from the standard Jackson schlock) and Colin Firth, an actor I’ve hated ever since The King’s Speech here proving me wrong with a kinetic performance. But the clinching success is that Vaughn manages to cultivate impressive tension from what is essentially a spoof movie, raising the stakes in unexpected, gut-wrenching ways as he did in Kick Ass.