Navigating a curious, old-fashioned path through the American cookie-cutter studio system, Matthew Vaughn began as producer to lad-film-director extraordinaire Guy Ritchie but has by now overtaken his former protegé as a director in the "having your cake and eating it too" stakes. While Mr. Ritchie has stuck to thrillers and caper comedies, Mr. Vaughn has moved straight into the comic-book fantasy that is Hollywood's current stock-in-trade, but bringing into it a more sarcastic British sensibility, as seen first in his take on Neil Gaiman's twisted fairy-tale Stardust.
The director progressed from the super-hero spoof-cum-subversion Kick-Ass to the "real thing" with the frothy, James-Bond-y X-Men: First Class; Kingsman: The Secret Service, a new adaptation from a comic book by Kick-Ass authors Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, brings together the former's tongue-in-cheek, uneasy ultra-violence with the latter's sixties-influenced spy caper.
It's as if Mr. Vaughn, working as always with his regular screenwriting partner Jane Goldman, brought together Ian Fleming's casually Anglo-centric gentleman-brute spy adventures with the giggly, fun fair roller-coaster rush of a blockbuster and then laced it with some cynical, dispassionate satire of modern society to create a disquietingly riotous mash-up infused with the self-mocking spirit of British kitchen-sink realism. And if the combination seems to make little or no sense, once you see it on screen it's so self-evident it's shocking - even if Kingsman, which has all the trappings of a potential franchise starter, has no qualms about sabotaging that possibility under its own feet.
At the heart of the film is the age-old issue of the British class system, seen through the eyes of working-class wideboy Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the twenty-something son of a widow who's since shacked up with a local thug and who is seemingly pre-ordained to a life of petty crime and odd jobs. Unbeknownst to him, his late father belonged to a private, secret intelligence agency and one of his colleagues, dapper gentleman Harry Hart (a pitch-perfect Colin Firth) gives Eggsy a shot at making it as a field operative in the Kingsmen, an institution started after WWI by scions of the British aristocracy, even though pretty much everyone involved is doubtful a man from such lowly stock can make it.
The concept of class is extended through the piece's evident villain, eccentric Silicon Valley philanthropist Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson, enjoying every minute of it), who is bent on saving the planet for a chosen elite carefully selected through venality and allegiance rather than through natural selection. The apocalyptic scenario that is part and parcel of every self-respecting spy caper hardly ever came true, but Mr. Vaughn is unapologetic about showing the violence meted out in the process of cleansing Earth from its "surplus" through Valentine's technology-delivered megalomaniac plan.
Just like the graphic violence that disturbed a lot of people in Kick-Ass, he has no qualms about a daringly drawn-out sequence in a fundamentalist church that quickly twists the tables on the general breeziness of Kingsman while leading to the plot's biggest surprise and turning the film on its head. As the film progresses, Mr. Vaughn extends the violence into a daringly conceptual, almost-cartoonish satirical climax whose audacity in upending everything reminds of Stanley Kubrick's sharp, bitter tone in Dr. Strangelove. This is not comparing the director to Mr. Kubrick, far from it; but it is notable that Kingsman is such an incredibly self-aware proposition, with a couple of recurring dialogue lines openly invoking the love of its characters for the "classic Bond movies", where a well-judged quip and an outlandish plan would always be sorted within the running time.
Mr. Vaughn knows too well that sort of film is no longer possible in this day and age, and proceeds to prove why that is, but refuses to deny himself the pleasures of contradiction by pining for that breeziness and working it steadfastly throughout. The Kingsman agents are outfitted head to toe by a prestigious London bespoke tailor that doubles as their headquarters, but their gentlemanliness runs of the risk of becoming far too quaint and old-fashioned for a world that has changed. Hence Kingsman's much more provocative and daring nature, twisting the rulebook on its head to find itself closer to something like the ill-tempered, graphic satire of British sci-fi magazine 2000AD than to standard spy stuff, modern while glancing at the past.
All of that, plus a plot that's occasionally too twisty for its own good and a sense that Mr. Vaughn isn't always entirely sure where to draw the line, may suggest that Kingsman is biting off more than it can chew. And, for sure, it is a surreally grotesque trip that you either love or hate (or maybe even both at the same time...). But it makes its points without beatng around the bush, and doesn't apologize or tiptoe around its issues - it pretty much steam rollers through them. Over the top? Yes, of course. That's the whole point.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
USA, United Kingdom 2015
Cast Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Michael Caine
Director Matthew Vaughn; screenwriters Jane Goldman and Mr. Vaughn, based on the comic books The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons; cinematographer George Richmond (colour, widescreen); composers Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson; designer Paul Kirby; costumes Arianne Phillips; editors Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris; effects supervisors Steve Begg, Paul Docherty and John Bruno; producers Mr. Vaughn, David Reid and Adam Bohling; production companies Twentieth Century-Fox and Cloudy Productions in association with MARV Films and TSG Entertainment Finance
Screened February 13th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)