Saturday, March 14, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

**1/2 out of ****

Kingsman: The Secret Service is based on a comic book series (just known as The Secret Service) about a group of elite British spies working without their government's knowledge on high caliber missions. It is heavily fashioned after '60 british spy fiction (particularly James Bond films), featuring men in tailored suits trained with the ability to maintain a gentleman's composure while getting into life-or-death fights using high-tech gadgets. 

The story revolves around an agent named Harry Hart (Colin Firth), recruiting a young street hooligan (Taron Egerton) who grew up fatherless, due to the unknown fact that his father was a Kingsman who died on Hart's watch. Meanwhile, an awkward tech-industry billionaire (played with glee by Samuel L. Jackson) is hatching an eco-terroristic plan, which will have cataclysmic results.

The film co-stars regular British dependable character actors like Mark Strong and Michael Caine. It also has a surprise role from Mark Hamill as a kidnapped professor [In the original comic, terrorists kidnap the actor, Mark Hamill].

As you might imagine, this movie is aiming for whimsical fun mixed with some very dark humor. It achieves this most of the time, but like other films directed by Matthew Vaughn, something is keeping me from achieving complete enjoyment.

I like Vaughn's unapologetic R-rated approach that he used in Kick-Ass, similar to the overblown politically incorrect comic carnage of Robert Rodriguez films. He knows that fanboys (of the Heavy Metal variety) are still out there who want the gruesome nature of this genre to be preserved and not watered-down. [Though I'm suspicious that certain parts were altered to avoid an NC-17]

Then there's everything I don't like about this director's work, which causes my head to spin when I try expressing my reasons. Vaughn has a lot of trouble finding a voice. A single movie of his has the tendency to shift between funny and serious; escapist and realistic; light-hearted and disturbing; witty and crude; good-looking and ugly. Mostly, he has a lot of trouble finding a pace. All of these shifts in tone prevent his films from feeling as though they have that sense of passage that so many good pieces of entertainment need.

[mild spoilers ahead]

If I can cite an example from this film, it would be from the climax, where the heroes are attempting to deactivate a mind-controlling device, which causes people to kill one another. Masses of people in otherwise pleasant public places are tearing each other apart, which is darkly funny because it's absurd and surreal. Then, to add more tension, we see the young recruit's mother attempting to break into a locked room to kill his genuinely scared-looking baby sister, which is too seriously captured to belong in this movie. It yanked me right out of the fun. 

Vaughn's aesthetic approach seems acceptable. He likes to give the image a slight contrast push, making the colors jump out, approaching his material the same way Sam Raimi did Spider-Man. He also likes to shoot in scope. Somehow, it's missing a personal touch. He also shoots special effects in the show-off way that cause the viewer to say, "Ooh. Special effects."

Regarding the plot, I will always be annoyed in films where the villain's motivation is fueled by the desperate need to solve a real problem, but the hero's motivation is simply to stop the villain with no concern for the problem at all.

I found Kingsman be fun on a general level. It's certainly more enjoyable than Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, mainly because it is less restrained. Still, a movie that entertained me with whimsical action, some clever comic dialogue, a brawl in a Kentucky hate-church gone rabid and exploding heads... also managed to disturb me with upsetting portrayals of attempted infanticide, attempted pet-killing and the constant reminder of inevitable climate change. To me, Vaughn may be ambitious, but he's still an amateur with big tools. 

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