I need to let off a bit of steam before I type a single word of this review. A bit of a warning towards whatever bias somebody might understandably accuse me of having.
I fucking hate Mark Millar.
Which is not to say he lacks any decent comic book work I’ve ever read. I do enjoy Superman: Red Son and I loved The Ultimates. But that’s about it as far as having read anything by him that doesn’t nauseate me with its absolutely tasteless content or which reads extremely amateurishly constructed and edited to the point that it feels like an illustrated movie treatment instead of a fully fleshed comic book story…
The Kick-Ass trilogy (+ Hit Girl), Wanted, The Secret Service, Nemesis, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Civil War (and I know a lot of people – Marvel fanboys and comic book readers alike – really love Civil War, but it’s maybe one of the most inconsistent and betraying disregards to character development and arc that I’ve ever read in the Marvel Universe) and so many other works of his that I’ve read kept having me put it down disappointed at the depletion of any true substance and ugly nihilism only to be able to read the author names and realize “Oh… that’s fucking why.”
Actually, nihilism is a very generous way of putting his work. It reads instead like he honestly is a little kid who just found out he’s allowed to be edgy and just wants to put as much affrontive material as possible, except it really offends almost no one (instead arousing the very wrong people) and comes off as trying too hard at the cost of dignity.
But, to now segue into the true subject of this post, one of the biggest things to sort of make me want to punch the shit out of Millar is how, constantly popping its head in his work, happens to be some hefty throwaway misogyny. Like, it’s hard to believe the dude who uses rape solely as a shock tactic with absolutely no regard or interest in its real-life impact is a self-proclaimed devout Catholic who refrains from swearing.
Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know, I’m not that into religion.
Anyway, for this reason it was a very joyous and pleasant shock when director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman (both of whom had also collaborated on a previous Millar adaptation Kick-Ass, which I also grew away from being a fan of – in general, Vaughn is a filmmaker I’m also not a fan of but more into that in a minute) were able to astoundingly refrain in Kingsman: The Secret Service from having any actual sexism, full-on contempt for its audience, or even any overt attempts to make controversy for controversy’s sake like Kick-Ass did well at (well, there is one very obvious jab to a certainly world-famous political figure, but hell, it was one of the few moments that actually made me laugh, even as a liberal-leaning lover of America). The movie did not have as dismissive an attitude towards women as expendable meat to be either fucked or killed like one would expect in a Millar work – as I discovered watching the movie how loosely the graphic novel The Secret Service was actually adhered to – and even took care to feature two… not well-dimensioned (since I don’t think any character is well-dimensioned in the film)… but role-breaking characters on either side of the central conflict without at all calling attention to the idea that “HEY THEY’S R GYALS!!!” portrayed by Sophie Cookson and Sofia Boutella (side-fact nobody will probably give a shit about, but Boutella, who is primarily a dancer – explaining just why she fit into her role in the film – is not only Algerian like *ahem* yours truly, but she’s also from the same neighborhood as my Dad, Bab el Oued).
Of course, this pleasantness ends the moment it throws out all of that dismissal of sexual commentary to add a really dumb and unfortunately popular sex joke right as the movie is about to conclude, presenting a literal princess character as a sex prize for the hero.
It was the moment I definitely decided I don’t like the damn film after being on the fence for so long.
But how about the movie that led up to that moment? Kingsman: The Secret Service tells that there is a London-based intelligence agency that dedicates itself to protecting the world all over while somehow being self-governed by its upper-class English men (sort of reminds me of how we tend to claim a particular nation continuously acts as world police). As we are introduced to them, we witness two of their ranks die in separate incidents seventeen years apart, the latter taking place in the present time and instigating an agency wide search for the next young man to take the deceased’s place. Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who was responsible for recruiting the first dead agent, ends up risking making the same mistake twice when he sees potential in the agent’s very own son, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), an intelligent and fit yet troubled lower class youth. In the meantime, while Eggsy undergoes training and testing to become “Lancelot” (the agents are given codenames based on Arthur’s knights), Hart is journeying about to investigate the second death – that of the previous “Lancelot” (a stupendously sleek cameo by Jack Davenport) – and finding its connections to telecommunications billionaire celebrity Richmond Valentine (an irritating caricature by Samuel L. Jackson).
If you could tell the movie was intended to be a comedy, you’re one ahead of me while I was actually watching the film. The popular consensus is that Vaughn and company were attempting to make a parody of the James Bond film series and having all these regular franchise moments subverted outright (such as how that final beat that I mentioned ended up swaying my opinion towards the film), but there’s some kind of doubt I have with it. Partly because Vaughn’s comedy doesn’t make me laugh at all. Yet humor is subjective, so that’s not going to cut why I don’t think the movie works as a parody of James Bond. Let me delve deeper:
Vaughn’s past films, particularly Layer Cake (which I actually really like) and X-Men: First Class (which I actually really hate) but in general of his pictures, act on a sort of suaveness that they feel they’ve already earned and tries to build on that. Cake gets away off of Craig’s brilliant performance and even Stardust has its ass covered in the knowing wit of Neil Gaiman’s writing, but X-Men: First Class fails on really supporting its attempts at coming off as a 1960s Espionage Flick (coming off instead as a particularly annoying episode of Skins) and Kick-Ass kind of immediately draws contempt out towards the comic book fans it ideally wants to attract as an audience. In the meantime, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a concept where the ingredients of the film actually give Vaughn all of that license to be suave, to be sleek – the characters are all hip in their own manner (unless you are Valentine) with defining attributes to each of them that are a bit more unique than “this guy is stern. this other guy isn’t.”, the costumes are poppy or reservedly sophisticated suit work, etc.
And Vaughn, like having been given the keys to this new fucking cool looking car, just relishes in this all the way through. Making moments like the “we can do it in the asshole” line seem a lot more dried of any humor. It feels like little room for actual satirical levity is given both by the fact that it seems to be the picture Vaughn has always wanted to make and from the fact that… well, any satire Vaughn would have wanted to say would be hurt by how the film isn’t that intelligent towards the themes it tries to talk about…
And oh does Kingsman: The Secret Service think it has something to talk about. It comes from the Kanye West school of attitudes towards classism but, even worse, it comes off as somewhat confused about its stance on classism to begin with. The focus of the film is that the upper class it exclusively represents as the main intellectual hub of the world is not entirely fit for the power it has and that the world should make way for a new type of gentleman based on merit rather than privilege. That is sort of undercut from the moment Eggsy uses his get-out-of-jail free card to make his way into Kingsman and even moreso when all of his opportunities are, perhaps deliberately, handed to him on a silver platter as chance, making him no differently privileged than Firth’s or Michael Caine’s characters. And then it gets a bit more worse when characters we are meant to know and love savagely massacre an entire building full of innocents – even in spite of making them an obvious parody of the Westboro Baptist Church, despicable and repugnant as they are – and expecting us to hoot and holler in joy alongside how energetic and exciting said battle scene is shot and cut. And then moving on to a climax implying most of the laymen are just savages waiting to be triggered into murdering each other, with an honestly way too sobering image of peril towards an infant who is probably a bit more lucky than a majority of infants in the world during that same moment who don’t have a door standing between them and their bloodthirsty assailants.
Yeah, it’s just not good at its preaching basically and ideally just wants to get on to the next frenetic action scene.
I do believe there is some things of worth to find within the film. We’ve got a pretty great co-lead performance by Colin Firth for the most part, who also seems to be relishing in his role but somehow mixing his excitement with impeccable impatience and just all-around obvious British-ness that stands as the poster child of taste. And then, there’s the fact that action scenes (even regrettably the Church massacre I mentioned – which has instantly lived-on along with the terrible sex joke as the most famous moments of the film) are not entirely bad in themselves. I was not impressed, but I have to say its climactic finale makes both enormous economic use of its conceptual complexity (involving hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, exploding heads, time-counting, etc.) and using cross-cutting effectively to keep track of its stake-heavy objectives and where our hero stands between his enemies and shaking us right into the fray of his battles. It’s a pretty fantastic multi-setpiece moment that becomes the only moment the film becomes a huge amount of fun for me with having Firth around to hem-hem.
But I stand by what I originally claimed when I hinted at this review a few days ago – I can understand if you think the movie is overall great for those action setpieces and its lead performances and even maybe how its structured as a story, but if you really think its substance as a plot or its themes are laudable you are possibly a shitty person. Sorry. It doesn’t seem Gentleman-ly to me to be a fan of muddled politics, sudden sexism, and guys who are obviously supposed to be making fun of Spike Lee with a lisp. And since being a Gentleman is all that this movie is about, it is a shame enough for me after watching it that it doesn’t succeed in practicing the ideals it attempts to preach.
But it is the closest Millar has gotten in a long while to being tolerable. Vaughn and Goldman should disregard him more often.