Remember when spy movies were silly and fun? Long before Daniel Craig’s brooding, psychologically complex 007, Sean Connery “yellowed up” to take on a scar-faced megalomaniacal villain in his hidden volcano base, George Lazenby went undercover at an alpine base filled with a bevy of (non-allergenic) beauties, Roger Moore headed into space to battle a metal-mouthed giant (alongside the unlikely named Holly Goodhead), and Timothy Dalton, well, he mostly brooded too. Still, if most of this sounds vaguely absurd, that’s about where Kingsman: The Secret Service comes in, doing for the spy genre what Kick Ass did for the superhero.
Directed by Kick Ass’ Matthew Vaughn, and similarly based on a comic book by Mike Millar, Kingsman takes the wish fulfilment elements of Bond – the exotic cars, the beautiful women, the outlandish gadgets and bespoke suits – and puts it in the hands of a most unlikely candidate: the baseball cap wearing, council estate dwelling Eggsy (Taron Egerton). After an ill-advised but well-provoked spot of joy-riding, Eggsy comes to the attention of debonair super-spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who, it just so happens, is looking for a protege. Meanwhile, it just so happens that Machiavellian software engineer Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is plotting to change the world.
If all of that sounds pretty much pulp fiction as usual for the genre, Kingsman is self-aware and self-confident enough to kick things up a notch. Eggsy may be brash and cocky but Egerton lends him world-weary gravitas; he’s not just some stereotypical “yoof” but a smart kid with a genuine beef to pick with the system. Valentine, meanwhile, makes for unusual villain material: amiable, lisping, amusingly haemophobic, his scheme may be insane but there’s also a certain twisted logic to it. Last but not least, Firth brings heartfeltness and impeccably mannered brutality to the role of Hart, an operator who’s equal parts James Bond and John Steed, if either had ever impaled a man on a church pew.
Despite some astute commentary on the class system and surprising emotional heft, Kingsman mostly brings balls-to-the-walls insanity. Cartoonishly violent, replete with crumpled necks and bisected secret agents – luckily there are plenty of them – it’s the only film this year where you’ll see a firework display of heads set to Land of Hope and Glory. Michael Caine, Harry Palmer himself, is somewhat wasted as the stuffy head of the Kingsman organisation, as is Mark Strong as a strait-laced Scottish Q, but Kingsman more than makes up for it with adorable pugs, potty-mouthed Swedish princesses, and Mark Hamill. All that’s missing is the concluding promise of a sequel.