Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mark at the Movies: Kingsman - The Secret Service

Plot: In two opening scenes, we see two British government agents dispatched in two separate incidents, one heroically and one horrifically. The film then sets about on two tracks - one follows the recruitment and training of two new agents, the other a larger story about a megalomaniac tech genius out to wipe most of humanity from the face of the Earth. But hey, it's okay because he's got a good motive - he's trying to cure climate change issues. Global warming is likened to a body's fever, which is only a symptom of the illness - the underlying virus. He sees humanity as that virus. In fact, in one scene the bad guy compares himself and his scheme to God and Noah saving the Earth by wiping out the rest of the population. Into both of these storylines comes our hero - Harry Hart (codename: Galahad, all the agents have Camelot aliases) - who sets out to redeem a mistake that got the first agent above killed (by sponsoring his son - "Eggsy" - as a possible new replacement agent) and when he's not encouraging Eggsy, he's investigating the circumstances surrounding the second agent's death, which will lead him to cross paths with Valentine the Villain. One key plot point is that Valentine insures the loyalty of his accomplices by implanting them with a microchip that causes their heads to explode should they betray him.

Players: Colin Firth is nearly pitch-perfect as the Mr. Darcy-like Galahad, Samuel L. Jackson plays Valentine with whimsy, a lisp, and an unsettled stomach around bloodshed. Hardly the picture of evil you'd expect, which makes his plans all the more chilling. Taron Egerton, a fairly new Hollywood face, portrays Gary "Eggsy" Unwin, the son of the heroic Kingsman agent, who grew up in a rough neighborhood and is hardly the clean cut high class social elite type of trainee against whom he competes. Sofia Boutella, a former dancer with this her first big film, gets quite a bit of screen time as Valentine's chief henchperson, Gazelle. From the calf down, her legs and feet have been replaced with razor-sharp prosthetics which she wields to deadly (and quite graphic) precision. Mark Strong ("Merlin") is on hand as the Kingsman's tech expert, logistics expert, training expert, pilot, and man Friday. He acquits himself well in the role. Michael Caine brings his respectable skills to a smaller part as the head of the Kingsman Agency - "Arthur," of course - and clearly thinks little of young Eggsy's effort to qualify. Finally, an unrecognizable Mark Hamill has a brief early role as Professor Arnold, whom Valentine relies upon for climate change information.

Pilot: The film was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who has an X-Men movie and both "Kick Ass" movies to his credit and he is also helming the reboot of the Fantastic Four series. So, lots of experience in directing real life versions of comic book characters and stories. Kingsman: The Secret Service also began life as a comic book. There is, at the bottom of all the blood, mayhem, and in-your-face gore a decent message to the movie (see below), but I just cannot get past some of the directing choices he made. Here's hoping the FF reboot due out in August fares better.

Point: The film takes pains to express the thought, "Manners Maketh Man." This phrase was originally written by William Horman - an English Prep School Master in the late 1400s and early 1500s - in his book, Vulgaria, which was mainly Latin translations of common ("vulgar" would have been the word then) English phrases. The thought expresses an attitude of civility, respect, honor, and chivalry to which all men should aspire, and which Horman taught. And, in the end, that is the journey of transformation that "Eggsy" makes, though it is clear he came from good, honest, loyal and compassionate stock in the first place. So, like all good films, a principal character has his heart and life changed by the events of the film. That much, at least, they got right.

Particulars: The film starts out feeling very much like a parody of the "gentleman spy" popular during Sean Connery's early years as James Bond (and, indeed, that's the way the previews and the movie poster above spin it), but when a man's body is split in two - *vertically* - and you watch one half begin to slide away from the other you realize the movie has much more in common with the graphic violence, killing, maiming, bloodletting, and gore of The Walking Dead. At least in that show you know the zombies are dead already. Not so here. Some of the violence and mayhem you could call "stylized" - especially at the end of the movie when Valentine's implants are triggered - and some is clearly and intentionally "over the top"  (Monty Python's Black Knight scene comes to mind) but there is so much of it and it is so often shoved in your face that you could, quite literally, gag on it. In fact, one man in the film does. Directly at the camera. There is one extended and traumatically brutal scene in a church, where a congregation is shot, impaled, bludgeoned, axed, stabbed, and otherwise murdered. We're allowed to see the congregation (as a stand-in) for Fred Phelphs' Westboro Baptist Church, filled with hate, prejudice, and racism - but that simply does not justify the carnage Vaughn chose to spend precious minutes of his movie upon. And - I was just talking about this with a friend the other day - there is a heavily-influenced European sensibility and comfort with cursing, profanity, and crudities. The "F-Bomb" is dropped more than 110 times! In a 129-minute movie (less 9 minutes for the closing/opening credits), that's nearly once every 60 seconds. And finally, at the end of the movie, a captive woman who promises an agent anal sex if he frees her and saves the world is seen rolling over, revealing her bare backside.

Raymond's Rating: Out of four stars, I give this film ... one-half of one star. And only because I have to give it something. If you want to wake up feeling good about yourself in the morning, stay home. As I told my wife, my brain is still cowering in the corner, hours after witnessing it.


Mark's Musings is published on an occasional basis but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. 1 Star=A Waste of Time; 2 Stars=Average to Poor; 3 Stars=Good and Possibly Quite Good; 4 Stars=Worth full price. 'Nuff said.


Mark said...

I've actually been thinking about this flick a lot over the past 24 hours. Marinating in it, you might say.

I've come to the conclusion that the reason I had such a visceral reaction to it was not just the - as a friend described, "Quentin Tarantino-style violence" - but it's two major issues that have gone and stuck in my craw, as the old-timers among us say.

1) The extended scene where a church congregation is brutally and graphically murdered. Bad people or not, a church should be a place where forgiveness is offered and healing is encountered. I get the reason the director, in essence, hung Westboro Baptist in effigy here, I do. (Well, he hung them, shot them, knifed them, etc.) It was obviously so we wouldn't feel bad about all that brutal death and carnage. But I did. And I do. It so violated my sense of "rightness" and "the holy" that I'm having trouble getting over it. It was a major violation of my spirit's sensibilities. I also understand this is a personal problem. Other people clearly see nothing wrong in it.

2) And this may be the biggie. I didn't read any other reviews of the film before I saw it. I hadn't spoken at any length with anyone about it. So I went in to the cinema thinking it was going to be a light parody of the spy movie genre and any heavy violence would be dealt off-screen. That's certainly the place where *all* of the advertising went. And then, minutes into the movie, ye gads! And it only got worse until the climactic explosive-head ending, when the comic book nature of the story returned to soften the final blow. So not only were my expectations completely blown out of the water, it was a jarringly huge disappointment that I couldn't just sit back and have a laugh. I understand others did, and will, and I'm okay with that, certainly. But I literally felt that I left that movie having fallen victim to the old "bait-and-switch" tactic. This was not the product I thought I was paying for.

As I tell my kids, "garbage in-garbage out." It felt (and still does) like someone dumped a pail of garbage in my brain. I keep trying to wade through it in my memory, picking out the good bits, but I gotta tell you I'm not finding many at all.

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Great blend of action and comedy, and Samuel L. Jackson is great on this film. If you are a fan of Bond or the Red series movies, than this is the perfect combination of non stop fun/action.