Matthew Vaughn, the talented young filmmaker behind "Kick-Ass" and "X-Men: First Class," dropped out of directing last summer's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" to make this movie. In other words, he passed on a sure thing to make a film adaptation of a comic book hardly anyone has heard of about British super-spies, which is being released in the cinematic wasteland known as February.
Some might call that move questionable -- including Vaughn's agents, no doubt.
Then he went and did something even more dubious: he changed the name of the movie, based on the graphic novel "The Secret Service" by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar, to add the "Kingsman" moniker, and switched the story around so the spies all wear similar natty suits. He even commissioned a line of "Kingsman" clothing from a high-end clothier, so you can affect the same stylish look you saw star Colin Firth wearing.
(Want the wristwatch? It's only $24,430!)
Which essentially renders the entire movie an exercise in brash product placement. I'd be tempted to be disgusted, if the film weren't so dashingly, gleefully superb.
"Kingsman: The Secret Service" is a heaping squirt of hot sauce in the cinema calendar's equivalent of the salad course. It's a daffy, dizzy send-up of the James Bond genre that nonetheless checks off the list of everything we love about super-spy flicks.
It's got a suave, charismatic leading man (Firth), outstandingly staged action scenes, crazy gadgets, a mad global plot, and a terrifically strange villain who maintains a running commentary on the stupidity of movie villains. (Without, apparently, realizing that he is one.)
The set-up is that young Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), a Cockney street tough, is recruited by the Kingsmen via Harry Hart (Firth), aka Galahad, who once had his life saved by Eggsy's dad. Harry has a cool intro scene where he takes out an entire pub full of thugs who want the lad's head using only his umbrella -- which, to be fair, has all sorts of super-power functions like stopping bullets when opened.
(If you think that's neat, wait'll you see what the watch can do.)
Soon Eggsy is going through super-spy school, competing with a bunch of high-class wankers to see who can claim the only open slot in the Kingsmen ranks. Or Kingswomen -- there are a couple of highly competent female recruits, too, including the resourceful Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who takes a shine to Eggsy's rough edges. Merlin (Mark Strong) is the veteran taskmaster and outfitter, while Arthur (Michael Caine) is the wise old leader.
Harry takes on Eggsy's tutelage personally, teaching him how to dress and behave and, above all, remain discreet. The Kingsmen are a privately funded intelligence agency, and take pride in having their exploits remaining unknown. "A gentleman's name should appear in the paper three times: when he's born, when he marries and when he dies," he instructs.
The heavy is Richmond Valentine, a ridiculously powerful tech billionaire who gives away his merchandise and Internet service for free, because he has a dastardly plot to... well, I won't spoil. Suffice to say his plan has a certain liberal Machiavellian purity, enough to convince most of the planet's prime movers and shakers to sign on.
Valentine is played by Samuel L. Jackson in a performance that is deliciously over the top... or under the top, or somewhere completely sideways of the top. He sprays his sibilants in a mighty lisp, dresses in slanted hats and neon pastels like a ghetto bopper who hit the lottery, and grows girlishly nauseous at even the hint of violence, despite setting quite a tidal wave of it in motion.
His henchwoman is, if possible, even more exotic. Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) has two prosthetic legs, the kind used in running known as blades, except hers are also outfitted with actual blades, which she uses to slice and dice her foes while spinning through the air with athletic aplomb. She makes Oddjob with his killer top hat seem positively pedestrian.
Co-written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, "Kingsman: The Secret Service" maintains a careful tone. It's incredibly funny, yet the gruesome fight scenes have weight and kinetic punch. Jackson's scoundrel is simultaneously laughable and chilling. This is a pastiche, mockery and homage to spy movies all wrapped in one well-tailored package.