Movie Review: “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

by Glenn on March 14, 2015

On Sunday we watched Kingsman: The Secret Service. I left the theater scratching my head and days later I’m still scratching my head. What was that?

It didn’t appear to be a serious film, but I didn’t find it all that funny and I’m left wondering if either I don’t have a sophisticated enough sense of humor or perhaps the joke’s on me a little bit.

I’ve read that Kingsman is based on a comic book. I’m unfamiliar with it. On screen, it comes across as a spy thriller with nods to James Bond (English protagonist with a sophisticated taste in alcohol and a super-villain with homicidal intentions on a global scale) using visual techniques, particularly in the action scenes, like I’ve seen in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. But Kingsman is most definitely its own film.

The Bond films are sometimes violent. But that violence is more or less personal. A good guy (James Bond) is fighting a bad guy (whether the bad guy or one of his henchmen—not gender specific) and, happily, James Bond wins. Good triumphs over evil.

In Kingsman, Harry Hart, aka Galahad (played by Colin Firth), is executed right after he, under influence of the villain, becomes part of a bloody killing spree. Good doesn’t triumph over evil. Good becomes evil and then is snuffed out by evil. And so the very bright production values of the film mask what is actually a very dark film. For whatever reason, the scene of violence takes place amongst a church congregation, albeit a highly bigoted one, which I think is meant to help us not care so much about all the deaths. “Good riddance,” we might say.

While large-scale violence in the James Bond films is mostly threatened or implied, in Kingsman the violence is an essential feature of the film. It is highly stylized so that in the moment it doesn’t seem as violent as it actually is. But by the end we have witnessed dozens of deaths while hundreds (maybe thousands) more are implied.

The worst moment of violence occurs once the villain’s plan has gotten under way. At this point (oh, wait, spoiler alert!), human heads explode into colorful mini-mushroom clouds while strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1” lend a certain celebratory ethos to all the killing. The “land of hope” is gory.

And while the Bond films routinely danced around vulgarity and obscenity with eye-rolling double entendres, implied trysts, and those titillating opening title sequences, Kingsman actually is obscene. There is a very short, but needlessly and indelibly pornographic scene near the end of the film. This was so odd as the rest of the movie was refreshingly chaste.

I go to the movies to be entertained. In the last couple of months I’ve seen two other films in a theater (which is a lot for us): Into the Woods, the film adaptation of the Broadway Musical, which I hadn’t seen on stage; and The Imitation Game, which I’ve written about.

Both films were entertaining and satisfying. I know I will watch Into the Woods again when it is released on DVD. It was thoroughly enjoyable even as it felt somewhat like an engineering experiment. “Hey, what if we take a bunch of fairy tales and throw them all together? Can we make it stand up?”

By definition, my favorite films are the ones that I watch again and again. Here are some of them:

Pride and Prejudice: Maybe not the best screen adaptation of the book, but easily the best film (though reliable sources tell me Colin Firth will always be the best Mr. Darcy). It’s just beautiful. The music, the English countryside, the cinematography are all stunning.

A Good Woman or An Ideal Husband: Both of these Oscar Wilde adaptations for the screen have outstanding dialogue and the twist that some of the worst characters in the film often turn out to do the best things.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?: This film is pure genius. The blending of the mythology of Odysseus with pop culture of the old South is unforgettable.

The American President: Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays are so memorable for their dialogue and this film has classic sensibilities.

Tombstone: Val Kilmer. ‘Nough said. The cinematography is stunningly beautiful film and this is one of the great modern westerns.

Enchanted: Amy Adams is beyond charming.

A River Runs Through It: A deeply spiritual film that oozes with affection for the author, Norman Maclean, and Montana.

Casablanca: I guess this is as perfect as a film can be. Obviously, I will always cringe when Rick is leaving Paris: He is standing in the pouring rain and then, when he hops on the train, his overcoat is suddenly dry. Oops.

If one were only concerned with production quality, you would have to consider Kingsman a great film. But this will not be a new favorite of mine. I wouldn’t want to see it again and I am wishing I hadn’t seen it at all. It was truly disappointing and I cannot recommend it.

Films don’t always have to be serious.

But I think we should be sad or moved somehow by the death of human beings. We shouldn’t be influenced to laugh. If untrammeled violence makes us laugh, something is wrong. There is an allusion to President Obama’s death, which, as an American, makes me cringe.

I’m probably not the intended audience for the film. Perhaps something was being said in those scenes that went past me.

A couple of lessons for me.

1. I think, somehow, Kingsman is indicative of our age. It goes too far and takes only itself seriously. Some things need to be sacred or at least respected. Filmmakers have a dilemma—they can’t simply remake what’s already been done, but merely pushing boundaries for its own sake, takes me someplace I’d rather not go.

2. It’s a violent film even if the violence is stylized or trivialized. I don’t think I have to avoid every violent film, but I do think intentions matter. I consider Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan to be extremely violent films, but they are attempting to depict the actual violence of World War 2. That feels different. I don’t think Steven Spielberg was attempting to glorify violence in any sort of way.