Filmmakers regularly try to freshen up James Bond iconography. It’s why we have the Jason Bourne movies. It’s why we had Vin Diesel (!) trying his hand at the dapper spy game in “XXX” several years back. Please — it’s why the Bond franchise itself turned to Daniel Craig’s grit, and why Craig’s next installment, November’s “Spectre,” hasn’t even arrived and already there’s buzz about Idris Elba possibly succeeding him.
Director Matthew Vaughn and company could give the whole lot a few lessons in how it’s done. Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a youth-quaking riff bursting with affection for vintage 007 action and urbanity, yet one that feels wholly organic in the way it goes about selling this appreciation to a younger crowd. It’s also a movie that further establishes Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class”) as one of the edgier and more underrated genre voices of the moment, and that makes us wonder why Colin Firth hasn’t indulged in an action sideline all along.
Adapted from a comic book by popular writer Mark Millar (“Kick-Ass,” Angelina Jolie’s “Wanted”) and artist Dave Gibbons (“Watchmen”), the film casts Firth as Harry Hart, a.k.a. Galahad, a meticulously stylish secret agent. More precisely, he is
one of the Kingsmen, “an independent international intelligence agency” operating out of a gentlemen’s tailor shop in London. (“Tinker, Tailor,” indeed.)
After a colleague sacrifices his life for him, guilt-plagued Harry makes a carte-blanche offer of assistance to the agent’s widow and young son. Years later, that boy has grown up to be Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a hard-luck council flats hellion definitely in need of help, which comes in the form of expedited admission to spy school.
Eggsy scoffs at Harry’s bespoke-suit gentility, but he’s soon convinced by his amusingly choreographed brolly takedown of a gang of pub hooligans. Not so different from the eye roll we might direct at Eggsy’s punk posing, were it not for Egerton’s eye-opening charisma. Screen smugness hasn’t been this appealing since Bradley Cooper first broke out.
While Eggsy goes through adrenalized training exercises administered by impassive drill sergeant Merlin (Mark Strong), Harry parries with Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a tech-billionaire mash-up of Bill Gates and Kanye West. Seems that Valentine’s “gift” of free wireless service for the world comes with some diabolical mind-control strings attached — as if his steely henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), and her ninja-blade prosthetic legs didn’t already hint at bad things. (Meanwhile, Jackson actually does make a fair go of that wacky villain’s lisp, which seemed like such an awful idea in the trailers.)
And then the intrigue turns serious — and we do mean serious, for a scene, at least. Vaughn drops Firth into a swirling, bloody free-for-all that’s an encore to that pub lark, but also a taste of hyper-fetishistic violence that’s even more jarring than “Kick-Ass” was at times. The sequence involves a hatemongering church, but it’s wildly uncomfortable all the same. It seems to be part of the package with Vaughn: the darker boundary pushing goes hand in hand with the purely entertaining craziness, like a world leader graphically losing his head at crisis time, or Bond-babe naughtiness even more inappropriate than the moniker Pussy Galore. If “Kingsman” respects genre legacy with a brazen wink, you have to think 007 would approve.