Welcome to LoveFilm Chronicles, a series in which I write about the Blu Rays that LoveFilm deign to send me every week. Like most unemployed people, I can’t afford to actually buy Blu Rays, which means we’re going to be digging deep into LoveFilm’s catalogue over the next few months. I’ve stacked up my Rental List as high as it will go with pretty much everything and anything I might be interested in, and left the rest up to the algorithm. Nothing left to do now but to watch what shows up.
Two weeks ago, we filled in a gap in our cinematic history, and came away with a weird reading informed by decades of cultural osmosis. Today, LoveFilm opted to send us something more recent in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a spy comedy directed by Matthew Vaughn. The reaction seemed to split into two camps: those that thought it was a work of satirical action movie genius, and those that thought it was a boring conservative power fantasy making empty gestures towards subversiveness.
Now I've watched the movie, and I'm here to tell you for once and for all that: it's... both? kind of? What?
Let's dive in...
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Kingsman: The Secret Service has some of the most baffling politics to ever appear in a movie. And not in the same way as something like Transformers: Age of Extinction, where intentionality collides with ineptitude to create something accidentally interesting which seems to be at war with itself. No, Kingsman is far from inept, it's a coherent and confident film structured to make, by the standards of its blockbuster peers, an incredibly daring stance on the disgusting nature of widespread classism. And then, immediately after making such a pointed and seemingly self-aware argument, advocates some of the most backwards respectability politics it possibly could.
There is a lot to unpack here.
The movie tells the story of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the Son of a Kingsman agent who dies in the movie's first scene. He's shown as a kid who has lost his brilliant potential, and squandered his life away with crime, drugs and other such council estate cliches. In fact, the film delights in showing Eggsy's home life as something to be escaped, presenting every other man as a degenerate thug and presenting his mother as an abused wife with no agency of her own. This isn't anything unique, British Cinema is overflowing with depictions of working class life as depravity porn, but it so completely sabotages the supposed thematic ends that Kingsman is working towards.
Eventually, Eggsy does find his escape, when he's selected by Colin Firth's Harry to become a Kingsman candidate. The Kingsmen refer to themselves as Gentlemen, obsessed with surface notions of respectability as self worth. Their secret base is a tailor off of Piccadilly Circus, their secret weapon a bulletproof umbrella. They are cold blooded murderers operating with no jurisdiction who get by entirely upon their class status. It's clear that Kingsman is attempting to show us "the real" James Bond, with its comedic juxtaposition of white, rich British values and scenes of explosive, often empty violence. Unfortunately, in a world where the last James Bond movie presents us with a tragically impotent colonial assassin, Kingsman's reverence for the stereotype makes it a far less successful critique than the very movies it is supposedly critiquing.
The first half to two-thirds of the film features Eggsy's Kingsman training cut against Harry's spy quest to find out what Richard Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is up to. Eggsy nominally learns that being a Kingsman doesn't come from your inherited class but from your strength of character, and then in the very next scene Harry returns from his suave dinner with Valentine to give Harry a makeover, getting rid of his tracksuit and replacing it with a tailored suit. It continues in this way, with these two seemingly contradictory themes just operating parallel, until finally the plot kicks into action and Kingsman makes its move.
Kingsman's pivotal scene is in a small town american church, in which Valentine tests his superweapon, a wave that turns up the aggression centres of everyone in range of his free sim cards. The scene fades from a cartoonish preacher slinging a litany of racial slurs as the good Christians nod along politely to, when Valentine activates the weapon, an orgy of violence with Harry smack bang in the middle of it. It's this clear gotcha critique of action movies, a very "hah, is this what you wanted?!" scene, but more interestingly to me it's the first moment in the film where the Kingsmen veneer of respectability is shown to be fallible. The sight of a suited Colin Firth slaughtering southern American stereotypes places both on a similar level - a British Aristocrat is no less repugnant than these people simply because he hides his views in a tailored suit and a charming turn of phrase.
Here is where Kingsman not only stands on the brink of building its muddled mess into something resembling a striking thematic message, but achieves it in a rather stunning fashion. All world leaders, go along with Valentine's plan to activate this wave of violence and have the poor kill each other while they get safe passage into the new, safer, world. After Harry is shot dead, Eggsy steps up to save the day, and realises the only way is to overload the inhibitor chips inside the chosen few, killing every single person who decided their life was worth more than those beneath them. Which, unsurprisingly, includes Michael Caine, the Kingsmen's top boss. What follows is a sixty second montage set to alternative British Anthem, "Land Of Hope and Glory," as the heads of world leaders everywhere explode into beautiful fireworks.
This is certainly cartoonish, but make no mistake, Kingsman's climax is the joyous execution of the Bourgeois who had gathered together to celebrate as the poor rip each other to shreds. It's got a far more juvenile tone, but it's an almost Tarantinoesque in its fantasy that maybe we could just blow up the causes of systemic violence around us. It takes this group of people who refuse to take responsibility for their violent role in society (after all, the poor are killing each other!) and passes judgement upon them all. It's the shooting Hitler scene from Inglorious Basterds but applied to the entirety of the modern financial elite.
Immediately after, a suited Eggsy returns home to beat up those awful poor thugs in his estate and take his Mother away to the life of luxury the family of a newly knighted Kingsman agent deserves. It's one of the most intense examples of thematic whiplash I've ever seen, and completely undercuts the chance for Kingsman to be truly subversive. "Manners maketh man," Eggsy says, repeating Harry's catchphrase, condemning these filthy ruffians for simply not being as distinguished as him. The same manners that not two scenes ago were explicitly condemned for the ease with which the upper classes could condone the extermination of their lessers.
All of which is to say: Kingsman: The Secret Service isn't a bad film, but it's a massively disappointing one. Not so much incoherent as unaware of, ironically, its own message about reprehensible values hiding just below the surface. If you want an action movie that engages with British Working Class Life earnestly (not to mention actually acknowledging the ways that race and gender intersect with classism) then please watch Attack The Block instead.