Schlock Takes Center Stage In Loathsome "Kingsman"

Finally, a movie for audiences who found Jason Statham’s “Crank” films a little too highbrow.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” sees director Matthew Vaughn reunite with Kick-Ass comic book creator Mark Millar, swapping the memorably caustic, costumed mayhem of that world for brainless bloodlust in menswear. The result is a would-be spy movie remix that revels in gratuitous violence and general ugliness without ever stopping to take stock of what it all means, none of it one-tenth as amusing as it seems to think it is.

There can be artfulness in bad taste. John Waters (“Pink Flamingos”) knows this better than most. But done wrong? Without subtext, bad taste becomes mere grotesquerie, prone to eat away at consumers like battery acid. There is nothing redeeming about “Kingsman,” nothing relatable, nothing human. Just a void of empathy, a predictable game of chess that wields its characters as nothing more than unprincipled tools of violence.

Oscar-winner Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) stars as Harry Hart, tenured agent in a secret British spy organization. Their cover? They’re impeccably-styled tailors. After a brief prologue set in the 1990s, Hart recruits new blood in the form of a brash, young son of a former agent. Eggsy Unwin (newcomer Taron Egerton) is a teenage loose cannon reluctantly taken under Hart’s wing and subjected to various “Men In Black”-esque training exercises.

Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction”) plays Valentine, the film’s lone minority character, a ruthless billionaire with a Mike Tyson lisp and dreams of mass destruction. Through the dispersal of a mind control device – a plot point that seemed tired in 1995’s “Batman Forever” – Valentine wishes to turn the world’s population against itself in an unprecedented explosion of violence. In that regard, the “Kingsman” delivers on its promises.

The chaos that ensues onscreen is damn near historic, with more blood spilled than most slasher pics. A fight scene set in a church full of bigots is dizzying in its carnage, sure to please the most bloodthirsty of moviegoers and nauseate everyone else. Noteworthiness aside, it’s the movie’s nadir – and maybe that of the careers of everyone involved – existing only to exist, with the screenplay immediately backtracking on any political implications it might have been making. It’s boorish and gross and vaguely reprehensible.

The scene is the film in a nutshell, a sign that – love it or hate it – Vaughn and Millar have made exactly the film they set out to make. It’s all so purposefully putrid that the sight of Eggsy, our hero, pointing an assault rifle in the face of a puppy doesn’t rank among the pic’s five most off-putting moments. And it’s not even the film’s only allusion to dog shooting.

Screen legend Michael Caine shows up for about ten minutes as Hart’s superior, apparently in some misguided attempt to subvert audience expectations about the nature of the eponymous organization. It doesn’t work, nor does Mark Strong’s appearance as the agency’s Scottish tech-guru. These characters merely remind us of the better films they’ve been cribbed from.

The screenplay’s lack of substance is just one of its many problems, with characters constantly making obvious observations, holding conversations about the actual spy films being spoofed, and repurposing old action clichés without doing anything new with them. More damningly, the special effects are frequently awful, as if shorn together with scissors, glue sticks, and construction paper.

The films of Quentin Tarantino have always balanced shock value with meaning, laden with well-drawn characters and worthy adversaries. Here, Vaughn – a disciple of Guy Ritchie, the original Tarantino wannabe – encamps around Millar’s brand of weightless violence like a true believer, all of it coming across as the blustery ramblings of an arrogant know-nothing. From uninformed political asides – President Barack Obama in cahoots with Jackson’s super-villain? – to bizarre non-commentary on the nature of organized religion, neither Vaughn nor Millar seem to know or care about anything. And they’re proud of it.

Most moviegoers will either adore or abhor “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” a film that offers as little middle ground as any in memory. That it ends on a joke justifying the existence of a female character for the purpose of anal sex with our roundly unlikable hero says more than this piece ever could. The movie is shimmering garbage, meant to appeal to the terrible 11 year-old that it assumes we all were – we weren’t – packaged in some genuinely terrible special effects.

It’s that last bit that proves Vaughn and Millar don’t care much about their audience, treating a hefty budget and capable cast like pawns in a selfish game of wish fulfillment. Don’t play along.

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: February 13, 2015
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriter: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman
Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Strong
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content)