“The Spy Who Amused Me,” James Bond, has abdicated that title. That’s the gap the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic “The Secret Service” leaped into, and it’s territory that feels most at home in the film from that comic, “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”
Often, it’s a droll riff on spy movies and what “makes a gentleman,” fine tailored (bespoke) suits and the clash of classes evident by the posh accents the movies so often attach to British secret agents.
But almost as often it’s an atonal, hyper-violent action comedy that goes on too long, tries far too hard, spills far too much blood and relies more than it should on Samuel L. Jackson’s character’s lisp for laughs.
A super secret spy agency, privately financed, is run out of a British tailor’s shop. They’re not numbered, MI-6 style, but given names from Camelot — Lancelot, Galahad, Arthur. When one of their number is killed, Galahad (Colin Firth) gives a medal to the fallen man’s son, promising him one big “favor.” If the kid, who grows up street tough, bullied in a troubled home, ever finds himself in over his head, call this phone number. The “service” will get him out of his fix.
That’s how Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton, falls in with the men of Kingsman. Much of the movie is a sluggish set-up — Eggy’s recruitment, training for “the most dangerous job interview in the world,” attempts to fit in with the Oxford/Cambridge men (and women) who comprise this private secret service. Michael Caine is “Arthur,” who runs the show, Mark Strong is the Scottish fixer/gadget guru, Merlin.
Samuel L. shows up as a billionaire environmental activist, wearing a grin, an assortment of NY Yankees hats (worn askew) and a speech impediment.
“Tho thorry you had to deal with this…unpleathanneth!”
If you’ve ever seen the least of the Bond films, “Moonraker,” the plot will seem familiar. Famous personages are disappearing, then reappearing, and the eco-fanatic supervillain, who speaks of himself in movie super villain terms, may be behind it.
Yes, it’s one of those spoofs where characters say stuff about what happens in a “typical” spy movie — the drinks served, the elaborately planned murders, the give-the-whole-plot away speeches the villain makes before those murders. Hilarious. And not even remotely novel.
Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn (“Kick Ass”) doesn’t turn the genre conventions on their ear so much as celebrate them. Sofia Boutella plays a colorless yet deadly assistant to the billionaire, a kick boxer with curved sword blades for feet. Firth wears his suits impeccably, sips his whisky impeccably and purrs his posh-accented lines most impeccably of all.
“Manners maketh man,” Galahad says gallantly, quoting a 16th century head of the exclusive Eton prep school.
Firth makes a fine case for the James Bond he could have been, edited into action heroics worthy of JB (“James Bond? Jason Bourne? Jack Bauer?”). Strong does yeoman’s work in support, but the young lead — adept at parkour and slinging that Cockney accent — doesn’t inspire much of anything. Caine’s role is borderline set-dressing.
Fans of Vaughn (“Layer Cake” was his break-out film) and the genre will find much to grin about, but little that warrants a bigger laugh. Something about the Tarantino-ish bloodshed, the crass F-bombs, just feels off. The villain’s point of view seems both reasonable and elitist. Even though Galahad professes an anti-elitism, the service, the milieu, all smack of the privilege of educated weak-chinned aristocracy.
And truth be told, the movie never recovers from its most violent scene, played as slo-mo “cool” but simply a massacre, and a damned gory one.
Still, as February comic book movies go, this works well enough to make you glad they didn’t cook up another “Ghost Rider.”
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content
Cast: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Boutella, Michael Caine, Sophie Cookson
Credits: Directed by Matthew Vaughn, script by based on the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comics. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 2:09