In his earlier “Kick-Ass,” British writer-director Matthew Vaughn famously cast an 11-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz as a young killing machine in the stylishly brutal superhero film.
In his latest, “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” Vaughn has again married innocence and mayhem, this time updating the tame, traditional spy movie with his particular brand of contemporary moviemaking, which is to say, crassness.
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a blithe James Bond rip-off that gleefully celebrates, parodies and self-consciously modernizes the mossy spy thriller. And with Colin Firth in tow, as well as the winning newcomer Taron Egerton, “Kingsman” occasionally manages to do all three of these things simultaneously with a genuine zest for the genre trappings: the gadgets, the megalomaniacal villains, the sardonic wit.
But if ever there was a semi-entertaining movie that sabotages itself with tastelessness and misogyny, this is it.
Where might “Kingsman” lose you? You may get twinges of doubt when debris from a missile explosion (set specifically in “the Middle East”) bounces off the ground to form the opening credits. The concern may grow as bodies accumulate with the scantest notice or reflection or when the African-American villain (Samuel L. Jackson) serves McDonalds at an opulent dinner. And you will, possibly, lose any remaining faith by the time Firth’s agent slaughters a congregation full of frenzied churchgoers to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”
By the time the film settles on one of its final images — a woman’s naked rear, offered to the hero she has just met — any spryness in “Kingsman” has emphatically left the building, leaving a sexist stink behind it.
The Kingsmen are an international spy agency based in London. With their headquarters hidden behind a Savile Row tailor, they’re handsomely dressed in bespoke suits, oxford shoes with poisonous tips and umbrellas that shoot bullets. Their names come from the Knights of the Round Table: Galahad (Firth), Lancelot (Jack Davenport) and the head, Arthur (Michael Caine).
Galahad encourages the teen son of a fallen comrade, Eggsy (Egerton), to try out for the agency. A proudly working-class Londoner, he’s quickly hazed by the more posh, well-educated applicants. But under the watchful eye of their instructor (Mark Strong), he rises from their ranks in a series of death-defying exercises.
“Kingsman” is a movie continually in conversation with itself. “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot,” says Jackson’s lisping supervillain, a tech billionaire who wants to radically depopulate the world. He’s waxing about older movies, though he later, just before executing someone, announces: “This ain’t that kind of movie.”
Vaughn, working from the script he co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, emphasizes this again and again, with a look-at-me brashness meant to please snickering fanboys and perhaps nobody else.
“Kingsman,” based on the comic book by “Kick-Ass” makers Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., is less about the confrontation between Galahad (with Eggsy eventually roped in) and Valentine (flanked by a henchwoman with Oscar Pistorius-like prosthetic legs, played by Sofia Boutella), than between new and old, seeking a blend between the two.
In the corner of old, we get spy movie standards, gentlemanly manners, aristocratic pomposity and Colin Firth. In the corner of new, there’s mean-spirited smugness and brainless deployments of violence, the type “Kick-Ass 2” star Jim Carrey sensibly walked away from.
It’s not that the old was so much better (the old Bond movies “Kingsman” is styled after have their own issues), but the supposedly contemporary elements Vaughn’s movie puts forth are just as out of touch.