by Gabriel Valdez
Look, the review section is going to address the middling craft and storytelling behind this film. Then the Bechdel section is going to rip the utter bejesus out of everything that’s left. Just be warned:
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a movie that has no idea what it wants to be. It follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a young Englander who grows up without a father. His dad sacrificed himself for his team on the kind of mission that James Bond makes his bread and butter, and Eggsy wears a medal around his neck he can never show to anyone else. Eggsy’s life consists of getting into trouble and watching out for his mom, who doesn’t have the best choice in boyfriends.
Eggsy is whisked off to a spy school in much the same way Harry Potter is taken to Hogwarts. The first half of Kingsman is as solid as you could ask for, alternating between Eggsy’s training and a mission to save the world being carried out by his sponsor Harry (Colin Firth).
Inevitably, Eggsy is drawn into the mission itself, which pits his team against a villain named Valentine who’s so upset global warming will destroy humankind that he decides to, um, destroy humankind. Just take that kind of logic on faith – the villain’s played by Samuel L. Jackson, who seems to be the only one aware of what a cheeseball movie he’s actually in.
These sorts of plots are also where the film starts to come apart. When a writer (Jane Goldman) and director (Matthew Vaughn) are so obsessed with pushing a political agenda that it shoves everything else in the movie to the side, it becomes uncomfortable.
Any kind of message – liberal or conservative – that guts a film so completely of its story is a problem. The message in Kingsman is conservative. The last movie that did this so egregiously was the liberal-minded remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. I don’t care what your politics are – if they’re such a priority that a popcorn movie feels more like chastisement than entertainment, the movie’s failed. A movie can have politics in it, yes, but it still has to prioritize being a movie and telling a story.
It’s a shame – Kingsman boasts a well crafted first half and offers some exceptionally choreographed, albeit horrendously violent, action. It just finds as many ways to shoot itself in the foot by the end as I’ve ever witnessed. It has too many politics and grudges to ring out, too many names to drop and meta commentaries to make. If you can’t tell Kingsman is a riff on the spy genre an hour in, don’t worry – characters will stop everything to remind you many, many times.
That’s not even bringing up the McDonald’s product placement, which tries to involve the ad as a meta joke the same way Wayne’s World and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby have in the past. As it does with many elements, Kingsman feels too unsure of itself to fully commit to the joke – instead of characters nodding and winking at the camera, you end up with Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson awkwardly grinding their way through a minute-long in-film ad.
That’s too often the feeling in Kingsman. It criticizes spy movies for being too political, then it obsesses over being political. It insists action movies are too serious and have forgotten how to be light-hearted, and minutes later it’s engaging in an extended sequence where civilians tear each other apart in bloody chunks. If anywhere, this is where the film should nod and wink, a la Shaun of the Dead, but this is where Kingsman doubles down and wants to show you how good it can really be at all the things it just insisted shouldn’t matter.
I love bloody action and rude humor in my films, and even I felt like I had to take a shower after Kingsman. It’s not any worse than a brutal horror movie or the average episode of South Park, but it spends two hours selling you on the idea that these things shouldn’t be part of action movies before turning around and relenting to each of them anyway. It leaves you feeling confused, disappointed, and a little betrayed. Maybe it’s just trying to troll its entire audience. If so, mission accomplished.
In many ways, Kingsman ends up being the polar opposite of last week’s action movie, Jupiter Ascending. Kingsman is a movie that’s not enough of anything to feel very satisfying. Jupiter Ascending is a movie that’s too much of everything. Given the choice, I’d rather be overwhelmed than underwhelmed. If you only have time for one action movie, stick with Jupiter Ascending.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does Kingsman: The Secret Service have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Samantha Womack plays Eggsy’s mother. Sofia Boutella plays a baddie named Gazelle. Sophie Cookson plays spy school companion Roxy. Fiona Hampton plays spy school companion Amelia. Hanna Alstrom plays an imprisoned princess.
2. Do they talk to each other?
No. For one very brief moment, both Roxy and Amelia talk to Eggsy, about Eggsy.
3. About something other than a man?
Well, they didn’t pass #2 so this is moot, but women do occasionally talk to men about the sinister plot at the film’s center, when they’re not talking about Eggsy or Valentine.
Look, this movie is, for lack of a better way of putting it, patriarchal as fuck. Eggsy’s mother exists so that he can save her. Gazelle (an amputee who fights with sword-like blade legs) exists so we can fetishize her. It’s also strongly hinted that she’s the sexual reward of the villain, being played by an actor more than twice her age.
Even when the film gives a woman a victory, as happens late in the spy school sequence, the victory is because she’s proven herself to be heartless and have no loyalty. In other words, the single victory given to a woman in the film is due to her not being as good as Eggsy. In storytelling terms, it’s really Eggsy’s victory we admire.
The single reward given to a woman in the movie is to cheer on the men at the end.
And the movie ends with a male hero being rewarded with anal sex from a princess he rescues.
This is all before considering that every hero is a white male and the two villains are an African-American man with a lisp (Samuel L. Jackson) and a differently abled Arab woman (Sofia Boutella).
It’s also worth noting, as Vanessa Tottle has pointed out, that all the soldiers who face our hero are male. This isn’t to save violence against women either – there are sequences where civilians brutally murder each other and women are murdered in the dozens here. If you’re going to do that, then include some female soldiers, too. Otherwise, you’re not being bold, you’re just being exploitative.
The film makes noises toward being anti-aristocratic, but it’s a bit of a false flag – in the end, the movie trumpets all the values of aristocracy and being member to the ruling class.
As damaging as anything else – and this is leaving the Bechdel realm for the moment – we live in a world where dangerous elements in the U.S. believe that President Barack Obama is a villain who is working to destroy our country at the behest of real-world villains. These real-world villains always belong to non-white ethnicities. The dangerous radicals in the U.S. who believe these things talk openly about assassination.
Very minor spoiler ahead: in Kingsman, the villain Valentine has the ear of Obama and convinces him to help destroy the human race. Two African-American men form a conspiracy to destroy the world. In the end, Obama is killed because of this conspiracy. His head is exploded, albeit in pretty colors, and I can’t help but think back to the last president who died that way. Kingsman wants to play this act off as some kind of joke, but coupled with everything else the movie says and does, it’s dangerous and mind-numbingly irresponsible filmmaking.
Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn have every right to place this kind of thing in their movie. Britain and the U.S. are free countries, after all. But, as the line goes, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism, and the movie they’ve constructed not only fails to work as a movie, it encourages some of the worst and most dangerous misogynistic and political perspectives I’ve ever seen put to film.
I try to find the good and the worthy in everything I see. Even if I don’t like a movie, I endeavor to communicate who will like the movie. Sometimes I come across something that – I understand exactly who will like the movie, and that worries me. It worries me that a movie can encourage perspectives of hatred and ownership by making those perspectives seem heroic. It takes characters who seem weak, attributes them with all the worst better-than-thou attitudes our society has to offer, and rewards them for embracing and exemplifying these attitudes. Kingsman is one of the ugliest, most uncomfortable movies I have seen in my life. It is bitterly disappointing.