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One of the Ugliest Films I’ve Ever Seen — “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

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.

To Binge and Purge in L.A. — “The Purge: Anarchy”

Purge 2 I found this machete you guys

The truth is, a lot of horror movies could be avoided with the proper application of dobermans and German shepherds. The Purge: Anarchy is one of these movies, a supersized home invasion/midnight chase thriller in which a near-future U.S. government practices population control by allowing the annual 12-hour Purge. During the Purge, all crime is legal and emergency services are suspended. Gangs roam the streets with machetes and assault rifles while snipers crack open a beer and sit on rooftops, legally murdering anyone who crosses their path.

The characters in The Purge: Anarchy, an indirect sequel to last year’s The Purge, are not the best and brightest. If the violent Purge were just an hour away, I wouldn’t choose that as the time to stay late at my job or run to the supermarket. Upon getting home, I certainly wouldn’t postpone putting up my barricade until I’d taken a shower. No, in the reality of The Purge: Anarchy, I’d be at home a day ahead of time with windows barred, a dozen German shepherds at my side, and a pocket full of kibble to ensure their undying loyalty.

Yet if characters don’t get trapped outside during the Purge, there’s no movie. That would be a shame – once it gets over its awkward initial hurdles, Anarchy is a very solid action movie. It borrows from classic disaster films, where a tough, inaccessible hero would be paired with a hodge-podge of regular folks – in this case, our nameless hero (Frank Grillo) is using the night to exact his own vengeance, but his plans are derailed when he rescues a mother and daughter from certain death and finds a bickering couple stowed in the backseat of his armor-plated car.

Purge 2 paging Kurt Russell

In the 80s, this movie would have starred Kurt Russell and an embarrassment of studded leather jackets and neon mohawks. Anarchy plays it less postapocalyptic and with a strong social commentary, coming across as a combination of Escape From New York and The Hunger Games. That said, Anarchy has a surprisingly strong voice of its own and its episodic delivery does a lot to drive home its characters’ growth. The young Cali (Zoe Soul) is particularly stubborn about talking the hero out of his vengeance, while Liz (Kiele Sanchez) is shown to have a determined violent streak that the nameless hero recognizes, but her separated husband Shane (Sanchez’s real-life husband Zach Gilford) wouldn’t have guessed.

If you don’t recognize the performers’ names, it’s because they’re all character actors usually cast in supporting roles. Not having a dedicated lead does a lot to make the group feel real, as if it’s cobbled together from spare pieces.

What people will talk about most is the social satire Anarchy is dripping with. Since not enough Americans take advantage of the Purge, the government subsidizes it by sending in troops to purge low-income, minority communities. It’s a disturbing metaphor to make. It reminds me of New Orleans’ seizure of low-income, largely minority-owned private residences after Hurricane Katrina, evacuees returning only to find their property had been unfairly taken from them. I’d say Anarchy comes off as very liberal – at one point, our heroes are kidnapped and brought to a gala where the wealthy bid on the opportunity to hunt them – but then again, every character’s life in the movie is saved by a gun. While the movie’s overbearing government and ever-present surveillance speak to the fears of some conservatives, it’s also a government targeting minorities and named the “New Founding Fathers of America” which speaks to some liberals’ fear of racism being disguised in the trappings of nationalism.

Purge 2

Overall, I think Anarchy challenges both sides equally. It’ll definitely spark discussions. Its characters win us over, its action is effective and – while it’s not the horror movie it advertised itself as – it is a rousing action movie. And who can blame it? It’s been a dry year for horror, while you can’t spit this summer without hitting a great action movie. And that’s the problem. I recommend the film, but it’s hard to recommend it over other, more colorful action movies. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Edge of Tomorrow are still out there – their messages tighter, their action more compelling. See those first. Then give The Purge: Anarchy a chance.

It’s rated R for violence and language. Its action has a “splatter” moment or two, but otherwise it’s not any worse than you’d see in any number of primetime crime dramas. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go pet my German shepherd.