A few years back, I decided to sit down and watch The Last Legion. I wanted to see Colin Firth: Action Hero. I’d grown up with seeing him as Mr. Darcy, stuffy romantic lead. So, the idea of him being any kind of action star was a bit ridiculous. I wasn’t wrong with that belief. The Last Legion confirmed my suspicions that he was not meant for sword and sandal action or, possibly, any kind of action role at all. Then, I saw him in the Kingsman: The Secret Service trailer. There was an action role best suited for how I viewed Colin Firth. While I enjoyed the movie and his role in it, there were a few things that left me leaving the theater with a distinct unsettled feeling.
For those who have no idea what this movie is about, here’s a brief synopsis. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is a member of an elite group of agents from an organization called Kingsman. Their code names are taken from Arthurian legend, his is Galahad. After a mission results in the death of a would-be Kingsman, he feels obliged to the young man’s family. He hands them a medal with a phone number and a code phrase to use if they are ever in need of a favor. Fast-forward a few years and the young man’s son, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) is in a spot of bother and decides to cash in on the favor. Thus, he is pulled into the world of international espionage where he must ultimately fight against the villainous Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson).
Thematically, there are a couple of things going on with this move. First and foremost, it’s about class struggle. Eggsy is a lower-class Londoner with few options in life outside of petty crime. When he’s recruited as a potential Kingsman, he’s put up against other young people his age who came from privileged backgrounds. They attended Oxford or Cambridge and had a great many advantages in their lives. Of course most of the other potentials pick on Eggsy for being from the lower rungs of the social ladder. Of course Eggsy proves them wrong.
The classist overtones also apply to the villain’s nefarious scheme to save the world from itself. While Valentine’s plan comes from a well-meaning place, its the way he ultimately goes about it that plays right into the movie’s themes. I’ll say no more here as it’ll head into spoiler territory.
While I ultimately wound up having a number of problems with this movie that I’ll go into in further detail later on, I can’t deny that it’s fun. It is a nice call back to a by-gone era full of snappy dialogue and gadgets. Too many spy movies these days seem to be of the dark and gritty variety. Kingsman: The Secret Service, as more than one person says in the film, “is not that kind of movie.” I appreciate the amount of joy that must have gone into making it.
Stylistically, it’s a slick film with clever editing and well-choreographed action sequences. Right out of the gate, it signals its intent to blend cartoonish violence with just enough realism so as to remind you that the characters’ actions or inaction can have very serious consequences. As this film is loosely based off of The Secret Service, a comic book by Mark Millar, the ridiculous levels of occasionally comedic violence makes a certain amount of sense. Yet it’s that grain of realism that is one of the things that left me feeling uncomfortable. Again, I’ll get into that later.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service, but not as much as I thought I would from the trailers. If you’re into extreme violence and quips, this is the film for you. If you want to know some more detail as to why this movie made me feel uncomfortable, read my final thoughts.
Before I finally talk about what rubbed me the wrong way, I’m going to talk about the obvious: the only not-white people with any speaking roles in this movie are the villain and his henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). If you really wanted to make a statement about class struggles, picking a not-white guy to be your protagonist might be a good start. Just imagine that extra layer of dealing with racism on top of classism. You could do a whole lot with that instead of the stereotypical white guy from the wrong side of the tracks with a massive chip on his shoulder.
Speaking of Gazelle, she’s a double-amputee with a pair of pretty neat bladed prosthetics. They are, of course, used to commit acts of violence. That’s fine. I mean, work with what you’ve got, right? What’s a little wrong about this, though, is how her disability was fetishized in the marketing for this film and, occasionally, in the film itself. It’s just one of those things that makes me sigh and roll my eyes. We’re better than this.
You know what we’re also better than? Rewarding the hero at the end with sexual favors. So, little spoiler here, the villain kidnaps a lot of celebrities and important people as a part of his scheme. While doing the last chunk of world-saving, Eggsy comes across one of the captives. He jokingly asks her if she’d give him a kiss if he freed her. She responds by saying that she’d give him a lot more and ultimately suggests anal sex if he saves the world. With the world saved, he returns to her cell with champagne, two glasses, and (spoiler alert) the film ends with them about to get it on(end spoiler). I understand that this is a classic spy movie trope. The hero always gets the girl. I totally get it. I’m just really disappointed. At least they didn’t have him end up with Roxy (Sophie Cookson), his girl buddy and fellow potential Kingsman recruit. They had a great platonic relationship that was refreshing to see.
Okay, now it’s time for me to tell you what made me feel uneasy. Look, I enjoy ridiculously violent movies. I love a good action film. What was it about the violence in Kingsman that made me feel uncomfortable? That it was so cartoonish while bringing the audience back to a bit of reality.
Now, I’m going to get into heavier spoiler territory because I need to get this off my chest. Valentine’s villainous plan for the world is to stage a cull to lower the number of people destroying the planet. Sure, he means well and a lot of people get on board with this plan because, hey, the planet is overpopulated, right? His plan for dealing with this is to use a technology that sends out waves to raise the levels of aggression in people’s brains while lowering their inhibitions.
There’s this scene where Harry Hart is visiting a church because he’d discovered that Valentine had something to do with it. It’s one of those racist and bigoted sorts of churches so when Valentine flips the violent switch, I found myself cheering a bit at seeing some of these folks put down. As the fight scene continued and I watched Harry easily dispatching these people without a second thought, I started to squirm. At the end, once everyone around him is dead, Harry is finally allowed to come to his senses and come to grips with the carnage he just perpetrated. The look in his eyes and the sense of betrayal emanating from him was just awful. Firth did so well at showing us just how terrible Valentine’s device really was. He couldn’t truly live with himself after what he’d been made to do and, fortunately, he didn’t have to.
The final confrontation of the movie is what left me feeling the worst. Eggsy is in the villain’s base as Valentine is about the activate the technology he’d cleverly deployed on a global scale. He and the Kingsman science guy, Merlin (Mark Strong), are faced with impossible odds and end up using Valentine’s own technology against his forces by activating implants Valentine had installed in his allies. These implants cause each and every one of his allies’ heads to explode in a burst of fireworks. This is all accompanied by “Pomp and Circumstance.” I’m not going to lie: I giggled.
Once they get those folks out of the way, Eggsy and Merlin realize that Valentine and Gazelle are still alive and about to push the doomsday button. So, Eggsy has to take care of them once and for all. He asks Roxy to call his mother to tell her to lock his baby sister in the bathroom and throw away the key while separating herself from his asshole step-father. Then, it’s time for him to deal with Valentine.
It’s not easy getting to Valentine as he has to go through Gazelle first. They have this epic, crazy combat. While that’s going on, the film flips back to glimpses of what’s going on in the outside world. People are turning on each other on the streets of London, in an American baseball stadium, on the beach in Rio, and all over the rest of the world. Most importantly, they show Eggsy’s mother trying to break into the bathroom where Eggsy’s toddler sister is sitting in her stroller just looking terribly confused.
The fight scene continues and Eggsy’s mom gets a cleaver from the kitchen to start hacking at the door. Eggsy’s sister starts to cry. The fight continues and Eggsy’s mother is in the bathroom with the cleaver and the screaming baby. The fight finally ends and Eggsy’s mom drops the cleaver and stares at her hands in horror as she realizes what she’d nearly done. The baby sister is saved and comforted by her mother and all seems right in that little world.
It was bad enough seeing what nearly happened to Eggsy’s baby sister, but it was worse when I started thinking about all of those other kids around the world whose parents went inexplicably crazy. I started wondering about all of the people who may have killed those they loved the most due to Valentine’s anger machine. I just kept thinking about all of those people with blood on their hands and no way to explain what had just happened.
I still love violent movies. There’s always going to be something about a great action sequence that will get my adrenaline pumping in a good way. What I think made my experience with Kingsman so uncomfortable was the way the violence walked the fine line between cartoony and all-too-real. In films with widespread violence, the line is often far enough apart that I can easily shut off the part of my brain that starts thinking about the consequences of craziness on screen. The line was just far too near for me in Kingsman.
Did I like it? Yes. Would I watch it again? Probably now that I know what I’m getting into and can be better prepared emotionally.