20th Century Fox
Over the course of director Matthew Vaughn’s career his love for James Bond has rang loud and clear. In Vaughn’s debut feature, Layer Cake, the suave anti-hero, XXXX (Daniel Craig), wields an old-fashioned gun with an ultra-cool pose that, for anyone who saw the film before Casino Royale, made Craig seem like an obvious contender for Bond. In the audio commentary for Layer Cake Vaughn mentions how XXXX, during that scene, “wants to be Bond.” Not only does XXXX want to be Bond, but Matthew Vaughn clearly wants – or wanted – to direct Bond. Now Vaughn has gotten his way by making a film that’s about as close one can get to Ian Fleming’s English spy. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, Vaughn has basically directed his own Bond picture, except without any self-seriousness, an anguished hero, or other modern Bond staples.
Mark Millar’s graphic novel, adapted by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, brings the old style of Bond – one-liners, trophy women, and weaponized satellites – to the present day. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is a Kingsman, a super agent with charm, good-looks, smarts and, best of all, manners. It’s not only Hart’s job to save the world in style, but to recruit a young candidate for his secret organization. He has to find the best and brightest, and for Hart, that doesn’t mean someone born into high-society. Hart is more interested in a kid who’s always had to fight, so the spy enlists Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a troublemaker with potential. Eggsy is thrown into the fantastical world of movie espionage.
There’s gadgets, a henchwoman with blades for legs, and a blonde Scandinavian princess in need of saving. The villain, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), also has a fortress hidden in a snowy mountain.
This all may sound more like Austin Powers than James Bond, but it’s the latter. Vaughn’s film takes a few harmless tongue-in-cheek shots at the genre, but also fully embraces what makes the genre great, goofiness and all. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a movie that loves out-of-this-world gadgets, for example. Today’s Bond wouldn’t dare be seen flying around with a jetpack, but the protagonist in Kingsman drops his jaw whenever he’s presented with some high-tech weaponry. Bond’s most prominent gadget nowadays is a gun that can only be fired by him. Some of the world’s finest minds, I’d wager, work for MI6, and all they can come up with is a grip-recoginizing gun? Maybe they think Bond would scoff if they handed him something a little more imaginative or playful.
While Bond turns his brooding and chiseled back on cool gizmos, Kingsman revels in them. There’s a terrific bar fight in the film that pits Hart against a pack of thugs. His weapon of choice: an umbrella. Not just any umbrella, but a bulletproof umbrella with the power to stun or kill his assailants – and, if James Bond had this umbrella, so many of his problems would be solved. It’s played for great comedic effect and makes for the kind of fun we haven’t seen in this genre for a long time. In For Your Eyes Only there was actually an umbrella with steel claws that sprung out once touched by water, and the umbrella in Kingsman is likely a tip of the hat to that weapon and arguably Bond’s glory days.
20th Century Fox
Kingsman: The Secret Service is heavily influenced by the early Bond pictures. Dr. No, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, and From Russia with Love are gorgeous movies. The sets, costumes, and lighting were vibrant, and the locations were often nothing short of spectacular, which is a poppy aesthetic Kingsman emulates with its well-furnished private jets, fancy suits, bold color palette, and grand locations. You Only Live Twice – which is also a film about destroying humanity, except with nuclear war – was an obvious influence in Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, and the villain’s hideout in Kingsman is also reminiscent of that Bond film’s Volcanic layer. If you compare both sets side-by-set, they’re awfully familiar.
Recent Bond films have some of that colorfulness – mostly Skyfall, to an extent – but they generally try to ground the outlandishness with “realism.” Sometimes the new Bond films try so hard to modernize the character they subvert what makes him Bond. In Quantum of Solace, Bond’s charm and allure for women is what gets them killed. His catchy one-liners after killing a henchman are no longer cute in Quantum of Solace, but almost scary. Sometimes he doesn’t even crack a joke after tossing off some baddies, either. This reinvention of the character has served the franchise well – and often to great results – but doesn’t anyone else miss the old Bond? Some of the characters in Kingsman: The Secret Service certainly do.
One of the highlights of Vaughn’s film is a dinner shared by Hart and Valentine, where the adversaries briefly discuss their love of old Spy films. The one thing they agree on is that today’s spy pictures are too serious for their taste. This direct commenting on the genre in Kingsman: The Secret Service is a rarity and never smug or out-of-place, but we hear what they’re saying – that their view of espionage fun is far different than Bond’s or Bourne’s. Those characters rarely seem to enjoy themselves, while the characters in Kingsman are generally having a blast.
Vaughn reminds us that ridiculous toys, plots, and schemes can work, if done well. The Pierce Brosnan Bond films kind of killed that sensibility, but that’s because they handled it poorly. Kingsman: The Secret Service shows us there’s nothing wrong with bizarre henchman, charming a damsel in distress, or cheeky puns and one-liners. They’re great, if properly handled. If there’s a human element to the ridiculous situations, all the better. Goldman and Vaughn, like they did with Kick-Ass, have their cake and eat it to in their approach to the genre, making something both cartoonish and meta and, oddly, human. Elaborating further would spoil some good surprises, but let’s say Kingsman: The Secret Service is at its best in a scene where it deconstructs a classic Bond trope.
Kingsman: The Secret Service shows us a colorful world full of characters we want to learn more about. It’s almost impossible not to want to see Taron Egerton playing this role 20 years from now, one day passing the torch to his successor in the 10th film of the Kingsman franchise. Perhaps Vaughn could even one day take on the Roger Moore-era of Bond. Why didn’t anyone ever confuse old man Bond’s love interests for his daughters in some of those later films? These are the kind of questions I want to see this series explore. This is one of the finest Bond films that just so happens not to star James Bond.
Kingsman: The Secret Service opens in theaters February 13th, 2015.
Related Topics: James Bond, Kingsman