Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Risky Flicks: Kingsman (The Secret Service)



Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine




The challenge: Oh good, finally, a movie about a white guy who is unfairly ignored by the world which doesn’t appreciate his obvious greatness, and then he learns that because of his father he’s destined to be a great warrior, and kills a bunch of bad guys, and then he feels much better about himself and everyone agrees he’s awesome. Why haven’t they ever thought to do that one before?  


What’s the risk?
  • I thought the two last Mark Millar adaptations I watched --WANTED and KICK-ASS-- were just overwhelmingly unpleasant, idiotic, empowerment-fantasy porn for angry, self-pitying, narcissistic gamergate types. And this is by the same director and the same writer as KICK-ASS, probably my most viscerally hated movie of the last half-decade.
  • The lead character is named Eggsy. And he has a face so aggressively punchable that when Jesus said to, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he went on to specifically add, ”...although, there is this one little broke-ass little bitch Eggsy, and it’s completely OK if you just want to start wailing on him for no reason. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say, I would completely understand and encourage you to do so. I’m Jesus Christ and I approve this message.”
  • KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE is a title which just gets more confusing with each unnecessary added word, and it adds up to a awkward mouthful which somehow still communicates no clear point. Also it ends up that they’re an international cartel and not, in fact, related to the monarchy in any way, so not “Kingsmen” by any comprehensible measure. And while they are sort of a service, I guess, which is secret, the “Secret Service” is already a thing, and they’re not that thing. It’s like if they made a film about a group of English citizens who enjoy collecting antique rifles and called it “Kingsmen: The National Rifle Association.” Technically accurate, maybe, but a bit confusing, don’t you think?
  • Somebody said something about an anal rape joke?
Possible Mitigating Factors:
  • Matthew Vaughn. As much as I loathed KICK-ASS with every fiber of my being, I’ve actually enjoyed everything else he’s done (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, LAYER CAKE, and I haven’t seen it but people keep telling me STARDUST is fun) and was willing to blame Millar for the shitty source material rather than Vaughn.
  • Great cast -- Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Sam Jackson, Michael Caine, and what the hell, Mark Hamill’s in there too!


The Case:
So, this one has plenty of potentially problematic factors that got the ol’ internet predictably riled up. There is a surprisingly nasty conservative streak in there (the bad guys are black, liberal environmentalists, the good guys are aristocratic white Englishmen, and they [spoiler]  kill Obama as a joke, after he is depicted as complicit in mass murder) but again, I just can’t get as mad as the rest of the internet did about that because, come on, it’s just a nasty movie in general, and its desperate desire to offend is so transparent that it’s almost cute. Almost. Like KICK-ASS, the movie is gilded with a regrettable spitefulness that labors under the mistaken impression that going too far is the same thing as being provocative. So it delights in wallowing in embarrassing stereotypes, casual ultra-violence, and played-out misogyny under the proudly waving banner that offending people is the same as telling off the man or subverting the genre. So brave. It’s unappealing, but fortunately it does this on a more desperate, juvenile level than either of Millar’s other two cinematic adaptations; it’s more of a lonely teenager doodling swastikas in his notebook so people will notice him than it is the impotent white rage of a mass shooter that underpins the guiding logic of KICK-ASS and WANTED. It wants to shock you so you’ll think it’s cool, not because it really has any opinions on anything. And ironically, that turns out to be the bigger problem here. But at least it’s a better problem to have than being an inspiring hero’s journey for the angry nerds who aspire to be violent bullies. Baby steps. Plus, again, Mark Hamill’s in it!


Basically, the setup is this: There’s a ultra-secret “service” of upper-crusty white British guys, who are under the authority of no government but have taken it upon themselves to dispatch brutal vigilante justice whenever they feel it will benefit the world as they see it. They have all sorts of James-Bondy gadgets and a lavish HQ/training facility with all sorts of colorfully outrageous trap rooms, etc. But when an agent dies trying to save Mark Hamill, one of their arguably more open-minded members (Colin Firth, APARTMENT ZERO) decides to recruit the son of a fallen colleague, who turns out to be our man Eggsy (Taron Egerton, the upcoming LEGEND with Tom Hardy). Eggsy is as unpleasant a protagonist as they come, with his “U won 2 step up m8?” wannabe attitude and self-pitying sullenness. But Firth, clearly relishing his unusual role as an action hero, more than makes up for it, playing the part with a startlingly precise ear for tone, equal parts superhero swagger and prim English deadpan comedy. Firth has to induct Eggsy into the world of the “Kingsmen” and prepare him for a series of deadly auditions against --you guessed it-- snobby fancy-pants types who have been training for this moment their whole lives (will his streetwise, loose cannon moxie help him outsmart these over-educated prissies? I’ll never tell). You’d think Firth would explain a little more about what’s going on to Eggsy before throwing him in there, but you know how things go. I mean, you literally know how things go, since I think you can probably figure out beat-for-beat what happens with these auditions without me explaining further (side note: apparently the three abilities you need to be a Kingsman are: figuring out to breath air trapped in a toilet in a flooded room, skydiving, and being able to shoot a puppy). Unfortunately all is not well in Kingsman-world, because a nefarious Samuel Jackson has an inexplicable, convoluted plan to kill of most of the population in order to save the environment. Will our intrepid hero be able to solve this problem and avenge someone, possibly his mentor but you never know, it could be anyone, by using violence? Who can say for sure.

Never judge a man til you walk a mile in his gimmicky spy gadget shoes. After that, though, judge away.

This is a pretty dumb movie, but I honestly have to give it this: it’s reasonably well-structured, paced nicely (especially given its 129 minute runtime) and sprinkled with some fabulously executed fight sequences. While obviously you should take the internet’s opinion that this is without doubt the greatest action movie of all time!!!1 with a grain of salt large enough to safely guarantee a steady supply of margaritas well into the next century, I cannot tell a lie, there are a handful of scenes here which are genuinely impressive. Firth, with the generous assistance of a lot of computers, manages to seem wonderfully athletic and graceful as he dances his way through inflicting bodily harm on people using his gentlemanly umbrella as a club, sling, and sword. The action itself is splendidly shot, often in show-offy long “takes” (composed of short takes grafted together with computers, but it looks cool) which depict with loving clarity the gleeful mayhem our heroes are inflicting. There is one scene in particular -- a delirious symphony of ultra-violence set to “Freebird” for no discernable reason other than their spiritual kinship in wild excess, dazzling technical proficiency, and brainless overkill-- which surely has to rank among the most impressive action spectacles of 2014. These moments of inarguable brilliance are somewhat few and far-between --other action sequences are professional but disposable, particularly the laboriously protracted but instantly forgettable climax-- but it would be unconscionable to ignore the nearly peerless strength of Vaughn’s best material here.


Alas, it is his very strengths as a filmmaker that undermine him here. Vaughn has a tremendous talent at creating well-paced, energetic, and entertaining pop entertainment, but here he never quite allows us to be seduced by the world he’s set up. For all the money at his disposal, all his great cast, all his obvious effort to craft a well-structured hero’s journey,* Vaughn keeps insisting throughout the entire film that we shouldn’t bother to take any of this seriously, that the heart of what he’s trying to do is not really to tell a story but to provide structure for a not-especially-pointed parody of the action-spy genre. Every time you start to actually care about the story  -- and you will, because Vaughn’s a terrific scene builder and working with a raft of wonderful actors -- it seems like he can’t wait to ruin it with some dumb hacky reference to another movie which just pulls you right back out again. Just as he did in KICK-ASS, Vaughn seems to think that just adding blood is the same as subverting our expectations, or commenting on the genre -- and he wants us to be never less than fully aware that this is his intention. So every single fucking beat in the movie is accompanied by some stupid postmodern quip meant to remind you how much more self-aware this movie is than the very movies from which it takes all of its best parts.

This is what happens when an Englishman misses tea time.

But just being “self-aware” is not the same thing as actually having anything to say. For a movie that keeps insisting it’s a cheeky parody, it’s just not very funny. The jokes are lazy and sophomoric, and most of its references are so punishingly generic they’d barely stand up as satire in a late-season SNL sketch, let alone a film which obvious thinks it’s being hip and subversive. Jackson’s villain character makes a big joke about how he’s not going to reveal his plan because “it’s not that kind of movie.” Nevermind that this exact postmodern joke is almost as old as that trope it’s mocking, when was the last time you actually even saw a movie do that? Fundamentally, KINGSMAN’s toothless pokes at dusty cliches are not really any more substantial than the dire reference-fest oeuvre of the infamous Freidberg/Seltzer movies, a comparison so toxic that it may well invoke Godwin’s law. Even the basic structure here belies the idea that the authors had any real understanding of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the genre they’re trying to comment on-- how many genre-defining spy thrillers can you think of that are set up as a Campbellian Hero’s Journey? Virtually none. Hence, the parody can hardly be anything but superficial. And superficially, the Bond movies are basically already parodies of themselves. Is there anything more desperately lame than a over-the-top parody of something which was already a deadpan comedy?


So it’s a long movie which consistently seeks to remind us it’s not really about the plot, but then fails to offer any workable alternative theory about what it is about. By default, then, it ends up being about nothing at all, purely an exercise in sound and fury, signifying nothing, not even the most modest aspiration of callow wish-fulfillment fantasy. Even a solidly conservative hit piece would be preferable; I might not like it, but at least it would be something. Here, the prickly traces of angry conservatism sprinkled throughout the plot don’t add up to any kind of meaningful commentary or worldview. Just like the lazily generic Bond references, they sit there stillborn, sputtering in a stew of underbaked ingredients, drowning under the slow pull of a black hole of intention. Just because they’re there doesn’t give them meaning. And no one else ever tries.

See, this looks good but it should be a lot more awesome than it is in context.

Simply being a meaningless, superficial postmodern joke isn’t death for a movie like this. Being an unfunny one is a little more of a problem, but still not enough to sink the whole operation. There’s lots to like here; I mean, thanks to Vaughn’s sharp direction and cast, there’s nearly always something entertaining happening on-screen. But it does seem like kind of a shame that so much talent has gone into something so disposable here. I’m not asking for Shakespeare, but would it have been so untenably unhip to even pretend the movie cares about the plot, considering it takes up so much runtime? This seems like a lot of effort to go through to tell a story, only to keep assuring us it isn’t important and we shouldn’t care. I mean, it actually is a solid action movie when it sets its mind to it -- so why not just actually be an action movie? Why deflect from the one thing it genuinely does well with a much of broad meta winking at the camera? It actually feels kinda insecure to try and have it both ways, like your annoying friend who has to add an uncomfortable “just kidding!” after everything he says if it doesn’t seem to be going over well. But that just immediately deflates any possibility of either the comedy or the drama ever having much punch. The fabled Anal Sex Joke that got everyone so angried up is a classic example. I get that it’s an attempt to subvert the classic Bond double-entendres by instead going the opposite route into artless vulgarity. But what is it doing there, right in the middle of the climax, as things are supposed to be getting exciting? It’s so blatantly referential and so broadly comic that it’s impossible to get too invested in the sequence which follows it -- which happens to be the climax! With this, they exchange any possibility of an exciting, thrilling action sequence for --at best-- a mild chuckle at how rude they’re being. Not a very good trade.


The Verdict:


Well, considering I thought there was a good chance I would out-and-out hate this one, I guess being moderately but legitimately entertained by it is a pretty positive outcome. It’s surely more evidence that Vaughn is a genuine talent, and that in particular his ability to direct strong action sequences has only improved with age. Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that despite all the tools available to him, Vaughn decided to make something so lazy and disposable. He’s still disappointingly hung up on the rather dull idea that simply adding more explicit button-pushing content to tired old genre hokum is A) hilarious or B) subversive. I guess it’s working out for him because these movies have been big hits, but it’s a shame to see an artist with such unusual deftness for the kinetic possibilities of cinema making such uninteresting and uninvolving movies. Here’s hoping this success gives him the confidence to try something with a little more meat. I mean, it doesn’t have to be philosophical or nothing, I’d settle for a movie which can simply stand on its own two feet without having to define itself via what it’s not. Once Vaughn figures that one out, I think he may really have something.

*Even if that just meant in this case lifting the entire plot wholesale from MEN IN BLACK, at least that’s a fine source to steal from.


Mary Poppins could do this too, she just chose not to.

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