While the action espionage genre has stayed on the same course for years now after films like Casino Royale and The Bourne Identity, there have always been those who think this kind of story shouldn't be taken too seriously. So despite the popularity of those big franchise releases (even if some of their sequels vary in quality) it's not surprising that someone came along to do a different take on all of this and meet that demand, and since Matthew Vaughn is better known now for Kick-Ass than Layer Cake it's even less surprising this is another loose adaptation of a comic series. Dark and gritty this is certainly not, in fact at times is rather gaudy and ridiculous. But this is an action film with spies and plenty of death and destruction, so does this all fit together properly as a fun blockbuster ride?
Kingsman is full of gadgets, silly lines and colourful characters with Colin Firth's gentlemen spy Galahad and his protégé facing off against Samuel L. Jackson's lisping techno mogul. While they do openly avoid certain clichés that you'd expect in say a film starring Roger Moore, at other times they fall right into those old tropes which have been missing from the current breed of action thrillers. Best of all is Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, the obligatory muscle - complete with an improbably gimmick in the form of razor sharp prosthetic legs. Now if this sounds pretty silly it's because it is, but this is no Sunday afternoon adventure movie as they have filled it with bloody death, crude jokes and foul language. It's refreshing to see them go in this direction when so many comic book movies are lacking teeth, but at times this does clash with the tone and this is the main issue with the film.
Most of the plot is taken up with a standard rags to riches story about diamond in the rough Eggsy, a down on his luck young man with lots of squandered potential just waiting to be utilised. He starts trouble, hangs out with the wrong crowd and gets involved with crime, it's pretty basic stuff. He get's recruited and finds out his father was someone that rose above all of this, and they segue pretty quickly into a training school second act complete with upper class bullies and life and death testing methods. Michael Caine's Arthur and Mark Strong's Merlin add a good amount of character to the Camelot themed secret society while overseeing the selection of a new agent Lancelot. There are some tense set pieces and flashy action beats both inside the school and on the mission to investigate Jackson's multimedia empire, and the level of bloody but cartoonish violence continues throughout.
The problem is that the grim side of life starts to seep into the primary coloured romp that's been set in motion and over the top popcorn action clashes with domestic violence. The opening is in fact a good example of this disconnect as a brutal military interrogation begins straight after a scene scored against an upbeat guitar riff. It's an odd situation when you start to think they should have been more humorless or stuck with the comedy vibes more strongly. The tone of X-Men First Class was never too campy which meant sure that the more shocking scenes of revenge worked better within the rest of the film. In the end like Kick-Ass this is crass fun, but it's flimsy and probably just worth a one time viewing.
Paul Thomas Anderson returns to both a period setting and using Joaquin Phoenix as his leading man in this tale of crime, mystery and stoners. Like his last release The Master this has a strong cast, plenty of good performances and an impressive look which fits with the backdrop of L.A. in 1970... but elsewhere feels lacking as a narrative. Phoenix plays dope smoking private investigator "Doc" Sportello though if he held any medical credentials I could not tell you. He gets himself involved in a case involving his ex-girlfriend, a missing business man, a secret dentistry organisation and a white supremacy group; but how all this fits together as a coherent detective movie isn't entirely clear.
Maybe this is all just a simple story told in a overly complex way much like the big screen adaptation of Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, but unless you have a eureka moment it all feels like mystery for the sake of it. Some scenes almost seem like they are being shown out of chronological order, but it isn't clear if that was the intent. A lot of this is still enjoyable to just sit back and watch, and often the film feels like it's branching into comedy with Josh Brolin's failed TV actor/real cop facing off against the less disciplined P.I. and even an appearance by Martin Short. Maybe they just wanted to have so much smoke and mirrors that it feels like a drug addled journey in itself a la Fear and Loathing. But it's not completely successful in either case.