The gentleman spies in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” have Knights of the Round Table nicknames and use a Savile Row tailor’s shop as their front. Though their job requires deception and violence, they view proper etiquette as a non-negotiable trait of a gentleman, and being a gentleman as a prerequisite for being a spy. Imagine James Bond combined with … well, with Colin Firth, who happens to star in “Kingsman” and is the perfect chap for such a role. I had no idea how much I wanted to see Colin Firth kick butts and shoot people in the head until I saw him do it.
Firth, that beloved paragon of handsome British gentility, surely commits more acts of violence in this film than in all of his other films combined, and he does it with characteristic refined politeness. (“Hail Satan, and have a lovely afternoon,” he tells someone during a melee in a church.) In this lively espionage action comedy directed by Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class”), Firth plays Harry Hart, a top spy in a London-based top-secret spy organization. The agents all wear bespoke suits, and one of their gadgets requires the wearing of thick-framed eyeglasses, so they all look very smart, too. Led by senior agent Arthur (Michael Caine), they are an elite group of elitists, upper-crusters who consider espionage unfit for the lower classes.
One such person is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), an unemployed hoodlum in his early 20s who lives with his abused mother (Samantha Womack) in government housing. Eggsy’s father was a Kingsman who died in the line of fire years ago, and in gratitude for this, Harry Hart takes Eggsy on as his protégé when the Kingsmen set out to recruit a new member. The other candidates, all fellow attractive young people, are to the manor born, and they mock Eggsy’s lack of money and social standing throughout the rigorous training process. (Why they don’t ridicule his stupid name, I don’t know.) The training is overseen by Merlin (Mark Strong), another respected agent of considerable experience, and it involves physical challenges, problem-solving, and puppies.
It’s all very 007-ish, with an amused, self-aware twist, and it’s based on a comic book written by Mark Millar, whose “Kick-Ass” did the same kind of thing for superheroes that “Kingsman” does for spies. That’s especially the case with the villain, billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s squeamish at the sight of blood, speaks with a nerdy lisp, and has a deadly, technology-based plan to counteract the effects of global warming. He acknowledges the tropes of Bond villains and pledges to act differently from his fictional counterparts (yes, he seems to be aware that he’s the villain in this scenario). He also has a girlfriend/henchperson, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who has razor-sharp swords where her lower legs should be. Which is awesome.
In addition to frequently being funny and semi-satiric, the film is very violent, though perhaps not as graphic as it might have been because so much of the bloodshed and mayhem is done with cheap-looking CGI. As a result, when Harry Hart shoots and slashes his way through a frenetic mob — filmed mostly in an unbroken take, the better to appreciate Firth’s commitment to doing as many of his own stunts as possible — it’s more thrilling than gruesome. The level of technical expertise require for such a complicated sequence is impressive, and fortunately isn’t overshadowed by too-realistic gore.
Colin Firth, as mentioned, is ideal as a highly skilled spy who speaks with perfect elocution. He’s well-matched with Taron Egerton, a charismatic newcomer with a background in legitimate theater that helps him to hold his own among his more experienced castmates. Samuel L. Jackson seems to be having fun giving a twist to a familiar role.
It’s best not to take anything here too seriously, or think about it too hard, or read too much into the characters’ motivations and ideas. Though climate change is part of the plot mechanism, there are no cogent statements on how (or whether) to fight it. You’d do well to disregard the sexual politics too, which are mostly innocuous until they suddenly become icky: a damsel in distress, wholly unprompted, eagerly promises Eggsy anal sex if he saves her life. The fact that it’s treated like a throwaway joke only makes it more off-putting. (From the people who made “Kick-Ass.” Who could’ve guessed?) It seems unbecoming for a gentleman, who naturally would rescue a lady anyway, to actually take her up on her offer, but I suppose Eggsy is still learning the rules of appropriate conduct. Apart from a few stumbles like that, the film is a slick, cheerfully violent homage to James Bond and his ilk — the Firth of its kind.
B (2 hrs., 9 min.; )