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Much was made of director Matthew Vaughn’s departure from X-Men: Days of Future Past in late 2012. Many wondered if his issues with Fox would stall his promising career. As it turns out, we need not have worried, for he had something far more exciting up his sleeve.
With Kingsman: The Secret Service, adapted from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book, Vaughn delivers one of the most captivating action movies in recent memory. The film follows “Eggsy,” a young British tough guy played by Taron Egerton, as he is swept up in the world of espionage at the insistence of superspy Harry Hart, played by Colin Firth.
Led by Vaughn’s inventive camerawork, the story plays out at a crackling pace, filled with flashy action sequences bordering but never leaping into absurdity. Vaughn has done excellent work in this realm before, balancing surreal action with sharp wit in the underrated films Kick-Ass and Layer Cake. Kingsman meets every unrealistic physical move with tongue-in-cheek humor, nodding to the James Bonds and Jason Bournes of the world without trying to become one.
One moment might bring a bone-jarring fight, but the next contains references to everything from Pretty Woman to Hemingway to Iggy Azalea. Like Edgar Wright and Guy Ritchie, Vaughn thrives in mixing self-aware superheroics with a charming British style—sophisticated but accessible.
Vaughn needs a talented cast to execute this framework, and he has one with the likes of Egerton, Firth, and an engaging Samuel L. Jackson. Egerton proves more than capable of bearing the leading man’s burden, able to convince as a puppy-wielding softee, tough-talking street urchin, or dapper-dressing spy in equal magnitude. Firth delivers perhaps the most enjoyable performance of his illustrious career, maintaining his dapper Britishness but also thrusting himself into zany combat with playful vigor. His Harry feels indebted to Eggsy’s fallen father, and the actors’ chemistry is clear in moments of all types.
Jackson, though, may be the highlight of the movie, despite his character’s cruel intentions. As an internet billionaire bent on cleansing the world, he lisps and curses his way into a perfectly farcical antivillain: intelligent and clever, but never a true threat to the good guys, flamboyant and personable, but lacking the mean streak to give his dastardly plans any real weight.
Kingsman, as a whole, serves as a refreshing entry in the modernizing world of the action genre. “This ain’t that kind of movie,” multiple characters recite when faced with archetypal scenes witnessed in countless other movies. This one fits into a more pleasing place, standing far from the mindless violence of many a blockbuster but also stopping short of making any profound statement regarding the global politics it gently mocks and undermines.
Jackson and Firth find themselves discussing action movies in one scene, and with tongue dug deep into his cheek, the latter remarks on the matter: “Nowadays, they’re all a little serious for my taste.”
Vaughn, through his players and with his camera, makes this opinion abundantly clear. He’ll leave the Jupiter Ascendings, and maybe even the X-Men, of the world to other directors. They can blitz their audiences with overzealous action and heavy-handed morals. Vaughn takes a subtler route, his love for the action clear, but never without a wink and a smile.