Sometimes, even campy spy thrillers can have hidden depths.
Now, Kingsman: The Secret Service doesn’t claim to be anything more than disposable popcorn entertainment. Such films have their place in the cinematic pantheon, and Kingsman happens to be very good at what it does. It’s two hours of high-octane action, with amazingly well-choreographed action sequences that remind me of Edgar Wright’s frenetic camera work. As a super-spy film about a super-secret group of highly-trained operatives operating at the ‘highest level of discretion’, it is also wonderfully camp in a way that good-naturedly mocks the stolid seriousness of the more recent Bond films, complete with outlandish spy gadgets and eccentric villains. While the plot might not be particularly innovative, it is still very serviceable and self-consciously avoids many of the tired cliches of similar spy films, while gleefully lampooning others. If Kingsman becomes a franchise, it could well fill the campy-spy-thriller niche left behind by such gems as Austin Powers and the earlier Bond films. This debut is by any standard superior to anything ever featuring Pierce Brosnan, for example.
Kingsman , however, hides within its violent, popcorn-popping stylishness surprising depth. I’d describe it as an almost Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy against politicians and the global elite, the 1 percenters of the world. The main villain, Richmond Valentine, is a flamboyant, lisping billionaire who plans a cull of the world’s population in order to stave off the effects of global warming. He does this by way of giving everybody on the planet free SIM cards that, on a certain signal, sends out auditory signals that cause people to become mindlessly aggressive and attack everything on sight. To the elite, he offers them implants, installed in the back of the neck, that render them immune to the signal, but contain a tiny bomb that acts as leverage against them, and invites them to his mountain sanctuary to hide as the rest of humanity turns upon itself.
So our Kingsman heroes rush in to save the day, naturally, and hack into the villain’s mainframe computer to stop him from sending out the signal that will turn everyone into deranged killers. But, in doing so, they issue a command to detonate every single implant installed in Valentine’s collaborators.
This follows with a scene where we see the heads of world leaders and the global elites all over the world explode and disappear into firework-like puffs of multicolored smoke, in eerie synchronicity, played to celebratory, triumphant music. In the end, Valentine’s paranoia has caused the deaths of all the world’s elite, paving the way for the final showdown between our hero and Valentine.
I think this scene was meant to be satisfying and cathartic, and your mileage might vary, but the movie’s set-up was meant to convince viewers that these people were all in on the plan and therefore despicable for even countenancing such a horrific plot. But the specifics of Valentine’s scheme itself are oddly reminiscent of a kind of Marxist interpretation of structures of power in nation states in the real world. Valentine wants to use signals transmitted from ubiquitous mobile devices to cause people to fight and kill each other for some imagined greater good. In the real world, during times of war, political leaders use rhetoric and propaganda, transmitted through the free and public organs of the state’s broadcasting infrastructure, to galvanize their people to fight and kill other people for the greater good of the state. Valentine’s plan is outlandish and diabolical, but it hits surprisingly close to home. No wonder the exploding heads scene has such cathartic power. It is the comeuppance of the detached elite who would send common people to their deaths to prop up the power structures that sustain them. Furthermore, our hero Eggsy is the antithesis of the Kingsman agent of old – a working-class kid who nevertheless has talent, picked up from his ‘common’ existence to become an elite agent in the James Bond vein – and his rise represents a kind of rise of the common people against the aristocratic power structures of old. This is assuredly a film about class warfare, with co-opted and educated members of the working class as vanguards of the revolution.
Of course’s there’s further irony in that Hollywood is one such propaganda organ, and by consuming this fare, we might as well be subscribing to the extant power structure, as a means of venting the vox populi upon the catharsis of the film, thereby reconciling them to their drudge as capitalist cogs. But that’s too meta and critical-theory-esque a rabbit hole to go down for this review.
The other thing worth discussing is the film’s treatment of global warming. The villain does what he does presumably as an extreme, last-ditch solution to anthropogenic global warming. What I find problematic about this is that while the protagonists save the day, the film doesn’t actually treat with the underlying problem of global warming. Global warming is a McGuffin that propels the plot, but in the end, it is discarded and never actually discussed as a real problem. In ignoring global warming as anything other than a convenient plot device that motivates the villain, it is trivialized. Now, obviously this isn’t a problem, given that this film isn’t a treatise about global warming or anything so weighty, but it does disturb me as being a possible part of a greater narrative that dismisses concerns over global warming as the preserve of paranoid doomsayers who would countenance any action, no matter how extreme, to resolve it.
Two more random notes: The villain’s name is Valentine, and the film was released in time for Valentine’s Day weekend. Coincidence?
Also, the film was adapted from a comic book in which Mark Hamill, as himself, is kidnapped by terrorists at the start of the comic. In the film, Mark Hamill has a cameo where he plays a professor who is kidnapped by Valentine at the start of the film. That they got Mark Hamill to feature in the film as a crotchety and timorous British climatologist (using a variation of his Joker voice) is weirdly awesome.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 grenade lighters