A couple of years back, leading lunatic Timur Bekmambetov directed an adaptation of Mark Millar’s Wanted which for reasons probably best explained using $$$ signs dropped the entire story from the comic books and replaced the Fraternity of Supervillains with a guild of homicidal do-gooders who had started out as a fraternity of weavers. Which was not even the stupidest thing about Wanted.
And here we are in 2014 and Mark Millar has joined forces with Matthew Vaughan again and this time there’s a naive young hero being introduced to a secretive society of homicidal dogooders who started out as a tailor shop.
I saw the trailer for this and was hoping that it would be good stupid fun, while at the same time being worried that it had a whole Harry Potter vibe going on; young protagonist goes to spy school and has to fight all the snobby upper class spy students to get the right to be just like them. I worried that all that crap was going to get in the way of the fun movie I’d been hoping for.
I was worrying about the wrong thing. The movie handles the whole learning to be a spy thing well, because while it’s going on, the grown ups are getting on with their jobs and trying to figure out what Samuel L Jackson is up to (no good, as if you had to ask). It strikes a pretty good balance there.
Which freed me up to worry about the politics of the whole thing. There’s a scene around about the end of the second act when Eggsy, our unfortunate hero, has to shoot his dog to pass his final test. The minute I saw the candidates being told to pick a puppy at the beginning of training, I saw this coming; who wouldn’t? But there was one historical organisation which actually pulled this shit for real, and they were NOT the good guys. Which brings me to something I’ve been brooding about for a while now.
Spy movies may be one of the greatest propaganda jobs we’ve ever paid to be flanneled by. Real world spies are grey individuals who find greedy or desperate locals and manipulate them into giving away secrets. Movie spies are glamorous go-getters who murder people almost at random while looking cool as hell. And we lap it up, god help us. But imagine for a second if we actually had those kinds of spy in real life. They’d be like death squads. Unaccountable maniacs running around laying waste to lives and property on the basis of snap judgments while they’re drunk, high, distracted by hot chicks or just plain stupid. In any sane world, they’d be the bad guys, and the governments who employed them would be pariahs. Yet they’re summer tentpole movies.
Why am I even talking about this? Because Kingsman is setting out both to parody those old Bond movies and admire them, right down to nicking one of the dodgiest Bond movie posters ever. It’s un hommage, innit? It’s not just showing us dumb thrills with a straight face and letting us be atavistic for an evening; it’s nodding and winking at the conventions of the movies it’s copying, and forcing me to think about them a bit. Or rather, by not being an actual thrill ride, it’s giving me the free time to think about them a bit.
So, Kingsman, the organisation, is an incredibly well funded death squad set up by the English elite when they got upset about the impact of World War One on their sons and heirs. And it’s staffed by toffs, whose mission statement seems to be “If it looks like it will disturb the natural order of things, kill people until it stops looking that way.” Colin Firth, who is meant to be as cool as hell in the film’s scheme of things, announces that they’re above the politics and bad decisions of governments. So, a self appointed elite, set up to further the interests of the group of uber-toffs whose own idiocy had started the war they were all so bent out of shape about, using ultra violence and enough money to have solved the real problems which ultra violence doesn’t solve.
Surely the film will show us that these people are absurd arseholes who need to be swept aside and replaced by social workers? Nah, don’t be stupid. Their fascist shenanigans are the only hope for humanity. Which is where we come back to shooting the damn puppies. You don’t get to use the SS training manual AND be the good guys.
Stuff that’s fun; Samuel L Jackson, lisping his plans at his hench people (and being in many ways more logical and decent than the good guys; sure his plan is monstrous and insane, but at least it’s an effort to make the world better for everyone left afterwards). Gazelle, whose Oscar Pistorius sabre legs used up the entire CGI budget and were kind of worth every penny only because the actress perched on top of them seemed like a genuinely smart sidekick. Mark Strong being the smartest guy in the room again. The movie having the courage to have utterly ropey CGI for everything but Gazelle’s legs, if only it hadn’t made it obvious that they had no idea what the hell they were trying to say about spy movies. Colin Firth, in general, because he can’t help being marvellous even in something this questionable.
But overall, if you want to see something which hangs together and makes its points while beating all kinds of crap out of people, just watch Kick Ass; same creative team, but with actual creativity.