Have you ever wondered what would happen if the Knights of the Round Table had been secretly revived to protect the world from evil-doers? No? Well, neither have the creators of Kingsman: The Secret Service, a limp action film about a highly secretive intelligence agency whose operatives are named after figures from Arthurian legend. Apparently naming the man in charge of the Bond-like gadgets “Merlin” is as much magic as the filmmakers wanted—or at least allowed themselves—to muster. The allusions go no deeper that.
The movie centers on the tutelage of Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), a thug-in-the-making who had grown up in a London slum, fatherless, and is currently suffering the “What have you got?” phase of his rage against the world. Harry Hart, a.k.a. “Galahad,” played by Colin Firth with just enough restraint to remain charming, sees a goodness inside Eggsy—who is the son of a Kingsman who had sacrificed his life to save Galahad (this is unknown to Eggsy, of course)—that Eggsy himself no longer sees. So Galahad trains Eggsy to become one of the Kingsman, an organization that’s a hybrid of a James Bond type of secret service and the Men in Black.
Eggsy’s training as a Kingsman is a strange undertaking that amps up the theatricality of boot camp with a budget, complete with crazy locales and outlandish tests, like the one where the recruits are asked to sky dive only to be told, as they plummet through the air, that one of the parachutes doesn’t work—come to think of it, perhaps the Kingsman recruits are actually on a reality TV show. Not long after Eggsy begins his training, it becomes clear that billionaire philanthropist and Internet mogul Richmond Valentine is actually an evil genius with a scheme to stop global warming by killing the vast majority of humanity. Suddenly, the training becomes very real.
Well, not too real. The movie has no foot in reality. Unsurprisingly based on a comic book, The Secret Service, the movie follows the template of a James Bond movie reduced to the even cartoonier outlines of superhero stories—so, really, not unlike a James Bond movie, especially those latter-day Roger Moore ones. Moonraker anyone? The plot of Kingsman is so ridiculous that it is inconsequential, leading one to suspect that it is an outright spoof of Bond movies. But, to paraphrase Homer Simpson regarding the Police Academy movies, I didn’t hear anybody laughing. Neither spoof nor full-blooded action film—most of the fight scenes, for all their violence, are too familiar to carry the weight of the film—the drama and the humor of Kingsman is drained of life in its uncertainty.
Central to the problem might be the villain, Richmond Valentine. Jackson, an actor usually known for his gravitas, plays Valentine as a nerd, a full-grown Pointdexter, his baseball hat askew, wearing oversized glasses that seem to double as computer screens ala Google glass, and uttering his maniacal nonsense through a speech impediment. If the fact that Valentine has some deadly toys at his disposal makes him sound chilling, he isn’t. Instead, he comes across as a petulant child in a man’s body. So forceful is the effect that one suspects he represents the fanboys who, with the intensity of protracted, middle-aged adolescence, lash out with fury when, say, Batman’s costume is altered for a future film in ways that do not meet their Procrustean ideals. Perhaps, one hopes beyond measure, the movie is actually a pointed satire of the dictatorship of the nerd currently ruling American cinema, threatening to crush any remaining pockets of cinematic resistance.
But there’s nothing that coherent in Kingsman. In fact, nothing in the film is more coherent than the appropriation of Arthurian names for characters who do not act with more than a scintilla of the moral uprightness possessed by the Knights of the Round Table. The Kingsman aren’t trying to find the Grail that will heal the ailing heart of their nation, or even the world, purifying themselves in their quests—or risk bedevilment if not—so they can be worthy of attaining the Grail. Instead, the Kingsman fight with terrorists or battle evil geniuses bent on global annihilation. More tellingly, they antagonize common bullies and then, when the bullies respond, beat the living daylights out of them. They’re not saviors. They’re bullies too. Who is the one who can extricate Excalibur from the stone and save us from them?