'Kingsman: The Secret Service'
(Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, et al / R / 129 mins)
Overview: Based upon the acclaimed comic book and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass, X-Men First Class), Kingsman: The Secret Service tells the story of a super-secret spy organization that recruits an unrefined but promising street kid into the agency's ultra-competitive training program just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius.
Verdict: Playing a world-saving and somewhat world-weary superagent, Colin Firth is the epitome of suave, as lethal as he is elegant, in the spy thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service. His sad-eyed heroics ground the comic book adaptation, while Samuel L. Jackson brings the goofball villainy, big-time, as a mad genius who concocts a ticking time bomb of a scheme.
As he did in X-Men: First Class, director Matthew Vaughn strikes an energetic balance between cartoonish action and character-driven drama, though the tinge here is darker, with a story that hinges on matters of climate change, the insidiousness of technology and the class divide. The mix grows less seamless and the story loses oomph as it barrels toward its doomsday countdown, but the cast's dash and humor never flag. And if the movie sometimes panders shamelessly to fanboys, that could serve it well upon its February release, when it goes head-to-head against a fantasy of another persuasion: Fifty Shades of Grey.
Just as the cast combines masterly screen vets and impressive newcomers, the film embraces old-school undercover sensibilities while updating them. A self-contained adventure, as opposed to a franchise-launching introductory chapter, the screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman is based on a comic book series by Kick-Ass writer Mark Millar and Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons (published by Marvel imprint Icon). Like its source material, it uses pop culture references to sharp effect. My Fair Lady, for example, provides an unlikely punch line. And there's more than a touch of Bond — James Bond — in the globe-trotting, London-based escapades.
Kingsman is the name of the Savile Row menswear shop that serves as HQ for an organization of impeccably dressed gentleman spies. Headed by the inscrutable Arthur (an extended cameo by Michael Caine), they're latter-day Knights of the Round Table. Firth's Harry Hart, code-named Galahad, finds a new sense of purpose as mentor to petty criminal Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton).
Sponsoring the teen as a recruit for the Secret Service, Harry's not just trying to save a street-smart kid from a rudderless existence with his troubled mother (Samantha Womack) and her abusive boyfriend (Geoff Bell); he's atoning for the botched mission 17 years earlier that cost the life of Eggsy's dad (Jack Davenport), aka Lancelot.
That mission, a high-body-count fracas involving a kidnapped professor (Mark Hamill) in a ski chateau, opens the film and sets the tone of jokey mayhem and stylized gore. Making flamboyant first impressions in the scene are Jackson's cellphone gazillionaire Valentine and his sleek, murderous assistant, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), named for the flexible-blade prosthetics she wears, a la Oscar Pistorius.
In the present day, Valentine, whose idiosyncrasies include a prominent lisp and a squeamishness about blood that doesn't stop him from wreaking havoc, is preparing to press play on a devilishly logical plan to save the human race from the devastation of climate change. The ultimate showdown grows numbing in its back-and-forth, although the screenplay's clever use of Eggsy's toddler sibling brings home the panic with impact.
Vaughn and Goldman, whose previous screenwriting collaborations include Kick-Ass, root the story's crazy gizmos, including Valentine's use of SIM cards as weapons of mass destruction, in recognizable tech, from biometrics to satellites and mainframes. Watch this film and have a genuine hoot!