Saturday, July 29, 2017

Stubs: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) Starring: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Michael Caine Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Screenplay by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn. Based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons. Produced by Matthew Vaughn, David Reid, Adam Bohling. Run Time: 129 minutes. United Kingdom/USA. Color. Espionage, Action, Comedy

There is never enough time to see everything when it is first released, so sometimes you have to play catch up. The pending release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) provided the incentive to finally take a look at the original film.

In espionage films, the James Bond series may be considered the gold standard. Not only has it been ongoing for more than 55 years and 26 films, but it embodies what audiences want in their spy films: girls, villains, special effects and girls (and yes, I meant to include it twice). The problem for Bond is that it seems to be caught up in 1950s ethics. The films have become tame if not dated when compared to other films that are trying hard to knock it off its pedestal. As an example, they never are rated higher than PG-13.

Kingsman: The Secret Service shows what would happen if you make an R-rated Bond film. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from mayhem, multiple murders and even a little nudity at the end thrown in to cover, or uncover all the bases.

The film opens with a raid in the Middle East in 1997.

The film opens with a 1997 raid in the Middle East. During the intensive interrogation, the prisoner sets off an explosive device and secret agent Lee Unwin (Jonno Davies) sacrifices himself to save his team. Blaming himself, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), code-named "Galahad", delivers a medal for valor to Lee's widow, Michelle (Samantha Womack), and his young son, Gary "Eggsy", saying that if they ever need help, they should call the phone number (which is the date of Lee's death) on the back of the medal. He gives them a code phrase to say "Oxfords, not Brogues" so he will know it's them.

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) offers an agent's widow (Samantha
Womack) a medal for her husband's bravery.

Jump ahead seventeen years. Professor James Arnold (Mark Hamill) is kidnapped by Internet billionaire and philanthropist Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and taken to a remote mountain villa. One of Hart's fellow agents, "Lancelot" (Jack Davenport), attempts a rescue single-handed and is 98 percent successful, killing everyone in the room. But when his back is turned, he is killed by Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), Valentine's henchwoman. She wears a pair of prosthetic legs that are specially sharpened to double up as blades. She literally cuts “Lancelot” in half from head to toe.  She makes sure to cover all the bodies before Valentine’s arrival, as the sight of blood makes him nauseous.

Professor James Arnold (Mark Hamill) is kidnapped by Richmond Valentine.
Valentine shares Arnold’s concerns about global warming, but we’re still vague about his intentions at this point. The billionaire continues to meet secretly with various power-brokers and celebrities, some of whom go missing afterward. He also makes a Steve Jobs-like announcement giving away SIM cards which will work in any phone and will grant free cellular and internet access to everyone forever.

Meanwhile, in London, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is now an unemployed young man living at home with his mother, infant half-sister, and abusive stepfather, Dean (Geoff Bell). Despite being highly intelligent and capable, he left training for the Royal Marines and lives an aimless life, accompanied by a couple of friends. When one of Dean’s goons (Velibor Topic) forces them to leave their pub, Eggsy nicks his keys on the way out and he steals his car. The police arrive immediately and Eggsy is forced to drive backwards through the streets of London. When finally cornered, he kicks his two friends out of the car and then runs it head on into the police car that had been following him.

At police headquarters, The Interrogator (Richard Brake) can’t get Eggsy to give up the names of his accomplices. Instead, Eggsy insists on making his call and dials the number on the back of the medal he still wears around his neck. He nearly fumbles the call until he remembers the phrase "Oxfords, not Brogues," which gets him immediate attention and he is sprung from jail.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) calls Hart to get him out of police custody.

Waiting for him is Hart, who tells Eggsy that his father was an agent of Kingsman, an "independent international intelligence agency" founded in 1919 by wealthy British individuals who had lost their heirs.

While they're having a drink, Eggsy's step-father's henchmen encourage the two to leave the pub.

While they are talking at Eggsy’s pub, Dean’s henchmen come in and try to chase Eggsy off. But Hart has other ideas, locking them inside while he dispatches them.

Hart locks the door of the pub as he prepares to teach the men a lesson in manners.

Lancelot’s death means the agency has a vacancy and Eggsy is Hart’s handpicked candidate. There are others, including a woman named Roxy (Sophie Cookson), with whom Eggsy becomes friends, but not lovers.

Merlin (Mark Strong) addresses the candidates for the open Kingsman position.

Training is a sort of combination boot camp elimination process run by one of the senior Kingsman, “Merlin” (Mark Strong). Through the rigorous selection process, the other candidates are eliminated one by one, leaving only Eggsy and Roxy as the final candidates.

The boot camp presents the candidates with various dangerous
circumstances they have to overcome to survive.

While the selection process is going on, Merlin notes that Arnold is no longer missing and Hart tries to extract information from him. But a chip implanted in Arnold's head explodes, killing him. Hart is injured escaping from unknown assailants.

Turns out the signal that triggered the blast can be traced to Valentine's corporation. Hart, posing as a billionaire, dines with Valentine to try to ascertain his plans.

Hart pretends to be a billionaire and sups with Valentine (Samuel L.
Jackson) over Big Macs and fries. Valentine's assassin, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), observes.

Later, when Hart takes Eggsy to the tailor shop that is the front for the Kingsman’s operations to have him fitted, the dressing room is occupied, so Hart gives his charge a tour of the weapons the organization uses, a la Q used to do for James Bond.

Afterward, it is revealed that the man in the dressing room is Valentine. Hart, keeping up appearances, passes Eggsy off as his new valet.

The final test involves them shooting a dog that they have been caring for during their training process. Eggsy can’t bring himself to kill his and fails the test. Roxy doesn’t have his compunction and passes hers to become the new Lancelot.

Arthur (Michael Caine) presents Eggsy with the weapon for his final test.

When he’s dismissed, Eggsy steals a car and goes to confront Dean. But before things come to blows, Hart recalls the car and brings Eggsy to him. There, Hart informs Eggsy that the guns were filled with blanks, which neither candidate knew beforehand.

At a church in Kentucky, Hart gets caught up in Valentine's test run of his tone.

Later Hart tracks Valentine to an obscure hate group's church in Kentucky, where Hart realizes too late that it is a trap. Valentine using his SIM cards to broadcast a tone that causes everyone in the church to become uncontrollably violent. A brawl to the death erupts, during which Hart massacres most of the people in the church, leaving him as the sole survivor. Eggsy, Merlin and Chester King (Michael Caine), "Arthur," the Kingsman's leader, watch separately via video links.

Eggsy watches through a video link.

After emerging from the church, Hart is confronted by Valentine, who shoots him in the head, seemingly killing him, to everyone’s horror.

Valentine and Gazelle are waiting for Hart when he emerges from the church.

When Eggsy goes to see Arthur, he notices that he has the same scar behind his ear, just like Valentine's other converts. Arthur pours Eggsy a glass of brandy containing a poison which is activatable, but Eggsy had distracted Arthur and switched the glasses before they drink. Arthur explains Valentine's views to Eggsy that humanity is akin to a virus, and global warming is the Earth's equivalent of a fever.

Arthur gives Eggsy a brandy that is supposedly laced with poison.

Valentine intends to broadcast his "neurological wave" worldwide to cause a massive culling of the human race in an effort to rescue it from extinction. Only those whom Valentine deems worthy of living — his allies, who have protective microchips implanted in their heads, and the VIPs who didn’t go along, but whom he kidnapped — will be spared. We’ve already been introduced to such a pair, Morten Lindström, the Swedish Prime Minister (Bjørn Floberg) is a willing ally, while Crown Princess Tilde of Sweden (Hanna Alström) rejects his overtures. Lindström gets a chip, while Tilde, whom Valentine otherwise likes, is put into protective custody.

Shortly after explaining Valentine’s plans, Arthur activates the poison when Eggsy refuses to join his side, unwittingly killing himself.

Unsure whom he can trust, Merlin enlists Eggsy and Roxy to stop Valentine on their own. Roxy is given the job of riding a high-altitude balloon into the stratosphere to destroy one of Valentine's satellites, while Eggsy and Merlin go to infiltrate Valentine’s mountain bunker complex in Argentina.

Roxy, who must overcome her own phobias (we’ve already seen her have trouble with high altitude sky-diving) and equipment malfunction, manages to down the satellite, but Valentine gets a business contact to loan him one of his, so the broadcast gets back on schedule. He then activates the signal which requires his constant palm print, causing worldwide violence. One of those affected is Eggsy’s mother, who, after locking her baby in a room and throwing away the key, tries anything she can to get in the room.

Merlin helps Eggsy infiltrate Valentine's fortress.

Eggsy, who has gained admittance, is recognized by one of the Kingsman candidates whose family has thrown in with Valentine. Exposed, Eggsy engages in a running shootout with Valentine's henchmen. During a break in the fight, he finds Tilde, who promises him sex if he frees her.

Merlin sets off the little explosive devices in everyone's heads.

Even though he seems to be winning, Eggsy is eventually outnumbered and both he and Merlin find themselves surrounded separately. Eggsy suggests that Merlin hack into Valentine's system and he sets off the implants, which kills Valentine's henchmen and every convert when their heads explode. All that is left are Valentine and Gazelle, neither of whom have the implants.

Gazelle and Valentine are the only ones without implants.

But in order to get to Valentine, Eggsy must first kill Gazelle, which he manages to do after a fierce and intense fight with her. He then spears Valentine with the sharpened tip of one of Gazelle's prosthetic legs. As Valentine falls to the floor and dies, the signal is cut off, ending the worldwide carnage, including Eggsy’s mother, who now comforts her daughter.

Princess Tilde of Sweden (Hanna Alström) promises Eggsy sex
if he frees her and when he saves the world he comes to collect his prize.

While Merlin watches through a camera on Eggsy’s person, Eggsy goes to collect his prize from a more than willing Tilde. When things get down and dirty, Merlin turns away.

The main story may have ended, but there is still a thread to finish off. In a mid-credits scene, Eggsy, now a Kingsman, offers to take his mother and half-sister to a new home. But Dean doesn’t like his suggestion and his henchmen prepare to take Eggsy on, he then dispatches him in exactly the same manner that Hart dealt with one of Dean's henchmen earlier.

Director Matthew Vaughn does a really good job of keeping what could have easily turned to chaos moving forward in a cohesive way. He manages to give us violence and comedy in the right mix and while there are special effects in the film, he does keep the focus squarely on the characters and the story. The fact that he would cast a virtual unknown in the lead shows a certain bravery missing from many films and he was fortunate that the risk paid off.

Kingsman: The Secret Service had its premiere at something called Butt-Numb-A-Thon, an annual film marathon held in Austin, Texas on December 13, 2014. The film had its theatrical release in the UK on January 29, 2015, and finally in the US on February 13, 2015.  Made on a budget of about $81 million, the film would go on to make $414.4 million worldwide. Likewise, the film got mixed to positive reviews, though it did well enough to garner a sequel, Kingman: The Golden Circle, due out later this summer.

A lot of this has to do with the casting of Taron Egerton, a relative unknown as the lead, Gary "Eggsy" Unwin. While Egerton was more accomplished going in, casting him was similar to the casting of Harry Potter lead kids. There is a certain amount of luck in getting the right person so early in their career that you can hang a series of films on them. Egerton is a genuine talent managing to play both a street thug as well as a sophisticated international agent.

He also manages to hold his own alongside the very talented Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong and Michael Caine. Firth has been acting since 1983 when he was cast as Guy Bennett in the West End production of Another Country. Perhaps his best-known film is The King’s Speech (2011), for which he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Prince Albert, Duke of York, later King George VI. Harry Hart a.k.a. "Galahad" is almost the antithesis of that role. While still polished, Hart can do battle with the best of him as the centerpiece in one of the film’s best-choreographed fight scenes. The only one who can stop Harry is Richmond Valentine played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Jackson began his film career with 1972’s Together for Days, though he didn’t get on everyone’s radar until films like Pulp Fiction (1994) when he played the bible-quoting assassin Jules Winnfield. Since then he seems to have been everywhere, appearing in such films as Zeus Carver in Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995); Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown (1997); Lt. Danny Roman in The Negotiator (1998); Mace Windu in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002); before playing Nick Fury in the MCU in such films as Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), not to mention pitchman for Capital One credit cards. Jackson’s Valentine is the personification of Silicon Valley liberalism run amok. Somehow the lisp that Jackson uses when delivering his lines makes him even more sinister.

If Jackson seems to be in every movie, Michael Caine has been. Caine has been working in films since Panic in the Parlour (1956), though he didn’t really become an international star until films like Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966). He seems to be equally comfortable playing leads like Harry Palmer, a role he would play in a series of films, and Alfie Elkins, to playing in ensembles like Elliot in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) to playing supporting characters like Alfred Pennyworth in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. He has been nominated for six Academy Awards, winning for Best Supporting Actor in Hannah and Dr. Wilbur Larch in Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules (1999).

Michael Caine plays the head of the Kingsman, Arthur.

Here, his turn as Chester King / Arthur is more reliant on his reputation than his actual acting as he does little more than sitting at a table through most of the film. Still, a sedentary Caine is better than most anyone else.

Algerian-born Sofia Boutella makes for one of the more unique henchmen in recent films. A hip hop and street dancer at the beginning of her career, she puts her talent to good use as Gazelle, who wears knife-sharp prosthetics and has the moves to make them deadly. Boutella is good as a villain, a type she would play again in the harshly criticized The Mummy (2017).

Mark Hamill’s brief appearance in the film is one of the few remnants from the original comic book, The Secret Service by Mark Milla and Dave Gibbons, it is based on. In that book, the kidnapping of actor Mark Hamill is the catalyst for the story, so it only seemed natural to have him appear in the film version, even in another role.

While I have not yet read the graphic novel on which the movie is based, it seems that like RED, it is the concept that seemed appealing to the filmmaker and less to do with the actual story in the book.

I can honestly say that I am looking forward to the sequel. The original film is adult, witty and has enough action to keep most summertime moviegoers happy. This is what a Bond film should feel like, though all too often that franchise gets bogged down by trying to fulfill expectations while protecting its brand. Such is not the case here, as the film manages to both parody the spy genre while presenting a high mark for future such films to try to attain.

I will also admit I had some apprehension about Kingsman: The Secret Service. “Just what the world needs, another would-be Bond,” but having seen it, I feel very enthusiastic in recommending it. While I know almost nothing about the sequel, except what you see in the trailers, I would recommend watching Kingsman: The Secret Service before going to see it. Trust me, you'll enjoy it.

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