I grew up watching James Bond movies and loved the outrageous tongue-in-cheek spy thrillers starring Ian Fleming’s iconic character. As our society has become more politically correct, the great Bond has been bowdlerized. He seduces fewer women, drinks less, and doesn’t smoke. Worse yet, the fanciful over-the-top plots that characterized Bond films from the 1960s through the 90s have become more gritty and realistic. Most alarming of all, he is slated to be replaced by a woman who is not even an ethnic Briton! Happily, director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman created the Kingsman franchise – The Secret Service (2014) and The Golden Circle (2017) – to fill the void.
First I want to clear up a bit of likely confusion: Though the poster for “The Secret Service” shows several well-dressed British gents, the group’s name is singular. Like spy agencies in real life, the protagonists use a legitimate business as a front for their activities. In this case, it’s the high-end “Kingsman” tailor shop. Like the beloved Bonds of olden days, Kingsman agents are flawless in dress and manners, even when beating the crap out of repugnant villains.
What makes Kingsman unique is that it’s not a tax-supported entity. It is a private organization founded by aristocrats in the early 20th Century. Having lost their sons in World War I, they wanted to leave a legacy, a secret society that would protect the powerless and promote justice. It’s called noblesse oblige, a concept that is sadly out of fashion these days. Warning: spoilers follow!
The story follows an English boy named Eggsy (Taron Egerton), whose father dies in a secret paramilitary mission. The boy’s embittered mother tells him nothing, refuses the organization’s help, and marries a violent loser. Due in part to concern for his mother, Eggsy abandons a promising career in the Royal Marines. When Kingsman agent Galahad (Colin Firth) contacts him, he’s become a shiftless delinquent. Galahad tells him the true story of his father’s death and invites him to vie for a spot in the Kingsman. Eggsy makes it through some harrowing challenges only to wash out at the very end.
Due to extenuating circumstances including the murder of Galahad, he ends up working with Kingsman to stop the film’s larger-than-life villain, tech billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson.) Valentine offers “free phone service” in the form of a brain-implanted chip, which is actually a mind-control device. His true goal is to save the Earth from overpopulation by triggering an orgy of uncontrolled violence in order to kill billions of people
As in classic James bond flicks, Kingsman features some amazing gadgets, my favorite being a weather balloon/spacesuit combination that takes an agent to the edge of outer space to shoot down Valentine’s mind-control satellite. After killing Valentine and saving the day, Eggsy becomes a full-fledged Kingsman operative. He’s been transformed from a scruffy delinquent into the suave secret agent who takes down his abusive stepfather with great panache. He also rescues and wins the heart of a beautiful Swedish princess.
In the sequel, subtitled “The Golden Circle” Eggsy faces another Bond-esque villain, the ruthless drug lord Poppy (Julianne Moore.) While he’s away meeting his girlfriend’s royal parents, an attack on Kingsman headquarters kills most of his comrades. He turns for help to Statesman, Kingsman’s opposite number in America, whose cover business is a Kentucky bourbon distillery.
It’s not easy to top worldwide mass murder, so Poppy’s conspiracy, though audacious and evil, is a bit of a letdown. After her organization corners the market on illegal drugs, she announces that all have been tainted with a timed poison that will kill the many millions of drug users worldwide. These include Eggsy’s meth-abusing best friend and his pot-smoking Swedish fiance. Poppy will release the antidote only if the US Government ends the War on Drugs. Since the right-wing President is loathe to give up power just to save a bunch of addicts, Eggsy must work with Statesman to defeat her and obtain the antidote.
Though the sequel is entertaining, it’s not as exciting as the first. Its premise is a bit too silly even for this genre. Why would an evil drug lord demand legalization, thereby opening up her empire to competition? My second complaint concerns the cameo role of Elton John, playing himself, who’s been kidnapped by Poppy for her personal entertainment. Elton’s lines are embarrassing, in particular, “F*** you, Poppy!” which he says multiple times. Surely such a brilliant artist would have some wittier put-downs.
Note: A Kingsman prequel, The King’s Man, is slated for release in 2020. Let’s hope it’s even more awesome!
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a brilliant spoof that satisfies my nostalgic longing for an action-filled spy thriller. I give it five out of five gears. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is almost as much fun, and despite its flaws, it’s better than most of the movies of 2017. Though it has aspects that annoy me, I nevertheless rate it at four out of five gears.