Those more devoted to the genre can debate whether Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service is the best comic-book movie of the past few years. What's beyond argument, however, is that Vaughn has whipped up the most interesting one, the only to make ferocious, unsettling art out of the great contradiction of superheroic fantasy: jolly do-goodism and its brutalizing sadism.
Vaughn's violence here is more florid, ingenious, and giddily amoral than the provocations of Kick-Ass, his 2010 adaption of a comic co-created by Mark Millar, the troublemaking Scottish co-author, with artist Dave Gibbons, of the Kingsman comic series. Kingsman's opening plays like British Sniper meets The Lego Movie: A pair of Taliban in the Afghan desert suffer rah-rah head shots, and then Western helicopters strafe their ancient palace, the rubble exploding out and morphing into the movie's opening credits. Liberals who feel queasy about all that Arab-murdering should know that Vaughn bookends that mission with a climax targeting the worst of the West, the billionaires who might opt in to the just-the-swells new society of Atlas Shrugged's Galt's Gulch — I won't spoil it except to say the scene is wicked and rapturous.
Everything in Kingsman is familiar, cribbed from James Bond and a thousand other sources, yet every setup gets twisted twice, and then once more, just when you think you're ahead of it. Vaughn's mode is parodic, but he stages the killings with joyous vigor — with one key exception, he's gunning for applause, even as what he's showing us would have been read by previous generations as horror. He invests the nastiest elements of kill-'em-all entertainments with giddy invention, going so far over the top that you might worry, as the movie swells up bigger and bigger with its madness, that at some point it must collapse, crashing back into formula, the way most Bond and comic-book movies do. But somehow he keeps the craziness coming, through three or four escalating climaxes. Even the most stale of adventure-tale clichés gets blown up to absurdity: Our lead's reward for his heroics isn't just the usual good-hearted beauty — it's a princess who quite literally promises him her asshole.
Is that a critique of women's roles in men's adventures? Or just a horny-porny updating? As in Kick-Ass, Vaughn and Millar leave you to make sense of their mess, although this time there are some encouraging clues. Kingsman focuses on a fusty British secret service comprising handsomely suited gents who call themselves "tailors" and take pride in not having their heroics make the papers. After a Kingsman dies in the field, spectacularly, the organization — headed, of course, by Michael Caine — must bring in new blood, a batch of promising teenagers who must survive deadly spy-game training. If you wonder why Kingsman's potential recruits are all white, or why the movie blasts its lone heroic female character out to space for the last couple reels, Vaughn and the studio have a wise-ass defense: Blame the British aristocracy!
Colin Firth plays the most enlightened of the Kingsmen, an elegant fellow who can bust up a pub full of yobs with just his umbrella. (Vaughn's fantastic beat-every-bastard-in-the-room scenes have a crowd-pleasing clarity and logic too often missing in this kind of thing — compare them to the "Wait, what just happened?" dust-ups in The Equalizer.) Firth's agent, being a decent chap, takes on young Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as a candidate for the agency, despite Eggsy's glaring unsuitability: The fireplug tough is, after all, a tenement kid aspiring to the poshest of stations. Eggsy gets sneered at by the upper crust all through training, of course, but wouldn't you know it: His street savvy eventually puts him ahead. In Kingsman, as in actual comic books, where everything's going isn't ever in doubt — but just what might happen the next moment always is.
While Eggsy grits his way through an inspired Ender's Game/X-Men: First Class learning-curve plot, Firth's agent swans through a delicious 007 pastiche, one that finds him and Samuel L. Jackson, as the tech-titan villain, openly discussing everything dumb and great about Bond movies — and how much more fun those films used to be. That cutesy stuff is funny, though, and Jackson — lisping and excitable as a Silicon Valley naif who proclaims, "Now, that is a dope-ass top hat!" — is the most hilarious Bond villain since the one Albert Brooks played on that old Simpsons. Sofia Boutella, an Algerian dancer, plays Jackson's lethal Oddjob, stealing and slicing to ribbons every scene she's in.
Here's a warning, though. This might all sound like the usual action-comedy laugh, just with some R-rated language and squib packs. But Vaughn and Millar live to rub our faces in the kind of entertainment we seem to want. So, deep into the film, one of those kill-every-bad-guy-in-the-room sequences becomes something much more harrowing: an unstintingly nasty kill-every-person-in-the-room scene that grinds on and on, capping with a gruesome impalement. The preview audience I saw this with cheered much of the film, but this stunned them — the fascistic, dehumanizing subtext of our million-dollar entertainments laid bare right in the midst of one.
But Vaughn's no polemicist, and he persuades viewers to swallow back their revulsion just a couple scenes later. The next deaths he gets us to whoop to. Samuel L. Jackson's great, here, but Vaughn wittily exposes us as the real villains.