In 2012, Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons released The Secret Service, a creator-owned comic book miniseries published by Marvel that was more or less a 2010s version of a 1960s British spy thriller.
The secret service of the comics’ title was called Kingsman, and when Vaughn optioned it, he decided to use that as the main title, as it was a bit more distinctive than the rather generic The Secret Service, though that was maintained as the subtitle.
The story of a young man who is recruited by his uncle to join Kingsman, The Secret Service proved easy enough to adapt to the big screen, especially given the long history of spy thrillers on film.
Vaughn co-wrote the script with his usual collaborator, Jane Goldman, the pair having already worked, not only on the two Kick-Ass films, but also on X-Men: First Class (all directed by Vaughn) and on the story for X-Men: Days of Future Past. The basic story of the comic book was kept intact, though many small changes were made: for example, Eggsy is no longer related to his recruiter and Kingsman is an independent organization rather than part of the British government.
Taron Egerton and Colin Firth star in the film as, respectively, Eggsy and Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad. (All the members of Kingsman have codenames from Arthurian legend. Eggsy winds up inheriting the Galahad codename from Hart.) The supporting cast includes several familiar faces from this rewatch: Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury his own self in many many many Marvel Cinematic Universe films, The Spirit) as Richmond Valentine, the villain of the piece; Michael Caine (the Christopher Nolan Batman films) as Arthur; and Mark Strong (Green Lantern, Kick-Ass) as Merlin. In addition, we’ve got Jack Davenport—who was pretty much born to play a dashing British spy—as Lancelot, Sophie Cookson as Roxy, Edward Holcroft as Charlie, Mark Hamill as the professor, and Sofia Boutella as Gazelle. Originally Gazelle, who is a double amputee, was to be played by an actual double amputee, Amy Purdy, a snowboarder, but when filming was delayed she had to drop out so she could participate in the Olympics.
The film was successful enough to spawn a franchise, both in comics and film. In 2017, a Brexit-inspired one-shot was published in Playboy called “The Big Exit,” and a second miniseries subtitled The Red Diamond was published by Image the same year, retitled Kingsman to better be linked with the movies (the trade paperback collecting the original 2012 miniseries was similarly retitled). A second movie, The Golden Circle, came out in 2017 (we’ll cover that next week), a prequel (The Great Game) is being filmed, an as-yet-untitled sequel is in pre-production, and a spinoff (featuring the Statesmen introduced in The Golden Circle) is in development. Egerton, Firth, Strong, Holcroft, and Cookson will all return for the 2017 sequel.
“Manners maketh man”
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Written by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Produced by Matthew Vaughn, David Reid, and Adam Bohling
Original release date: February 13, 2015
In 1997, three Kingsmen are on a mission in the Middle East, interrogating a terrorist. A probationary agent, Lee Unwin, sacrifices his life to save the other two when he notices a grenade the prisoner was hiding. Unwin’s mentor, Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad, and his partner, codenamed Lancelot, return to the UK and drink a toast to Unwin, and then Galahad brings the bad news to his widow Michelle and young son, Eggsy. Galahad gives Eggsy his father’s medal of valor and says that if he’s ever in trouble, to call the number on the back of it.
Seventeen years later, Lancelot, while on a mission to find out what a team of mercenaries has been up to, discovers that a professor has been kidnapped. He attempts a rescue, and succeeds in taking out the professor’s guards, but is killed by Gazelle, a double-amputee with razor sharp foot prosthetics. Gazelle’s employer is industrialist Richmond Valentine, and she covers the dead bodies in sheets before letting him in, as Valentine can’t stand the sight of blood.
The Kingsmen drink a toast to Lancelot, and the leader, Arthur, instructs everyone to recommend a new recruit to possibly become the new Lancelot.
Eggsy is now a young man, having cut short both a career as a gymnast and a stint in the Marines to care for his mother, who has taken up with a gangster named Dean Bell. Eggsy and his friends get into an argument with Bell’s thugs, during which Eggsy lifts one thug’s keys and steals his car. He’s caught by the police and arrested, and he decides to call the number on the back of his father’s medal.
Released shortly after making that call, he’s picked up by Galahad, who tells Eggsy that his father saved Galahad’s life, and he wishes to repay that favor. They’re interrupted by Bell’s thugs, who wish to remonstrate with Eggsy. Instead, Galahad remonstrates with them, using his bullet-proof umbrella (which is also a modified gun), but mostly just using his mad fighting skillz to take them all out single-handed.
Galahad brings Eggsy to the Kingsman mansion in the country, where half a dozen candidates are gathered to compete for the job of being Lancelot. They include four boys from rich families, and two girls also from wealth—Roxy and Amelia. The training, overseen by Merlin, the Kingsman tech guru, is brutal, and starts with their dorm being flooded, and they have to figure a way out. Amelia doesn’t survive that ordeal, and the candidates realize that this shit is real.
Next, they’re each given a puppy, which they have to care for and train with. Eggsy picks a pug, who is particularly cranky and recalcitrant (but also cute as heck). Eggsy names him J.B. after Jack Bauer (though at one point, Arthur guesses James Bond and Jason Bourne).
Galahad continues Lancelot’s investigation. What’s particularly strange is that he was trying to rescue a professor who was kidnapped—but that same professor was at the university that very morning. Galahad goes to talk to him, but in mid-interview, the professor’s head literally explodes. Galahad himself has to use a grenade to cover his escape, and he is concussed and falls into a coma.
While he recovers, Eggsy’s training continues. The six surviving candidates jump from a plane where they must open their chutes below radar so they’re not detected, and land in the Kingsman logo in the grass. After they jump (Roxy the last to do so as she’s afraid of heights), Merlin informs them that one of them doesn’t have a parachute. Eggsy brainstorms a plan to pair up and each team has one person pull and hold the other one so that whoever’s got the empty chute will be safe. However, one of the boys pulls his chute early, so they get in a circle instead. If someone’s chute doesn’t go off, the person to his or her right will grab them.
It comes down to Eggsy and Roxy, and they hold each other and pull Roxy’s chute very close to the ground, landing right in the logo. Three candidates wash out at this—one opened too soon, the other two missed the logo. Roxy, Eggsy, and Charlie are the last three. (Eggsy is pissed that he was the one without a chute, and then Merlin pulls his chute—turns out he was lying about that part…)
Galahad awakens from his coma. Merlin traced the signal that blew up the professor’s head to a tech firm owned by Valentine—who has just announced that he’s giving away free SIM cards to anyone who wants them, so everyone can have free phone and internet.
Meanwhile, Valentine himself is seen talking to many world leaders about his plans, including the president of the United States, as well as the prime minister and princess of Sweden. The former two go along with it, the latter does not—for her intransigence, she is taken prisoner. Meanwhile, the prime minister and president are both given implants similar to the one given to the professor…
Valentine has not been able to identify Lancelot, despite his and Gazelle’s best efforts, and he’s particularly concerned because he overheard Galahad telling the professor (before his head went boom) that his colleague was killed, so he knows there’s an organization after him. Valentine is holding a gala for the donors to his foundation, and Merlin gets Galahad in as an idle rich gentleman.
Valentine cancels the gala quietly, so it’s just him and Galahad. The meal is from McDonald’s (eerily prescient, that), and the two talk around each other. Galahad also noticed that one of Valentine’s employees had a brochure from a fundamentalist church in the U.S.
The final three candidates’ next assignment is to seduce a woman at a club. They all take their shot, but then their own drinks are drugged and they’re tied to a railroad track, where a nasty-looking man asks them to tell the secrets of Kingsman. Eggsy and Roxy don’t talk—Charlie cries like a baby and tells them everything, so he washes out, too.
Galahad takes Eggsy to a tailor shop on Savile Row to get him fitted for a suit. If he becomes Lancelot, he’ll need it, and if he doesn’t, at least he’ll have a nice suit. Valentine is there also, getting a suit of his own. Galahad recommends a place to get a top hat. In addition, there’s a listening device in the suit, and Merlin monitors it.
The last test for Roxy and Eggsy is to shoot their puppy. Eggsy can’t do it—Roxy does. Eggsy steals a car and drives home. He intends to beat the crap out of Bell, but before he can, the car locks him in and drives him to Galahad’s place. It turns out the gun was full of blanks—if he had tried to shoot J.B., the dog would’ve been fine. Also Amelia is a member of Kingsman tech support in Berlin and is alive and well—they were both tests that seemed real so that the candidates would do their best, but no one was actually hurt, or would’ve been.
Merlin learns that Valentine is going to the church on the brochure. Galahad travels there, leaving Eggsy in his house. Valentine is going to use his giveaway SIM cards to trigger aggression and cancel inhibition in people who are near it. He tests it on the church, and they all start to fight each other. Galahad being much better trained, he kills everyone there efficiently, to his horror. Valentine then shoots him in the face.
Furious, Eggsy goes to Kingsman HQ, where Arthur says they just drank a toast to Galahad, and Arthur offers him a glass of brandy to do a toast also, which bends the rules a bit. After drinking, Eggsy is suspicious of Arthur breaking the rules, plus he saw that Arthur has a scar under his ear like the professor did. Turns out that Valentine suborned Arthur as well, and Arthur also poisoned Eggsy’s brandy. A flick of a fountain pen and the poison will activate and kill him. Arthur offers Eggsy a chance to live and join Valentine, who plans to kill most of humanity, thus saving the planet. The people with implants will survive the SIM card-induced madness that claimed the church.
Eggsy tells him to sod off, and Arthur activates the poison—which kills him, as Eggsy switched the glasses when Arthur wasn’t looking after seeing the scar. He learned sleight of hand at a young age, after all…
He cuts the implant out of Arthur’s corpse’s neck, and also takes his cell phone, which has a countdown clock on it. He brings it to Merlin and Roxy, now officially the new Lancelot. Merlin doesn’t know who to trust, given that Arthur was compromised, so the three of them have to stop Valentine. The chosen few survivors are invited to a mountain redoubt of Valentine’s to celebrate the end of the world and avoid the carnage. Eggsy and Merlin head there in a plane with Arthur’s invite, while Lancelot uses atmospheric balloons to go into the upper atmosphere and destroy one of Valentine’s satellites with a missile, which will stop Valentine’s hysteria long enough for Merlin to break into the system and stop it.
While Lancelot’s part goes off with hardly a hitch, Eggsy and Merlin have a harder time of it. Charlie recognizes Eggsy—his family is rich, and he was among the chosen few to stay safe—and then Merlin discovers that the program that activates the SIM cards is biometric. He can’t hack it.
As a delaying tactic, Merlin sets off the implants the way the professor’s was, and the heads of all the chosen folks explode—including the U.S. president and most of his staff, as well as everyone in the redoubt save for Merlin, Eggsy, the prisoners, Valentine, and Gazelle. The Swedish princess asks to be released, and Eggsy asks if he can get a kiss—he’s always wanted to kiss a princess. When the shit hits the fan moments later, Eggsy says he has to go save the world, and the princess promises to let him have her way with him anally if he saves the world. Okay, then.
Valentine is able to call a friend who owns a nearby satellite and use it to reset the network. Eggsy fights Gazelle, eventually killing her with the poison needle in his shoe, and then using her prosthetic to kill Valentine.
Eggsy then goes to the princess’s cell, which Merlin hacks the code for, and claims his reward. Bleah.
Later, he goes to the pub where Bell and his mother are hanging out. He has a house now, which his mother and half-sister can live in away from Bell. When Bell objects, Eggsy takes him and his thugs the exact way Galahad did earlier in the film.
“There’s a reason why aristocrats developed weak chins”
I keep going around and around on this movie. On the one hand, it’s a fun romp, a nifty tribute to old-time spy films. It doesn’t just wear those influences on its sleeve, but indeed on the entire shirt, from the story structure to the locale-jumping to the secret hideouts to the conversations on the subject of spy movies to Jack Davenport’s entire performance in Lancelot’s attempted rescue of the professor. Davenport is a magnificent throwback to 1960s spy films, from his banter to his posing with his gun to his being sure to save the drink glass from spilling.
But sometimes the movie tries too hard. Those spy-movie conversations are very on-the-nose, and it comes across as the characters protesting a little too much.
And it kind of half-asses the updating. On the one hand, it’s really nice to see that, for about 90% of the movie, it takes killing seriously. Something that makes old spy movies hard to take is how casually lives are thrown away in them, and that isn’t the case for most of The Secret Service. The training emphasizes the risk, but doesn’t actually put the candidates’ lives in real danger—the guns to shoot the dogs with are filled with blanks, Amelia isn’t actually dead, they all have chutes, and the candidates aren’t actually run over by trains. Lives are only taken in combat situations—
—with two exceptions, only one of which works, and that only partly. The first is the church massacre, which is supposed to be horrible. Galahad’s fighting style is far more brutal here than it was in the pub, where he was only trying to subdue Bell’s thugs. He kills tons of innocent people here, and it’s to Colin Firth’s and Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman’s credit that Galahad is disgusted when he realizes what he’s done. And then right after that, Valentine kills someone for the first time ever, and he’s absolutely revolted by it. (He’s caused plenty of death, but it’s all indirect and he can avoid looking at it.) It honestly would’ve been nice if that had had a noticeable effect on him after that scene, but he went right back to being the evil bad guy after that.
It all goes to hell, unfortunately, with the second exception, which is when Merlin sets off the implants, thus killing hundreds of people (including the president of the United States, who is very obviously supposed to be President Obama), and it’s played for laughs, with the explosive effects looking more like colorful fireworks than the beheading of hundreds of human beings, and with people not even reacting to the people around them having their heads blown off. (If it all happened at once, it would be one thing, but they seem to go off in sequence, yet none of the other people in the room react to the people across the room from them being decapitated, even though they have time to before their own decapitations.)
In both these cases, the music makes it much much worse. The church massacre is done to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” and the implants blowing heads up has “Pomp and Circumstance” playing, making it impossible to take either scene completely seriously. In the former case, it mutes the effect of what’s happening; in the latter, it’s repugnant, combining with the goofy effects to try to make mass murder amusing.
Another issue is the inability to completely update the sexism of those old spy films. On the one hand, you have Roxy, who kicks all kinds of ass as the new Lancelot, both during training and afterward when she blows up a satellite. On the other hand, you have the Swedish princess being set up at the last minute as a sexual prize for Eggsy to win, with the only sop to modernity being the two of them talking more openly about the sex act they’re going to perform than Bond or Flint or the Saint ever did with their conquests. That does not, however, make it in any way, shape, or form better. In fact, it really makes it worse. (The sequel will, at least, mitigate the awful by having Eggsy and the princess be an actual couple, elevating the character a bit beyond being a prize, but it doesn’t make the ending of this film any less icky.)
At the very least, the movie has extremely nifty gadgets—another important trope of the genre—from the umbrella-for-all-seasons to the surveillance/hologram glasses to the fancy lighters and fountain pens and such, not to mention Gazelle’s deadly prosthetics and Valentine’s fancy hardware. I also appreciate that the movie actually covers a span of time. Eggsy’s training takes the better part of a year at least (his half-sister has aged appreciably over the course of the movie), Valentine’s plan is by nature a long-term one (he has to wait until he gathers all his special people to be saved, plus he has to wait for his free SIM cards to proliferate sufficiently), and to help keep Kingsman from learning stuff too fast, Galahad is in a coma for a significant period, the intel from his surveillance glasses inaccessible until he wakes up because he didn’t share his password with anyone.
The performances are all superb. Firth and Davenport are both letter-perfect as the gentleman spies, as is Mark Strong as the tech support. Michael Caine is, well, Michael fucking Caine. Taron Egerton makes a strong protagonist, and he embodies the ingrained classism in Western civilization in general and the United Kingdom in particular, as Eggsy is the only non-aristocrat among the candidates. Egerton’s lower-class Eggsy is played just right. And while I see why giving Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine a lisp is in the tradition of spy-movie villains having some kind of affectation or impediment (and apparently Jackson actually had a lisp when he was younger), it’s something else that could’ve used some updating, since this kind of he-lisps-so-he’s-a-sissy-and-he’s-destroying-the-world-to-compensate is a 20th-century viewpoint that this 21st-century film could have easily done without. On the other hand, it also makes the character feel less like Samuel L. Jackson, whose presence is so distinctive…
Next week, we’ll cover The Golden Circle, the 2017 sequel, in which both Elton John and the guy who recently played Elton John (Egerton) both appear….
Keith R.A. DeCandido’s most recent novel is Mermaid Precinct, the latest in his fantasy police procedural series, which is now available in trade paperback and eBook from eSpec Books. His Alien novel Isolation, based on both the classic movie series and the hit videogame, is available for preorder from Titan Books.