Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Brad Pitt ate my sandwich
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
The excess is even wretcheder and the provocations even more hollow, but they're in service of something greater anyway. Sometimes all it takes is a few scenes to make a movie. On rare occasions, it takes just one. Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar (more the former than the latter) have done it again.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (based on the comic The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons)
With Colin Firth (Galahad/Harry Hart), Taron Egerton (Gary "Eggsy" Unwin), Michael Caine (Arthur), Mark Strong (Merlin), Jack Davenport (Lancelot), Sofia Boutella (Gazelle), and Samuel L. Jackson (Valentine)
Spoiler alert: mild
There are so many "worsts" you could throw out when discussing Kingsman it's hard to even know where to start, so why not start where the movie does, with the worst opening credits of the year, the decade, the century, or—possibly—of all film history, an atrocious affair involving CGI rubble tumbling off the roof of an indefinitely-Middle Eastern redoubt and morphing, most unattractively, into the names of production companies. Later, we are treated to a McDonald's advertisement, so blatant and unpleasant it's impossible to determine whether it's the sullen, childish anger of a compromised filmmaker, or if it's a grotesquely cynical parody instead. As with many things in Kingsman, it's so nasty that you wind up laughing, in disbelief more than anything else, for it is tantamount to stopping the film for a commercial break. Depending on your temperament, it is either nearly the worst product placement ever, or agonizingly close to the best. (Of course, the very worst and the very best shall ever remain, indistinguishably, the Climactic Pepsi of World War Z.)
Kingsman also has the worst presidential cameo in pictures; it is, at least, the single most offensive, involving the only two black men in the movie conspiring to commit genocide in adherence to Agenda 21. And while maybe it does not have the single worst affectation of a lisp to have even been reproduced in sound cinema, the affectation of a lisp that is in Kingsman is very, very, very bad. Finally, as Kingsman closes, we are left with the aftertaste of the worst of all anal sex jokes, wherein the butt of a princess, lubed with nothing but our hero's spit and a mutual prayer, is offered up as the fitting reward for saving the world.
This is of course on top of all those perennial Vaughnian pecadillos: the shrieking desperation of his stylistic choices; the categorical rejection of the very concept of a consistent tone; a crusader's passion for bringing comics' Superhero Decadence movement into the multiplex; and the total inability to tell whether his film's visual effects are amazing or awful, so long as they represent, more or less, whatever the hell it is we're supposed to be looking at.
On this last count, Matthew Vaughn has an accomplished body of big-budget work behind him now. As it uniformly evinces his digital blindspot, I have to wonder if it's not his ambition outpacing his resources in Kingsman, but a highly idiosyncratic brand of nostalgia. In days past, filmmakers' hearts melted at the charmingly lo-fi practical effects of bygone science fiction classics. Perhaps this is where we are now, sixteen years after we applauded shoddy particle effects in The Mummy, and nineteen after we thrilled to a wildly unconvincing helicopter chase in Mission: Impossible. Has the time finally arrived for our affections to embrace our more recent past, defined by two decades of pre-Avatar garbage CGI? If so, Vaughn is truly a vanguard director.
But give me more like Kingsman, and you may just see me come around, too—because forget everything I've said so far, this is a pretty Goddamned great movie.
Vaughn adapted Mark Millar once before, and the result was Kick-Ass, one of the top superhero films, and one of the better pictures of the Tens—a story of high action and genuinely-felt emotion on one hand, and of thoughtful distance and salient commentary on the other. I didn't quite see that the first time I watched it. Indeed, I've routinely underestimated Vaughn's films—X-Men: First Class didn't present itself as a great film, either, till I saw it twice. This time, I'm not about to be caught flat-footed, for Kingsman has just as many "bests" as it does "worsts," and they're all mashed up inseparably into an uneven abomination of a film that I still just can't help loving for the mad, messy uniqueness of it all.
It's not the first great film of 2015, being beaten to that punch by Marjane Satrapi's equally playful The Voices (review pending), but it is the best film this year that I've seen so far. That's out of a whole five, true, but I also suspect Kingsman will stay 2015's leading light for some little while.
Kingsman is an attempt, more successful than not, to split the difference precisely between the most ludicrous James Bond movies—or put more directly, the best ones—and the Austin Powers movies that made fun of them. In other words, it's a film that plays, at different moments, as a satire, as a parody, as a loving homage, and as a straight-up remake of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. It's mixed in with the iconography of one of the Bond franchise's more esteemed competitors, the Harry Palmer series—Michael Caine, naturally, is on hand for a small but vital role. Yet while spy films heavily inform the content, the debt it owes to the whole genre combined still isn't half as large as the mortgage over its central storyline, jointly held by Star Wars and Men in Black.
As you can imagine, in attempting to do everything an action-comedy could do (and, indeed, has already done), Kingsman sometimes doesn't manage to do everything well. Suffused with a meta-humor that is sometimes sublimely clever and sometimes marrow-curdlingly obvious, it easily could have been less than the sum of its parts. Thanks to Vaughn's go-for-broke fearlessness, even when the film is objectively kind of awful, it feels new enough that its failures can still be interesting. And when it does succeed—hell, it triumphs. (Obviously, it could have used the designer's touch of a modern Ken Adam, but what couldn't? Even a lame indie drama would be unavoidably improved by an enormous volcano base.)
Our story begins with Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad. He is a Kingsman, one of nine obscenely wealthy gentleman spies who have pooled their resources and skills as members of the world's most fearsome and secretive international terrorist organization. On a training mission, Galahad's mistake gets one of his men killed, and his guilt over his failure turns out to last a lifetime. Many years later, the dead man's son—"Eggsy" Unwin—calls his marker in. He's in a spot of legal trouble, thanks to the general chavviness accruing to those whose widowed mothers seek solace in the arms of the abusive organized crime boss from the most minor Guy Ritchie picture imaginable. Galahad is horrified that the once-promising young lad is now, in 2015, a total loser, so he offers Eggsy a Hero's Journey instead. As luck would have it, another agent has just been killed in action, and the Kingsmen are recruiting. If Eggsy can pass the tests—and beat his upper-crust competition—he can join their esteemed ranks, as their new Lancelot.
They'll need the help, for technology magnate Valentine—the very supervillain by whom the old Lancelot met his end—plots the culling of the human species. He has orchestrated a new Flood, and is nearly set to unleash a subliminal cellphone signal designed to transform people into brawling, murdering savages. Meanwhile, he has offered salvation to the world's leaders and the One Percent. His end goal is to save the Earth from ecological exhaustion by resetting our population to a sustainable, much-smaller number.
You have, by this point, no doubt ascertained that this movie has confused, bullshit politics. Yet there is something appealing about the vague notion Kingsman presents, that the masters of the world know full well that they're devastating the planet and do not care, for they assume they will find a way to buy their way out of participating in the apocalypse. (I am less sure of what to make of its other assertion—that if everyone would just go back to wearing suits like it was the 1960s, most of our personal and social problems would be solved.)
Eggsy meets the challenges, and there is fun to be had with the hunger games he goes through in order to get a job in contemporary Britain, but much more fun—the most fun—belongs to the film's second half, maybe even final third, where the spy-comedy subsides and the spy-action becomes positively dominant.
By the thirty minute mark, we've already had an action scene that is better than just about anything in any James Bond picture, concluded by the razor-tipped prosthetic legs belonging to Gazelle, the best henchwoman that a James Bond villain never had. (Portrayed by dancer/actor Sofia Boutella, Gazelle is a strong, sardonic counterweight to Sam Jackson's off-the-rails miscasting as the lisping Valentine; just as important, she's an immensely intimidating—yet graceful—physical threat. I keep trying to decide whether she is in fact cooler than Jaws, the greatest Bond henchman, and I keep thinking she might really be.)
This scene, as well as a comedic bar fight involving Galahad armed with the Penguin's umbrella, already happily suggests that filmmakers are getting tired of bad action, and that the revolution called for by John Wick—a return to choregraphed gun-fu—will not be a lonely one fought solely by future Keanu Reeves vehicles. That both these scenes are far too bloodless to completely sell their cartoon ultraviolence must count against them—the human bifurcation in Kingsman has nothing on Sanjuro, or its latterday descendant, Kill Bill. Yet Kingsman's opening gambits are immensely enjoyable for their style, combining a certain elegance with so many gonzo flourishes I doubt I could recount them after only one viewing. (I can say that this list includes both Spielberg/Scott shutter angle play and Ritchie/Snyder speed ramping—of course, what they borrow from most patently is Sherlock Holmes, but this isn't a bad thing.)
And then, in a sequence that has already become rightly famous (and unjustly infamous), Vaughn does what I've been praying someone would for a while: he demonstrates that at least one person in Hollywood has actually seen The Raid. I don't wish to overhype it, although it would be hard to do that, and I definitely don't want to spoil it. Let's just say that it takes place in a church; it features stunningly-choreographed long-takes; it is set to Skynyrd's "Free Bird," with close-to-perfect sound mixing (the bane of Wick's otherwise immaculate centerpiece); and, disregarding Kingsman's overall political jumble, in this scene Vaughn offers the leftist perhaps the most lovely wish-fulfillment fantasy ever served up in a major motion picture. Meanwhile, weenies condemn it, because violence is bad; more thoughtful commentators suggest it has a point other than itself; I think it's there because Vaughn thinks cinematic violence is awesome, and Vaughn is 100% right. My only wish is that this scene, too, had more blood; but what an ingrate that must make me sound like. Less whingingly, I wish that it hadn't been cross-cut with increasingly-useless reaction shots and left to stand alone, as its own beautiful object.
This sequence is worth the price of admission all by itself: "Free Bird" is to this film what "Time in a Bottle" was to the movie Vaughn passed on in order to bring us Kingsman, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Each set-piece defines its film as a milestone of action spectacle. Whether or not the rest of Kingsman manages—I like a nice Hero's Journey, the ending's pretty rad too, and it is never boring, even when it is risible—as a gunplay-and-fisticuffs actioner, Kingsman is 2015's champion to beat. I have honest doubts that it will be, or that it even could be.