What exactly is it that makes the attraction to the spy genre such very male fantasy? Is it because the progenitor of the films, he who will not be James’d, made being a secret agent about more than saving the world, but saving the world and reaping all the benefits that it’s viewers feel are due a man in his stead? Impeccable suits and style, women who seem to have been designed (they were) to be the most exotic form of companionship imaginable, quippy one liners, and above all else, that insufferable attitude of laissez smugness that you can only adopt when you’re the good guy about to say the world from some kind of death ray? Plus alcohol of course.
Well it seems we have our answer, because Kingsmen: The Secret Service aims to distil this formula to it’s most concentrated, all while being aware that the entire concept of world-destroying doomsday devices and feline stroking megalomaniacs is something you just can’t take seriously. So it summons up a secret organization of old British men that wear their tailored tuxes like suits of armor and speak in empty platitudes about what being a gentleman means, and who prize poise and dashing over remembering to check for hidden bad guys before taking a scotch break.
You see, Kingsmen says it’s about both mocking and celebrating these things, but the phrase “self-aware” never really comes to mind throughout. To wit, it’s central male characters are STILL obsessed over a manly view of gallantry and “what it means to be a KingsMAN” despite how the superficial nature of it all is bloody obvious and all its women are either relegated to background, made victims of, or trotted out as a self ironic “reward” for saving the world. What has changed exactly?
Well, there actually IS a new direction, as the James Bond in training this time is a young “bruv” from the lower class whose hastily relayed backstory suggests he’d have been some kind of polymath if only his mother hadn’t shacked up with an abusive husband. Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egarton) is wasting his potential, says a man in a resplendent suit that immediately marks a class difference between them. That man is Harry “Galahad” Hart, (Colin Firth) and he is the epitome of British manners and propriety, and without a note of irony to be found in his performance.
Harry you see was saved by Eggsy’s father, and wants to repay his debt in the most Knightly way possible; by enrolling him in a top secret society where Britain’s elite are gathered to become modern day Arthurian Knights, complete with outdated chivalry. Call it Nepotism or call it fate, but Eggsy is soon butting heads with the rich boys who seem to represent the Kingsmen’s ideals in appearance if not manners. He meets a couple of rich girls too including Roxy (Sophie Cookson) who manages to stick up for him without being labeled his “girlfriend” by the snobs for once. From there the movie shifts back and fourth between Eggsy’s ludicrous training, covering everything from dog walking to a bond villain style trap, and Harry as he pursues a recently kidnapped scientist (Mark Hamill, apparently for nostalgia reasons) and learns of, what else? a diabolical plot being hatched by a billionaire with a lisp (Samuel L. Jackson) and a deadly henchwoman (Sofia Boutella) who may not be able sneak around but makes up for it with swords in place of legs.
Kingsmen is based on a graphic novel by infamously anarchic comic book writer Mark Millar, who enjoys upending genre expectations without warning as well as indictments of the male wish fulfillment. Director Matthew Vaughn previously worked on similar material with his other comic book Kick-Ass, which combined over the top violence with a tone that hinged on self-awareness but was still ultimately about human characters. Where Kingsmen differs is that it’s human characters never seem to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the organization, and while they talk about what it means to be a Kingsman, it’s undermined by the fact that they take it so seriously without really establishing the purpose apart from mimicking the Bond film’s raison d’etre.
And it is an unmistakably MANLY de’etre; from Harry coaching Eggsy the proper name for dress shoes without patterns on the toes, to wearing a Kingsman tailored suit, and how to order a proper martini. As the one female applicant, Roxy is essentially trying to enter the “Boy’s club” by showing she can be just as tough, cold, and cool under pressure as any of the guys, qualities that are shown to be only beneficial in the context of being a Kingsman. But while this makes for some harrowing training scenarios (one involving a classic Bond death trap of a room filling with water is both perfectly calculated to show Eggsy’s sideways thinking, and yet suggests an emphasis on “Teamwork” that really doesn’t fit with everything we see about the Kingsmen’s mission tactics) it’s hard to shake the feeling that the entire Kingsmen organization is just an empty suit filled with old fashioned ethics that don’t really mean anything.
To it’s credit, the film seems to suggest that yes, a secret organization founded by old money and largely ruled by British men IS kind of archaic and needs to get with the modern world, but it does so only obliquely with Michael Caine’s “M” figure of sorts. But when they’re matched against the likes of Richmond Valentine (Sam Jaskson) billionaire philanthropist and global warming opponent, they can’t help but look like the good guys, classism and sexism be damned. When the world is in peril, and an American is poised to wipe out half the human race because it’s for “the greater good,” count on British nobility and manners to save us all is the unfortunate take away.
It’s a shame really, because everyone really does bring their A game to making the characters feel as human as characters in a comic book world can. As Eggsy, Taron Egarton develops from a punk in baggy jeans who talks like an episode of Skins to a suave and capable young man. He puts determination and grit into the character, but maintains his punk sense of humor that makes him more relatable than the snobby upper class men. What the movie does less well is illustrate how this change is a way for him to regain control in his lower class life, including his stepfather being abusive to his mother. Harry says he “sees potential” in Eggsy, and given what he later accomplishes we can plainly see he’s correct, but it’s impossible to get around the fact that he’s learning all these strange skills that are only connected to essentially looking good and feeling confidant.
Colin Firth on the other hand embodies all these “gentlemanly” qualities to a T however, and plays Harry without irony or self-deprecation to great effect. As Harry Hart (Codename: Galahad) he is an expression of men’s deepest desire to be in control of our image and feelings. He is efficient in combat, eloquent in his words, and charming without seeming to put any effort into it. While he lacks scene-stealing prowess, he’s the sort of character you will watch doing anything simply because you know he’ll do it RIGHT. Unfortunately, apart from the opening sequence this largely makes him a static character whose presence is a influence on Eggsy more than his actual words.
Perhaps most aptly, his best scenes are when he’s playing the Bond-type role with Samuel L. Jackson fitting the eccentric villain character like a glove. Just like Bond, Harry is always more compelling when being challenged by someone who looks like they could actually get the drop on him, and Valentine’s ability to catch Harry off guard while he’s out shopping or confuse him by serving whoppers and fries at a fancy dinner are two of the bright spots in an otherwise rote dance of antagonists.
During one of these meetings, Valentine discusses with Harry how the Bond films were only as good as the villain in them, and meta commentary aside Sam Jackson makes a hell of a compelling bad guy. Dressing like a hip hop Steve Jobs and hilariously distrustful of his own doomsday devices, Valentine also makes a convincing argument as to WHY he arrived at the decision that 90% of the planet needs to be eliminated for save the rest of us. Coupled with a bilious distaste for blood and a snapback hat that no one comments on, Valentine is a lot of eccentricities that nonetheless work because of how Sam Jackson sells the fact that he’s not just trying to kill a bunch of people because he CAN or because it’s FUN, but because he’s in a position to maybe change the world and so he’s going to take it.
Behind every great man is a more interesting and less appreciated woman though, and even though he’s the man with his hand on the fingerprint linked detonator (Which turns out to burn quite a bit) it’s his bodyguard-cum tech supervisor Gazelle who steals the show. Played with decisive calm and prodigious athleticism by Algerian-French actress Sofia Boutella, she’s as deadly as Go Go Yubari on ice skates, only without the demented mental health associations.
Gazelle in the comics was a humdrum black man who existed just to poke fun at the overpowered henchmen that villains always seem to employ, but Boutella turns her role as henchwoman into the most watchable character, almost a Loki to Harry’s Thor. She does this simply by being the most deadly character in the film, even outclassing the Kingsmen for brutal efficiency. Each step she makes on her spring-loaded gladiuses is a reminder of how ready she is to slice any obstacles into mincemeat, and all without having to smile or show a little leg. When women see the film, they won’t be talking about how they want to be a secret agent, they’ll be talking about how they want to grow up and be the villain, because while Roxy is saving the world, Gazelle looks like she’s having a blast.
But what OF Roxy? And what of her contrast with Eggsy; The two superspy sides of the same coin. Why does one get to infiltrate the doomsday fortress and one is left behind to bring down the arbitrary obstacles that impedes the former? Roxy shows her moxie early on by not caving to classist judgements of the other candidates, and proves her mettle when she’s just as seductive as Eggsy while trying to entrap a target, only faltering where heights are concerned like most normal people would.
She proves she’s tough and classy enough to enter the Kingsmen, yet in the end she’s neither love interest, nor action girl, nor secondary protagonist. She’s like a genderflipped version of Eggsy, and yet he’s still the one who the story decides needs to go all Rambo in order to demonstrate how much of a badass guy he is. While Eggsy has a moral conundrum over the nature of the Kingsman, Roxy goes along with them and is rewarded for her resolve by being made a top agent, yet he’s the one framed in the right. If the Kingsmen’s standards are anything to go by, it seems that even when women make it into the boys club, the guys still get preferential treatment.
Once you see the link between the secret agent and an idealization of masculinity it’s hard not to be skeptical of any film trying to play homage to it, even if it suggests the idea itself is old fashioned. The problem with having your cake and eating it too is that It’s not really cake, it’s a trope that your viewers may or may not accept depending on whether they feel included or not.When Kingsmen includes a long segway where an imprisoned Swedish princess (Hanna Alstrom) offers something more than a kiss after Eggsy asks what she’ll give him if he lets her out of her cell and saves the world. It’s basically a classier version of the frat boy pinching the girl’s butt as they walk upstairs to the bedroom. It’s only funny because it’s unexpected, and it’s really only unexpected because a guy suggesting he deserves sex for ANYTHING is supposed to be a self evidently douchey move.
But Eggsy is different! The movie seems to say. Sure he’ll accept a crass form of “thank you for saving me” from a girl who’s desperate to get out of her cell, but he’ll also come back to his mom and take out his abusive stepfather because she’s too scared he’ll be beat him up to stand up for herself. He’ll be the good guy who ALSO gets to feed his ego because that’s just “fair” in the eyes of all the young guys watching. And isn’t that really what we all want? To indulge in our little fantasies without anyone telling us they exclude others or just serve to boost our egos? But while being a secret agent may be a fantasy, the reality is that fantasies are had by men AND women. And the problem is that, despite how “gentlemanly” it would be, ladies come second in Kingsmen’s world.