Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of those films which you enjoy immensely, but fail entirely to pigeonhole. Sure, it can be classed as a spy movie, but does it take the mick out of that genre a little too much to be considered truly canon? Of course, even Bond himself gained an ironic self-awareness from 1973 onwards, as Roger Moore’s incarnation of the archetypal spy sometimes raised his eyebrow so high, you could ski over it while being pursued by enemies of Her Majesty. The much-maligned ‘whistle’ sound that was put over the incredible
Of course, with the Daniel Craig era of Bond, things have segued into much more serious, sombre territory (you could say he was ‘Nolanised’); but while it’s difficult to find movies released this century that hark back to the old days, there are a handful which stand out which resemble the genre’s best intentions. And Kingsman: The Secret Service sits proudly with them, tongue visibly pushing against cheek.
An obvious place to start is in 2002 with The Bourne Identity, a modern spy classic directed by Doug Liman and starring Matt Damon, a face we now associate with action cinema, but back then he was untested in the waters of the thriller genre (as was Liman, who was only known for Swingers and Go). The movie threw the amnesiac Bourne into a conspiracy-threaded web that involved governmental deception, paranoia, and some pretty explosions. [pull_quote_right]there is an emphasis on pure, unadulterated fun; this is Kingsman’s number one aim.[/pull_quote_right]
Where the movie most ties in with the spy films of the past is in its delicately wrought set pieces, where tension is slowly and carefully built in traditional ways, as opposed to the more modern-thinking flurry of action beats we’re used to nowadays; consider the scene in which Bourne finds himself in a bank to investigate some mysterious accounts. The build-up, and Bourne’s ensuing escape, reminds us of the best ways in which spy films work best when the action revolves around a strong core idea, and not as filler between plot points.
And then we have the 21st century John le Carré adaptations: 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and 2014’s A Most Wanted Man. Le Carré was master architect of sublime crime fiction, using the spy genre as a literary form of investigating grand human notions of deception, grief, and ulterior motives; of course, Bond was never that introspective, otherwise he would have noticed that he kept switching bodies every few years or so. We had to wait until the newer, grimmer, dirtier era of the 21st century before cinema felt fit to delve into le Carré’s philosophically troublesome worlds, and they haven’t been portrayed better than perhaps Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Let the Right One In’s Tomas Alfredson.
There’s a sophistication here – besides the stunning cinematography and exquisite performances from Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch and many more – that’s lacking in many modern spy pictures, and harkens back to thrillers like The Ipcress File and Three Days of the Condor when it comes to pitting their protagonists against morally unnavigable issues. Likewise in A Most Wanted Man: the greatest of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final roles sees him play Günther, an operative carrying out questionable, deathly secret tasks in order to keep his country secure from terrorist threats – or so he thinks.
But perhaps most similar to Kingsman: The Secret Service is Red, released in 2010; like Kingsman, it was based on a comic book, something that you can clearly see in both movies. Former CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis in a role where he actually acts) comes out of retirement when his home is ransacked, and joins forces with John Malkovich and Helen Mirren’s other aging spies to fight back. In Red, there is an emphasis on pure, unadulterated fun; this is also Kingsman’s number one aim.
To wow the audience at every turn is its prerogative, and instantly brings up memories of Bond at its most unrestrained and entertaining: 007 in outer space, or nearly being cut in half by a gigantic death laser are some of the most instantly memorable moments in those films. Kingsman: The Secret Service celebrates these parts the most, somehow without losing the integrity of the best the genre has to offer; it teeters on the edge between Skyfall’s wanton seriousness, and Austin Power’s shagadelic absurdity – and it’s much needed.