LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - For those who think James Bond has gotten a little too serious in his old age, "Kingsman: The Secret Service" brings the irreverence back to the British spy genre, offering a younger, streetwise variation on the 007 formula, while gleefully pushing audiences' favorite elements -- sartorial taste, killer toys and cracked-out supervillains -- to hyperbolic extremes. Based on Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons' 2012 comicbook series and directed by Matthew Vaughn in much the same pop, over-the-top style as his earlier "Kick-Ass," Fox's franchise-ready one-off at first poses as a more teen-friendly option, before taking a hard turn into decidedly R-rated territory.
For nearly three-quarters of "Kingsman's" running time, the film could pass as a flip, PG-13 ertternative to the increasingly gritty turn the genre has taken in the wake of Jason Bourne -- a fact it acknowledges outright when debonair operative Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and cuckoo billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) talk spy-movie aesthetics. "Give me a far-fetched diabolical plot," Jackson's wonderfully eccentric villain says with a lisp, "like the old Bond movies."
But the film, which is scheduled to bow at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 27, also reserves the right to go gonzo in its final stretch, and while there's sure to be an outcry from some corners over the turning-point scene, no one can contest that the pic's last couple reels distinguish it from countless other spy-movie knockoffs. And let's not forget that Vaughn effectively gave Daniel Craig a bespoke 007 audition with the slick 2004 crime caper "Layer Cake."
Here, the helmer launches yet another British talent, Welsh actor Taron Egerton, a compact, bulldog-like actor with square jaw and squinched-up features who goes from scallie tough to Savile Row neat over the course of the film -- a "My Fair Lady"-like transformation that is hardly lost on the character himself. Egerton plays Gary "Eggsy" Unwin, whose father dies in service of an organization so secret, his widow and son never realize the significance of his sacrifice, which serves as the first of several punchy set pieces in a pic that's front-loaded with action scenes.
Ignorant of his own potential, Eggsy grows up in a grim South London housing estate, falls in with a group of good-for-nothing thugs and risks spending his remaining years behind bars. At least, that's the way things are headed until Harry springs him from prison and offers him an alternative: to replace recently fallen agent Lancelot (Jack Davenport), who died in a violent yet admirably bloodless attempt to free a kidnapped scientist (a heavily made-up Mark Hamill, the casting of whom plays as an inside joke for fans of the original comic, wherein it's the missing "Star Wars" star who needs rescuing) -- one of many prominent figures who've vanished as Valentine readies his far-fetched diabolical plot.
And so, two elaborate yet extremely well-oiled mechanisms are set into motion. In the first, we get young Eggsy thrust into a high-stakes boot camp to determine which of a group of new recruits (the rest of whom are all posh prep school types) is worthy to become the next Kingsman. At the same time, Valentine moves forward with his plan to distribute free SIM cards programmed to trigger an aggressive killing frenzy worldwide, thereby solving the climate change crisis by eradicating all but a hand-picked elite.
Class plays a key role in "Kingsman," which hinges on the fantasy that a kid from the projects could assimilate into London's most exclusive circles. Hidden behind a suit-shop storefront on Savile Row, Kingsman HQ are accessed through a series of "Get Smart"-style secret doors and tunnels, while the group itself is presided over by an old blue blood played by Michael Caine. But these elite types have a critical weakness: They believe their own superiority, which makes them no better than Valentine in the end. (In one throwaway gag, Jackson is seen pitching his plan at the White House to a man clearly intended to be Obama.)
Together with longtime screenwriting partner Jane Goldman, Vaughn milks these class differences for maximum amusement throughout, embracing the notion that "Kingsman" is as much a comedy as it is an action movie -- just not in the corny, quippy way mid-career Bond used to be. It's the sort of movie where the world's most cultured men prefer to eat McDonald's behind closed doors, while its streetwise protagonist boasts a far snobbier martini recipe than Bond ever did. Few on the year's films have been so openly covetous of material possessions, which sits oddly with its open resentment of extreme wealth.
After all, Vaughn belongs to that school of directing whose glossy, hyper-polished pics look almost like feature-length commercials, where every outfit and prop is potentially for sale (the suits, designed by Arianne Phillips, will soon be made available for online purchase via Mr Porter). But he also kicked off his career producing for Guy Ritchie, whose dynamic, rough-and-tumble attitude has clearly been a key influence on his approach, most obvious in a virtuoso pub altercation where the camera varies speed as it ducks and loops around the action.
It's as if style is the only thing Vaughn holds sacred, while extreme convictions on religious or political grounds are something to be ridiculed and, in two jaw-droppingly irreverent sequences, wiped from the face of the earth. On the style front, Firth comes across as an extreme caricature of perceived elegance, ultra-cool within the normally priggish confines of custom-tailored London fashion. He's an impeccably dressed action figure capable of dispatching a room full of goons without so much as wrinkling his suit.
Valentine's no slouch either, his dayglo look adapted more to fit Jackson's flamboyant persona than the character's socially awkward idiosyncrasies (which include an amusingly paradoxical aversion to the sight of blood). And because a great villain is judged in part by the quality of his henchpersons, "Kingsman" introduces Algerian dancer Sofia Boutella ("StreetDance2") as Valentine's lethal valet, Gazelle -- a sultry improvement over "Goldfinger's" Oddjob whose legs have been replaced with razor-sharp powerbocks.
So, while seriousness has overtaken the Bond franchise in recent years (hardly a bad thing, mind you), "Kingsman" runs no such risk. Vaughn welcomes details that might seem silly in another director's hands, such as a bulletproof umbrella or tiny microchips that can make one's head explode, presenting everything playfully enough that plausibility isn't a factor. It's all a question of attitude really, from the film's funky score (which clearly owes a debt to John Barry) to cocky newcomer Egerton, who looks plenty tough speeding backwards through oncoming traffic or skydiving without a chute, but softens up the instant he's asked to train a Pug puppy. Also, in another progressive touch, the film objectifies its shirtless star far more than rival recruit Sophie Cookson, who can hold her own against him during training.
Whether it's "Alex Rider," "Agent Cody Banks" or "Spy Kids," plenty have tried to adapt the 007 shtick to younger characters, with demonstrably dopey results. In the end, the reason it works for Vaughn is that he's making the film for adults. The studio reportedly pushed back on several touchy scenes, including one that plays like a surreal dream sequence from another movie (like Kevin Smith's "Red State" perhaps), as hatemongering members of a Westboro-style congregation flip out and spontaneously start attacking one another, but Vaughn fought to maintain the film's edge. Though "Kingsman" doesn't open for several more weeks, the ill-considered church massacre remained in the not-quite-finished version screened for review -- precisely the sort of imagery Hollywood studios hastily pull the instant some real-world tragedy strikes, only to find themselves propagating anew once the dust settles.