Kingsman: The Secret Service


Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Jordan Long, Tobi Bakare, Nicholas Banks, Edward Holcroft, Morgan Watkins, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Hanna Alstrom, Fiona Hampton, Lily Travers. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

The spy movies of the late 60s and onward have a certain place in the cultural psyche. They represent a particular era, sure, but they also represent the fight between good and evil, our fascination with technology and a certain sense of humor about life in the modern age. Our attitudes towards women, patriotism, freedom and what constitutes a gentleman have been largely shaped by these films.

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) is growing up aimlessly in a working class London neighborhood. His dad died when he was a baby and his mom (Womack) has taken up with a local thug (Bell) named Dean. Dean abuses his mom but Gary isn’t strong enough to stand up for her or for himself. Dean despises him and ridicules him for it.

But Eggsy has a good heart to go along with his Cockney accent and when he gets arrested for stealing the car of one of Dean’s underlings and leading the police on a merry chase, he knows he can’t call home. Therefore, he calls the number on the back of an amulet once given to his mother by a gentlemen who came to inform her of the death of Eggsy’s father, remembering that if he called that number and read a certain phrase, help of whatever nature was needed would be forthcoming.

It comes in the form of Harry Hart (Firth), a debonair and well-dressed gentleman who tells Eggsy that in fact, his father once saved Harry’s life and that Harry wanted to repay that debt by offering his son the opportunity to try out for a position in the same super secret organization that his father served in and that Harry in fact serves in now – the Kingsmen. No, not the “Louie, Louie” bunch.

The Kingsmen are a secret, non-government affiliated group of highly trained, highly skilled gentlemen. They aren’t spies particularly; what they do is prevent bad things from happening. They have a seemingly unlimited budget and there are only a set number of them; when one dies they are replaced. This is the group that Eggsy is about to join – if he can survive the process of selecting the winning applicant, that is and it is a brutal one, focusing on teamwork, thinking on one’s feet and assessing dangerous situations. Most of the applicants are upper class snobs, although Eggsy befriends Roxy (Cookson), a female applicant (who gets her share of grief from the snobs, as does Eggsy) and Merlin (Strong), the tech wizard of the Kingsmen and the right hand of Arthur (Caine), head of the organization.

In the meantime, a tech billionaire named Valentine has big, bad plans. See, he’s a little bit concerned about climate change. Okay, he’s a lot concerned about climate change. He’s given up on the government doing anything about it and has decided that to make humankind’s carbon footprint smaller he needs to make the population smaller. His plan is to use a special cell phone signal through special SIM cards in free cell phones he’s given away to nearly everyone trigger a violent, murderous rage in those who hear it. Only those wealthy, beautiful few who he’s personally approached and implanted a microchip that cancels out the signal in their heads will be immune to the carnage, especially after they all are safely ensconced in bunkers around the world.

It’s a mad plan, certainly but Valentine is deadly serious about it. He’s even hired himself a mercenary army and constructed a lair within a mountain. You know he’s got to be a villain with a mountain lair. In any case, with Valentine’s powerful connections, getting to him won’t be easy and preventing an anarchic Armageddon even less so but that’s what the Kingsmen are there for, after all – to save the day.

Vaughn has made films based on Mark Millar comic series before (as this film is) and the collaborations between the two have been fruitful, producing the fine superhero film Kick-Ass for example. Vaughn has become one of my favorite directors of late with some excellent genre films to his credit. He knows how to make a film visually spectacular and hit all the right buttons in the fanboy psyche while not taking the movies so seriously that they become ponderous. His movies are almost always deeply entertaining.

And this one is no exception. Colin Firth as an action hero seems like a pretty unlikely casting, but it works here. Firth actually performed a surprising amount of his own stunts, but handles the role well, keeping a Bond-like facade of cool while kicking the butts of a group of Dean’s thugs, or some of Valentine’s flunkies, or a church full of homicidal fundamentalists.

Samuel L. Jackson makes a fine villain. Given several personality quirks (he gets violently ill at the sight of blood for example) by the writers, Jackson gives the character a lisp that makes him all the more memorable which is in the grand tradition of Bond villains. While the lisp does occasionally fall off, Jackson gives the character the right amount of menace to make for a formidable foe but enough goofiness to give the film a lighter tone. He also gets a nifty assassin in Gazelle (Boutella), who has no legs but on her Pistorius-like artificial limbs is fast, graceful and deadly as she is able to unfold sword blades from those artificial legs while in mid-air. Tres cool.

There are a lot of asides to the spy movies and television series of history; a reference to the Get Smart! shoe phone for example, or the glasses worn by super-spy Harry Palmer in films like The Billion Dollar Baby and The Ipcress Files. Clearly there are several Bond references although many are turned on their ear; Valentine at one point has a speech in which he says “This is the part where I reveal to you all my plans, and then come up with a slow and convoluted way for you to die, and you come up with a convoluted way to escape and stop me. Except this isn’t that kind of movie” at which point he shoots his nemesis in the head, much like Indiana Jones once shot a swordsman making fancy moves before he could attack.

Egerton shows a lot of potential, although I can’t say he’s a slam-dunk future star. He’s got charisma but he wasn’t really asked to carry this movie (as well he shouldn’t have been) and so I’m not certain he can rise above the gimmicks and gadgets, of which there are plenty here. The jury is out on him for me, although I can see him eventually ascending to a leading man status.

The humor here is mostly dry although there are some broad physical jokes here from time to time. Those who find the English wit not to their liking may consider this not their cup of tea, although I enjoyed this a great deal. In fact, this is the most entertaining movie I’ve seen thus far this year (which isn’t saying much) and one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in the first quarter of any year (which is saying a lot) ever. For those looking for a fun time at the movies, this is your best bet at least until some of the more anticipated movies of the spring start appearing next month. I certainly wouldn’t complain if this became the start of a new Fox franchise.

REASONS TO GO: Highly entertaining. Great action sequences. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies a bit on gimmickry and gadgetry. May be too droll for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and mayhem, some pretty crude language and some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The menswear shop on Savile Row which is the entrance to the Kingsman headquarters is based on Huntsman, a real store in the area. Because shooting in the actual shop would have been impractical, a set was built copying many of the characteristics of the original although production designer Paul Kirby added his own touches to give the set its own personality.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Hot Tub Time Machine 2

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Unknown


Unknown

Diane Krueger has the unpleasant task of informing Liam Neeson that the grunge look is dead.

(2011) Suspense (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Krueger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider, Stipe Erceg, Mido Hamada, Clint Dyer, Karl Markovics, Eva Lobau, Rainer Bock. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Who are we really? Are we who we are because we say who we are? And what if we are told that is not who we are, that someone else is who we thought we were? Would the sales of Excedrin go through the roof if that were true?

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is a mild-mannered botanist speaking at a biotechnology conference in Berlin, accompanied by his beautiful, icy blonde wife Liz (Jones). It is snowing and the weather is awful when they arrive. In the haste to get into a warm cab, Martin leaves his briefcase behind at the airport. This briefcase contains his passport and all his other important documents, so he turns around at the posh Hotel Adlon and boards another cab to get back to the airport to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men…a dreadful accident sends the taxi plunging off a bridge and into the icy waters of the river. Gina (Krueger), the plucky driver, rescues an unconscious Martin (who had hit his head against the window) from the sinking car and while the paramedics work on the stricken man, slips quietly away.

Four days later, Martin wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of not only what happened to him but his entire wife. The sympathetic doctor (Markovics) tells him he has a head injury which can be tricky when it comes to memory, but the more Martin remembers the more frantic he gets regarding his wife, who has no idea what happened to him and must be going out of her mind by now. However, when he finally checks himself out of the hospital (against doctor’s orders) and heads back to the Adlon, Liz doesn’t remember him. Not only that, she is with another man (Quinn) whom she calls her husband and who seems to be…him.

This is awfully distressing to Martin. He is desperate to prove that he is him, but has no documentation, and very little cash. He visits a colleague, Dr. Bressler (Koch) who invited him to the conference only to find the other Dr. Harris there, who not only has proper documents but also family photographs. This so disturbs Martin that he faints.

The next thing he knows he is getting an MRI but when he comes out of it, an assassin (Schneider) has murdered his doctor and an even more sympathetic nurse (Lobau) and to Martin, that means that maybe he isn’t crazy. He goes to see Jurgen (Ganz), an ex-Stasi agent who the lately murdered nurse had recommended he sees. This sets into a chain of events involving the reluctantly recruited Gina, a Saudi prince (Hamada) and a covert team of murderers for hire.

Collet-Serra is better known for horror films and indeed, the movie is produced by Dark Castle, which specializes in horror but this is more Hitchcock than horror. It has a lot of the elements of a Hitchcock film – an ordinary man drawn into international intrigue that he doesn’t understand; a beautiful, icy-cold blonde, and an unlikely ally – also blonde.

Neeson has assumed the mantle, in his mid-50s, of an everyman action hero, one which Harrison Ford wore in the late 80s and 90s. Neeson’s perpetually gentle puppy dog aura can change into a ferocious fighter at a moment’s notice, and does so upon occasion here. He is so likable that he immediately resonates with the audience, and that’s half the battle in a movie like this.

Jones, who made her reputation in “Mad Men,” is given little more to do than look beautiful and, occasionally, sexy. Having seen her in a number of different roles, I believe she is one good part from being a major leading lady in Hollywood, but that hasn’t happened yet and this film doesn’t really provide her one. Still, she is very good at what she does.

Part of the problem here is that the movie relies on implausibility – considering the importance of what was in the original briefcase (which is more than the passports and is a critical plot point that I won’t reveal here) it’s hard to believe that Martin would leave it on the curb in a luggage cart, no matter how bad the weather. From the way his character is developed in flashback, it seems unlikely that he would let that particular bag leave his grasp but its disappearance is the fulcrum around which the plot is driven.

While based on a novel written by a French writer named Didier Van Caulweleart in 2003, there is a Cold War feel to the movie that would have been better served to be set in the same city but in 1963, with the Wall up and tensions high. As thrillers go, it’s a little bit on the old-fashioned side and some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable.

Still, there is a marvelous car chase, even though it seems a bit ludicrous that a botanist can drive a car like Remy Julienne, the famous French stunt driver although that is explained more or less by proxy by the film’s denouement. There are also some marvelous German actors in the film, not the least of which is Krueger (Inglourious Basterds) and Ganz (one of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s mainstays and best known here for his work in Wings of Desire, as well as Bock, an unctuous security chief here but better as the schoolteacher in The White Ribbon.

What we have here is a moderately serviceable thriller that owes much of its appeal to its rather heavy-handed nods to the master, Alfred Hitchcock and much of the rest of it to its star, Liam Neeson. This isn’t going to re-write the book on the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but if you liked Neeson in Taken and loved basically anything the Master of Suspense directed with Jimmy Stewart in it, you’re going to enjoy Unknown very much.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson elevates the material. The car chase scene is nifty and the tension is elevated nicely throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the plot relies on implausibility and one gets the feel that this film would have been better served being set in the Cold War era.

FAMILY VALUES: As you probably figured out from the trailer, there is plenty of violence here but there’s also a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bridge that the taxi takes its plunge from is the Oberbaumbrucke in Berlin.  

HOME OR THEATER: Not a lot of really big screen-type of cinematography here; it will work just as well on your own home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stolen