Hardly Gentlemanly

Kingsman is a spy movie that manages to defy its own mission

This is not a gentlemanly movie.

Now, most movies are not very gentlemanly, and this isn't necessarily a problem — except, perhaps, to those of us who lament the passing of true gentlemanliness as a thing a man might aspire to. But it's a huge problem for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Because this movie makes such a big deal about how gentlemanliness is a thing a man must exude, certainly if he wants to become a member of the titular elite society of gentleman spies and international men of mystery who answer to no government, but only to the highest causes of justice, global peace and elegance in bespoke attire.

And the movie ultimately betrays the foundations of its own premise in horrendously unforgivable ways.

It's like this. Harry (Colin Firth), code name Galahad, recruits Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a kid from the wrong side of the London tracks, to be a member of the Kingsmen. Eggsy doesn't seem to be a good fit, what with all the other Kingsmen so posh and at least figuratively noble. The society is funded by royal families across Europe, and they all have Knights of the Round Table spy names: Michael Caine, their leader, is Arthur; Jack Davenport is another agent, code-named Lancelot; even their Q, played by Mark Strong, is called Merlin.

Eggsy instantly sees that he doesn't belong here, even if he has a genius IQ, could have been an Olympic gymnast and dabbled in the Marines. But Harry assures Eggsy — director Matthew Vaughn appears to underscore this scene as containing A Very Important Message — that being a gentleman has nothing to do with where you come from, who your family is, what prep school you went to, what your accent sounds like, or any of that sort of thing. Being a gentleman is about how you behave. It's about manners. Great suits too, sure. But mostly about manners.

For a good half of its running time, Kingsman is a fairly mundane wannabe spoof of spy stories, as Eggsy goes through a testing regimen to see if he will be able to cut it as a member. I didn't find it all that clever: characters keep self-referentially discussing the clichés of old spy movies, yet insist that "this isn't that kind of movie," when in fact it is totally that kind of movie. A lot of it feels like it has lifted beats and lines of dialogue from Men in Black, too.

Still, I wasn't hating the film, and was truly enjoying Samuel L. Jackson as Valentine, the villainous yet squeamish tech mogul who's out to do something bad to the world and obviously must be stopped. And I was loving Firth, who, if there is any justice in moviedom, will soon be heading up a reboot of The Avengers as John Steed, now that we know how great he looks in bespoke Savile Row and what a gentlemanly action hero he can be.

But then the movie gave me pause: There comes a test that Eggsy is subjected to, and it has completely the wrong solution, if the Kingsmen are truly the gentlemen they say they are.

Finally, once Eggsy has become a fully fledged Kingsman — you knew that was inevitable, so it's hardly a spoiler — and has donned the bespoke suit and assumed the mantle of the gentleman, he does something that no gentleman would do. No gentleman ever. This is the film's final grand joke, played for huge laughs, and it was like a punch in the gut to me. It would be a terrible misfire even in a movie that hadn't ostensibly been crafting Eggsy into a gentleman, but in this context, it's positively nightmarish.

I cannot recall a film that left me with such a sour taste in my mouth by the time it came to an end. I was actually enraged. It's almost as if Kingsman wants to obnoxiously defy itself. ♦

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    Maryann Johanson

    Maryann Johanson