Friday, 20 February 2015

Review: Kingsman - The Secret Service (second-pass)

World of Blackout Film Review

Kingsman - The Secret Service Poster

Kingsman - The Secret Service (second-pass / SPOILERS)
Cert: 15 / 129 mins / Dir. Matthew Vaughn / Trailer
WoB Rating: 7/7

Now I do love this film. The penultimate Orange Wednesdays saw me giving it a much promised second-whirl in the company of Mrs Blackout, who was also very impressed. Through writing and direction, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn once again take a genre which is very much alive and kicking, and still manage to add an extra layer of energy, dynamism and style. The characters in Kingsman may live in an exaggerated comic-book world, but they think, speak and act like they're from our own.

And yet… there were a couple of things which caught my attention the first time I watched the film, and a second-pass has done little to reassure me that I imagined them. Those things were two of the film's five female characters*1, or more importantly, the way the screenplay treats those characters. To wit…

Poor, poor Roxy. So, you've built your story solidly and expertly around The Hero's Journey, especially as it takes the Knights of Camelot as its main reference-point, and your screenplay is looking particularly badass. But this is 2015, and do-gooding, liberal film critics may well raise an eyebrow at your sausage-fest of a film if it doesn't include some of The Lady Characters. Your evil villain's assistant is female, and gets to do the lion's share of the physical fighting (note to casting director: try and get The Girl One from StreetDance 2), and even has minimal dialogue. You've also cast The Princess role, but the plot dictates that she's pretty much out of the way for most of the film (more on that later), so what to do? Hire Sigourney Weaver as the head of your organisation? No, the Kingsman agency itself is supposed to be deeply traditionalist, so would be led by middle-class white men. But we could include some ass-kicking young ladies in the intake-group, right?

Enter Roxy. A character who is both the perfect solution to the conundrum, and yet also massively out of place (by which I mean that the film doesn't seem to be able to place her). Many another screenplay would have presented Roxy as the love interest, but that isn't even suggested in The Secret Service. Smart, capable and loyal, Roxy is one of two young women to be proposed as candidates for the Kingsman training programme, and undergoes the same trials as the male entrants. Furthermore, she passes them all, becoming the first female Kingsman agent (although this is merely implied rather than outright stated). And what is Roxy's reward for this achievement? Well, her validity is cemented by being given a male codename, Lancelot, and then being sent to the ends of the Earth (literally) for the film's final reel in a sub-mission which is rendered pointless less than five minutes later, so that she can parachute back to terra firma while The Men Ones do all the work.

Roxy's 'Lancelot' codename, is admittedly a legacy-situation. The organisation operates on a strict one-in/one-out system, and new candidates assume the pseudonym of their predecessor. Although this doesn't change the fact that fuddy-duddy chief of affairs Arthur (Michael Caine) still insists on Roxy taking a man's name before she can do a man's job. I'd have thought that maybe some play on Guinevere might have been a progressive move, but apparently not. Well not in this film, anyway. By the closing credits, the Kingsman setup has been all but razed, and maybe that was the point. Much like the Jedi Council, this well-meaning order had become anachronistic and needed to be burned to the ground so that it could be rebuilt. Time - and sequels - will tell on that front.

But yes, a brief skydiving segment in the second act establishes Roxy's discomfort with aerial acrobatics, and only seems to set up her role at the film's climax: To ascend via two weather balloons to the very edge of the Earth's atmosphere so that she can take out the evil Valentine's communications satellite with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. That's badass though, right? Well, she undertakes this sub-mission alone after minimal briefing from Merlin (Mark Strong). He exposits the mission, waves her off, then flies Eggsy into a mountain-base in a private jet. At the crucial moment with radio-interaction (and complete with to-the-second countdown), Roxy does indeed manage to destroy the satellite, preventing a psycho-trigger-wave being broadcast around the world. Well done, Roxy (sorry, Lancelot)! But because the film can't end on that note, Richmond Valentine is then informed by his assistant that a Chinese comms satellite is nearby, which could piggy-back the message instead. A quick phone call later (literally) and this happens, meaning the carnage is back on for the film's climax. By this point, the weather balloons have burst, the single missile has been fired, and Roxy gets to miss the rest of the film as she parachutes back to a deserted snow-field, feeling as if she's been given something valuable to do.

Kingsman essentially sets out to prove that gender isn't an issue when it comes to being a secret agent, and then quietly reassures everyone that it is (the film's other female potential-operative, Amelia is despatched early on and later revealed to have been transferred to Berlin to do some filing. I'm not even making that up). It's almost as if so much time was spent on Sofia Boutella's Gazelle character (although not enough to name her on-screen, iirc), that all the other ladies had to take a back seat. Speaking of which…

Princess Tilde
Poor, poor Tilde. As Richmond Valentine works him megalomaniacal charm, influence and intimidation on the Western world's leaders, the only ones to receive speaking roles (the back of an Obama-like's head doesn't count) are the Swedes, who most viewers outside of Sweden won't know anything about (to be fair, neither do I. Look, that's not a deal-breaker). Sweden is represented by a weasely Prime Minister (Bjørn Floberg) who quickly accedes to Valentine's plan, and the younger, more attractive and more female Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), who is shown to be principled but far more naive. This results in a short scene in which Gazelle gets to show off her blades before Tilde is incarcerated for the rest of the movie. She is literally The Princess locked in The Castle that The Knight gets to rescue. That's not necessarily a bad thing in itself given the rest of the structure, but other than a brief cameo one act later, she's essentially an afterthought.

To the screenplay's credit Tilde isn't presented as a prize for Eggsy, The Knight. he doesn't even know she's there until he discovers her locked in her cell after a firefight. But how does a psychologically traumatised young woman respond to the face of a stranger at her cell-door who claims he'll free her once he's taken care of something more important elsewhere in the complex? She offers him bum-sex, of course (literally)! To the screenplay's shame, then she becomes the prize for The Knight! I know I may be reading too much into this, but it's so out-of-kilter with the rest of the film that I'm amazed the exchange made it to the final edit. But it did, and Eggsy's eyes light up as he hurries off to kill Richmond Valentine and return with a bottle of champers and two glasses, the old romantic devil.

What actually amazed me wasn't so much that a character in a film in 2015 with actual speaking lines is reduced to an orifice, but that Eggsy - The Knight - is absolutely fine with this. Not only is the princess's character immeasurably cheapened by what I assume is a throwaway gag, but so is Eggsy's. His mentor, Galahad has spent the last two hours instilling a sense of honour, courtesy and gentlemanly conduct in his protégé, and even when Eggsy and Gazelle have their final showdown, they do so on equal terms (breaking the cinematic cliche of The Girl Goodie being left to take out The Girl Baddie*2). Before the fiim's climactic sequence, when our hero emerges into the private jet's lounge area in a bespoke suit with bespoke weaponry, we know his training is complete; Eggsy isn't just a man now, he's a gentleman. The kind of gentleman who'll be right up for a bit of backdoor action with a vulnerable stranger, apparently. You can take the boy out of South London…

But wait, James Bond used to get the girl too, didn't he? How many of those movies ended with James and his new flame enjoying some downtime whilst his superiors looked, red-faced, into their radio equipment? Well correct me if I'm wrong, but James had actually been on a bit of an adventure with those ladies, hadn't he? He'd spent the film with them and they'd got each other out of a few scrapes along the way. No-one was seriously expecting the shrieks and groans emanating from a parachute-draped dinghy to be the start of a long-term relationship, but James had done more than pull up at a bus stop, wind his window down then ask 'I've just saved the world love, how much?'

So the sequence which was no-doubt intended to be a 21st century redux of the Cheeky Spy Movie Ending has turned out to be a rather blunt instrument. The sort of thing I'd expect in a Seth Rogen/Danny McBride spy movie, not from the people who wrote the last two X-Men flicks…

+ + + + +

I expect more. More tact, more decorum, more… well, writing. As I said at the start, these points in no way ruin the film for me, but they do bother me, and what was initially a quick 'what if?' post has turned into a borderline rant. But if you've made it to the bottom of a review which was clearly marked spoilers then you've probably already seen the film, in which case I'd love your take on these (and any other) issues. There's the comments-box below or the WoB Facebook page, take your pick.

Seriously though, Kingsman is still great.

Is this film worth paying £10+ to see?
Despite my moaning above, yes.

Well, I don't like the cinema. Buy it, rent it, or wait for it to be on telly?
Well if I haven't put you off completely, it's a buyer.

Does this film represent the best work of the leading performer(s)?
Again, despite my moaning above, it's a bloody strong contender, yes.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Well after a post like that, it's difficult to say really.

Oh, and is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
I think there might be. In the film's opening sequence when the helicopter launches a missile at the castle, not the first central explosion, but the second one that takes place to the left of it: I think it's there but low in the mix. If anyone could confirm, that'd be lovely thanks.

…but what's the Star Wars connection?
Oh, other than starring Mace Windu and Luke Skywalker, you mean? Well, Kingsman stars Colin Firth who starred in Love Actually along with Qui-Gon Jinn himself, Liam Neeson. Firth also appeared in Nanny McPhee and Bridget Jones's Diary alongside Celia Imrie, aka Naboo pilot Bravo 5 from The Phantom Menace. Still don't believe me? Okay, Colin Firth was in the rebooted St. Trinians' films the second of which starred David Tennant, whose most famous sci-fi role is of course the Jedi lightsaber construction droid Huyang in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Well, five female characters with actual speaking-lines. I mean, it's not really a lot, is it? Blade-wielding badass Gazelle, Roxy and Amelia from the Kingsman training-camp intake, Eggsy's mum Michelle, and Princess Tilde. The Bechdel Test can't even get its foot in the door if only two of those characters are even in the same room at the same time, never mind speaking to each other.

*2 Although again, that's only because at this point in the film, The Girl Goodie has been left on a mountainside waiting for The Men to come and pick her up from her time-wasting mission.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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