Eggsy (Egerton), a young kid from the wrong side of the track, finds himself recruited by Harry Hart (Firth), a smooth spy for an international covert agency called Kingsman. Meanwhile, an eccentric billionaire threatens to wipe out most of the world’s population.
It’s hard to argue with a billion bucks at the box office, of course, but at the same time it’s hard not to feel that the Bournification of the James Bond franchise may have robbed 007 of his sense of fun. These days, the upper lip is so stiff that it’s impossible for the old man to raise his eyebrow.
Which is where Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service comes in. It’s got ingenious gadgets, suave heroes with the ability to identify a rare brand of Scotch from smell alone, megalomaniacal villains and deadly henchwomen with blades where their legs used to be. It’s filthy, funny and very violent - and frankly it’s the most fun 007 has been in years.
But of course, it’s not Bond at all. It’s Vaughn’s tribute to spy movies, in much the same impish way that his Kick-Ass was a rocket-fuelled, foul-mouthed tip of the hat to superhero flick. As such it wears its influences on its immaculately tailored sleeve. So Colin Firth’s super-spy Harry Hart wears Harry Palmer specs, brandishes a John Steed umbrella, and has more than a touch of Solo (Napoleon, not Han) about him. But it’s Bond’s shadow that looms largest over the movie, with Ian Fleming’s creation regularly name-checked in an oh-so-post-modern way.
“Vaughn, though, is something of a cultural magpie, and the film doffs its trilby to other inspirations, from Trading Places and My Fair Lady to Men In Black, as Harry takes Eggsy under his wing and teaches him to become a gentleman and a killer. Full Metal Smoking Jacket, if you will.
When the mentor/mentee duo are together, in slyly-written takes on Bond staples like the Q scene, their chemistry fairly crackles. Firth, in particular, is clearly having the time of his life with the deadpan-but-warm Harry, while newcomer Taron Egerton, bringing charm to Eggsy’s rough edges, is clearly the latest off the Vaughn conveyor belt of new talent that has disgorged the likes of Chloe Grace Moretz and Sienna Miller.
However, the film strains to keep them apart - Harry during his investigation of Samuel L. Jackson’s lisping villain, and Eggsy in a fairly rote training section. In fact, apart from a few F-bombs and an early scene where Harry teaches a pub full of hooligans some manners, the first hour is all a little conventional, even a little tame. Where, you might ask, is the Vaughn who unleashed Hit-Girl upon an unsuspecting public?
And then he shows up, firstly with a sustained, supercharged melee - scored, memorably, to the wailing guitar solo of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird - in which Firth shoots, stabs, impales, strangles, explodes and immolates a whole bunch of people in a way that would make Bridget Jones soil her massive pants. Exhilarating, morally dubious and exhausting, it pitches the film headfirst into its utterly demented third act. Here, the 007 is cranked all the way up to 0011, including an outrageous and, potentially for some, offensive riff on the coy double entendres of that series’ codas (“he’s attempting re-entry, sir”). It all culminates in an audacious and gloriously OTT visual conceit that you simply won’t have seen before in a mainstream movie. And how often can you say that? Talk about keeping the British end up.
Perhaps the riskiest mainstream movie in years, Vaughns love letter to spy movies may be uneven in places, but its ultra-violent, envelope-pushing, and fun enough to overcome the flaws. Bond with the stabilisers taken off.