A phrase you’ll see a lot when talking about Espionage films is “Post-Bourne”. Paul Greengrass gets all the credit for this, but it was Doug Liman’s direction of Tony Gilroy’s script that reset the template and expectations for the action-spy genre in 2002. In fact, the Bourne Identity was probably just an early example of the “Grimdark” approach to our heroic fantasies that would reach its zenith with the Dark Knight , and whose hangover is still patently apparent in, say, the new treatment of the Fantastic Four . The largest genre films of the past couple of years have been similarly bleak – Hunger Games, anyone? The swing back to goofy action gained major impetus last year from Guardians of the Galaxy , which I personally thought was a resounding success almost solely because it was vaguely happy. Kingsman represents part of that swing back to simply joyous fun, where a spy can have cool gadgets and get the trophy woman at the end, but unlike Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s suffering from that “Grimdark” hangover, creating almost jaw-dropping tonal inconsistencies, apparent basically from the opening scenes. This is perhaps a deliberately unresolvable contradiction at the heart, as expressed by the following picture.
The film opens three times. The first opening takes place in “The Middle East”, with a generic set of sacrificial Arabs and a castle that could be anywhere within a few thousand miles of Baghdad. Without the cheesy title card, it wouldn’t be out of place in any number of low-rent actioners from the 1980s. A cursory mission fatality is swiftly followed by a typically stilted scene of unofficial condolences and the promise of a favour in exchange for the dead husband and father. We then get a second opening in snowy mountains, where a terrified scientist is being reassured by his thuggish kidnappers that he will come to no harm. A knock at the door reveals Jack Davenport, who in hyper-kinetic violence disposes of the kidnappers easily, while snatching a glass of fine whiskey from mid-air as the last henchman meets his demise. “Lancelot” in his turn meets his end immediately afterwards – comically sliced in half by the razor-sharp artificial legs of the chief evil assassin. It is only then that we get the real opening, of our protagonist “Eggsie”, engaging in what is supposed to be a laddish bit of working-class japery with local thugs and a stolen car.
Three completely different aesthetics with three completely different emotional ranges and cinematic language. When we meet the protagonist, we’re no longer sure what kind of movie we’re watching, which at least make’s Kingsman it’s own kind of film as it becomes increasingly incoherent. The world in which four of these super-spy figures can’t handle a single victim already tied to a chair is almost impossible to reconcile with the utter devastation wrought by a single member of the cadre, and neither has much to do with the putatively working-class laddish comedy we appear to be getting in the third opening. These things can coexist, if handled properly, but here they are simply abutted, leaving the audience to try and find an emotional and experiential through-line. This is a basic lack of structural clarity that will recur throughout the film, at times bizarrely repeating scenes, such as Eggsie’s introduction to the Kingsman front organization and their secret tools, which takes place in various slight variations three times.
This is my basic problem with the film, Kingsman absolutely requires the audience to follow along and buy into Eggsie and Galahad’s stories because of their structural prominence as protagonists – it requires trust. Yet at the same time, it over-explains minor plot points, giving the appearance of not trusting the audience to be familiar with genre conventions even as it relies entirely upon these for its effect. The point of the first opening scene is to show rather than tell the obligation that Galahad feels towards Eggsie – but it’s so tangential and so cursory and such a familiar genre trope that all it does is introduce a tonal discontinuity that will haunt the film from its opening scene. There are countless films in which this sense of obligation could be taken as read and introduced when it becomes relevant.
I think that Goldman and Vaughn are aware of what they’re doing, and what they’re asking from the audience. There are three scenes where the characters in the film almost attain some kind of awareness and I felt like there was someone behind the lens who knew what they were doing – the two showdowns between Galahad and Valentine and the final confrontation between Eggsie and Valentine. In these three scenes, the characters talk explicitly about the genre conventions that are up for grabs in the film. What is the scope of the plan, who are the actors and how do they accomplish what they want? Each of these scenes ends well, with a sparkling retort that shows that the characters are aware of what they’re doing, rather than just bizarrely enacting this incoherent fantasy of the writers. And perhaps those solid moments, interspersed with glimpses of good taste and deft story control make the overall incoherence that much more frustrating. Goldman and Vaughn can do better and have done better in the past.
Everyone I’ve spoken to has a problem with the film’s ending – but actually they have a problem with the first of two endings and I think the second is almost as unforgivable, for entirely different reasons. After the completely gratuitous anal-sex joke, in which a kidnapped royal is almost literally gifted to Eggsie as a reward for saving the world (isn’t saving the world its own reward?), the film carries on to one final scene that really shows the root of the structural problems in the film. Eggsie returns to his old pub, where the film really began for him, and where Galahad showed him the persuasive power of violence as a proxy for good manners. Eggsie replays the scene almost verbatim, playing the role of Galahad, and tipping the empty hand of the film-makers. In the first scene, Galahad was improvising and extemporising, driven by a complex of motives – grief over the loss of a comrade, irritation at the thugs, and a desire to impress Eggsie. Eggsie is simply mimicking his master, parroting back lines which are hollow in his mouth. When Galahad explains to the thugs that “manners maketh the man”, he is responding to the world as he finds it – but Eggsie has a decades-long feud with the thugs when he fights them. Instead of expressing a sincerely felt resentment for long-term abuse, he falls back on Galahad’s lines. The casual violence between Galahad and the thugs is of an entirely different emotional order from Eggsie venting feelings that have been suppressed or frustrated his whole life.
Similarly, throughout the film Goldman and Vaughn have been selling us back a polished but empty recapitulation of a copy of the great original action spy stories. In Kick-Ass, they found material which genuinely challenged the genre conventions within which they were working, but in Kingsman, they have created a simulacrum. For all the moments of awareness and interest, Kingsman has nothing new to say about anything, it has no deeper or more profound wisdom to offer. It comes tantalizingly close many times to genuinely having something to say, but ultimately, this film is completely empty. The resolution of the central tension I saw in the still I’ve linked to above could have provided that genuine core of philosophy and value. The problem with Galahad’s world is precisely the emotionally-dead and stilted response, which in Zizek’s terms , needs to be revitalised with an injection of life from the lower classes. The solution for meaning in this film is precisely for Eggsie to redefine what “Kingsman” means in meaningful personal terms. The order he has inherited is shown to be bankrupt, but instead of rebuilding something with meaning, Eggsie folds back into the completely degenerate spy archetype he found in Galahad. If this film was supposed to show the value in the pre-Bourne mode of Espionage action, it has failed. What a missed opportunity.
 See Zizek’s discussion of Titanic in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.