Matthew Vaughn is one of Guy Ritchie’s disciples. I took his directorial debut, Layer Cake (2004), as a criticism of Ritchies reactionary macho fantasies of brutal sexism, gun pornography and the joy of bullying – all basic ingredients in his postmodern fairy tales of comedy action. However, with his latest film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, he is back on Ritchie track with a James Bond pastiche celebrating the film series at its silliest, the Roger Moore era.
Today’s 007 has largely left the old school antiques to adapt to the Bourne films’ critical look at the intelligence community of the world, but Vaughn takes back this sleazy, chauvinist love song of yesterday’s Imperial fantasies spiced with all the Ritchie ingredients. Just as sad as the film’s metafilmic Bond games are the critics that insist on calling it unpolitical and “rebellious” fun with no harm intended. Usually they are the ones who proclaim that racism and sexism are the supreme rights of the freedom of speech.
I would be astounded if teenagers of today laughs with or even at supervillain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his opponent, Kingsman agent Galahad (Colin Firth) when they declare their love for old far-fetched spy films. Or if they even smile when the plot does everything it possibly can to prove that it is a fossil warmed up in in a not-so-new packaging. I doubt it.
Like the last teenage Bond flick, multi-million dollar failure Stormbreaker (2006), the hero – called Eggsy – is a pop rebel clone of the pre-packaged corporate variety. Aside from the usual ingredients, such as product placement, wacky conspiracies and even wackier weaponry, extreme sports (parkour), bloody fights etcetera, the choice of lead is an attempt to update the Bond ethos of snobbery with violence.
The old Oxbridge snobbery therefore takes a step back to let a new kind step to the forefront, one based on meritocracy. From the agent organization’s Camelot codenames we learn that the old bourgeois gentleman ideal rooted in the aristocratic knighthoods of the medieval age is alive and well. The boss is called Arthur (Michel Caine) and the agents have names taken from the Knights of the Round Table (Galahad, Lancelot a.o.), Merlin (Mark Strong) being the Kingsman’s Q. But in the neoliberal spirit of the times, the filmmakers try to pretend this is all changing.
Out goes privileges based on breed. In comes privileges based on personal achievements. It’s all rubbish, of course, since the film at no time challenges the fact that breed is at the heart of privilege in today’s society, which the Secret Service is set to watch over. Instead we are served the illusion of a society in which there are neither classes nor any class borders. Success is all about will and moral. People of the right stuff can go as far as they want to, losers only have themselves to blame for their failure. Or so the liberal ethos goes.
Sure there are a few jokes poking fun at the snotty Old Boy elite, but it is by far overshadowed by the demonic caricature of the working class. To call the folks in Eggsy’s neighbourhood unwashed, stupid and sadistic are understatements. After the heroic death of Eggsy’s father – a Kingsman disguised as a concrete ghetto dweller – his mother goes downhill in the company of a lazy and drunken Neanderthal, who spends his days in the pub and his nights as a wife-beater. By the look of his friends, he is the norm.
Therefore we are to cheer Eggsy as he, like Richard Gere in a similar fairy-tale some thirty years ago, severs his ties with his shameful past to go up where he belongs as an officer and a gentleman. The mask of egalitarianism is all the more stupid when he is joined by a female colleague. She is, of course, to stay in the background as a date movie alibi to smoothen the sexism, Though it is not likely that girls in the audience will howl triumphantly with the lads as the hero is rewarded for saving the world with the promise of anal sex with Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström).
The final round against the Valentine reveals the weird environmentalist plan to save humanity by destroying it. It a scheme this vulgar African-American villain has successfully marketed to his “brother” Obama the White House and to an aloof British leftist intellectual (Mark Hamill) who is preaching Gaia theory to his students. That’s pure and harmless entertainment, folks: anti-environmentalism fused with anti-intellectualism and racism.
Even when looking solely at the technical and narrative achievements, Kingsman is a dud. A mass murder scene in an American church has a one-second entertainment value only because Colin Firth in a three-piece suit and horn-rimmed glasses looks like an out-of-place British accountant. However, as soon as the killing begins, the action takes on a mechanical ring. It is rather obvious that any ordinary first person shooter game rather than action masters like Peckinpah is the model for Vaughn’s film.
© Michael Tapper, 2015. Web exclusive: michaeltapper.se, January 30, 2015.