Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service: B-

Take the cheeky hyper-violence of the Kick-Ass superhero movies, apply them to the James Bond formula (more Roger Moore than Daniel Craig), and — voila! — you have director Matthew Vaughn's latest adaptation of a Mark Millar comic book, Secret Service.

Not smart enough to be truly meta, this ADHD-paced, nuance-free bit of brain candy is wildly energetic and has a smirk a mile wide but mistakenly believes that self-awareness compensates for a storyline that's cliché. Vaughn and Co. name-drop Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer (while invoking the sophistication of John Steed from The Avengers), but really they should be comparing their oh-veddy British efforts to In Like Flint and Matt Helm, American spy-movie spoofs that similarly tried to toe the line between humor and homage.

Colin Firth is Harry Hart, aka Galahad, a dapper secret agent for a clandestine spy network that's run out of a Savile Row tailor's shop named Kingsman. When a fellow operative is murdered and somebody discovers that a lispy, plutocratic mad genius (Samuel L. Jackson) has devised a plan to murder billions of people, Hart must simultaneously find a replacement agent and thwart the dastardly scheme. Enter working-class Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the underachieving son of a former agent who must now outcompete a gaggle of priggish, boarding-school recruits while undergoing (as he himself mentions) an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation in order to join the ultra-suave Kingsmen. Of course, that means passing tests only streetwise Eggsy can solve, surprising everyone with his physical skills, attracting the attentions of a rival female recruit, and proving to be a better all-round chap to have around when the chips are down.

Kingsman is based on a comic book, and the film never lets you forget it, with its crude, laddish jokes and pulp affectations. Vaughn gleefully banishes all subtlety and taste from his film as he stages each rambunctiously bloody action sequence to highlight just how preposterous they are. The stylish standout is a brawl-like massacre in which Firth's Galahad is forced to take on a right-wing, hate-mongering congregation of Kentucky churchgoers. It's a tour de force fight sequence that even manages to mockingly reference Britain's Night of the Proms.

Despite the inclusion of a few female characters, Kingsman flirts with being just another chapter of the He-Man Women Hater's Club. Merging the hot model assistant and evil henchman into one lethal package, Sofia Boutella plays Jackson's deadly bodyguard, sadistically slicing adversaries in half with her razor-sharp blades for legs. This sets the stage for a man-kicks-chick's ass climax that's hard to cheer. Meanwhile, Eggsy's mum is a doormat for her thug boyfriend, and fellow female recruit Roxy is banished to the sidelines with an afterthought of a mission that supposedly buys our hero a few extra minutes. And what is Eggsy's big reward for saving the world? Why, anal sex with a Swedish princess, of course (it's her suggestion, if that helps).

Kingsman is entertaining in its way and occasionally clever, but also relentlessly smug and sexist. What's particularly disappointing is that there is something more interesting brewing beneath its shiny surfaces. With shades of 1 percent entitlement and climate change concerns creeping into the plot, Vaughn and fellow screenwriter Jane Goldman miss the opportunity to infuse some trenchant satire into their blood-drenched set pieces. Alas, Anglo jingoism, name-checking other films, and mixed messages about elitism end up ruling the day as the film rounds the bend into its "let's blow everything up" ending.

Firth, it must be said, seems to be having a grand ol' time as he simultaneously reinvents himself as a kick-ass super spy and classes up the film. Jackson chews the scenery with an otherwise charmless villain (he's an Internet mogul with a speech impediment), Michael Caine is wasted, and newcomer Egerton (at least, new to this side of the pond) proves to be a capable lead, demonstrating both physical prowess and solid acting chops.

Which leaves us with director Vaughn, who at first seemed like he had more in him than just another larky action flick. Since his debut with Layer Cake, his output has been undeniably slick but mostly uninspired. 2011's X-Men: First Class breathed some much-needed life into the Fox superhero franchise, bringing with it style and pizzazz. Kingsman is an unfortunate step backward, a return to his gonzo fanboy approach to Kick-Ass. Let's hope this talented filmmaker aims a little higher than an ultra-violent version of Austin Powers next time out.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is rated R and has a running time of 129 minutes.

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