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Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service is not particularly intelligent, mature or able to fully escape the shadow of a certain other Matthew Vaughn film, but it is a hell of a lot of fun.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

kingsman 2Matthew Vaughn is now one of the best action directors working today.  That feels really weird and kinda wrong to type and say, but it’s honestly true by this point.  The guy who got his start producing Guy Ritchie crime films and directing Layer Cake is now one of the best action movie directors working today.  It all, however, becomes more than clear when one actually watches Kingsman: The Secret Service.  In stark contrast to the typical way of shooting action films, Vaughn doesn’t shake the camera around like a drunkard who is sobering up, he doesn’t keep it tightly zoomed in on the characters in a misguided attempt to make the viewer feel like they’re there, and he doesn’t rapidly cut between sixteen different shots to mask any violence in incomprehensibility.

Instead, Kingsman is fond of actually showing you stuff.  He prefers longer takes with slightly steadier cameras, although they do shake, that keep enough distance from the people that it’s filming without losing the impact of the various hits.  In addition, Vaughn is a man of style, flinging himself into the comic book world of Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ source material with gleeful abandon.  Choreography is wild and exaggerated – many unnecessary flips, highly impractical moves, and operating on rule of cool more than anything else – and he plays with speed to great effect.  There are instances of the obvious Zack Snyder super-slo-mo-then-speed-up-then-slow-down-again school of filmmaking, but most of the time things are more subtle, employing brief doses of hyper-speed to enhance the kineticism of the fight scenes as well as purposefully jarring usages of CG’d environments and stitched together shots.

This all ends up creating action scenes that feel very reminiscent of the Lucas Lee fight from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and the entirety of The World’s End, like Matthew Vaughn saw what Edgar Wright was doing and, instead of merely taking notes, lifted pretty much the whole aesthetic for himself.  It really, really works, though.  When Kingsman does get into its action scenes, they end up being a tonne of glorious fun.  Much like when he directed Kick-Ass, Vaughn displays a gleeful rather teenage enthusiasm for action sequences, prioritising fun and coolness over logic, reality and good taste.  In its standout sequence, Vaughn ends up crafting an utterly ridiculous brawl that starts off feeling like slightly uncomfortable wish-fulfilment bad taste, but becomes so gloriously deranged – aided by a perfect music cue – and so impeccably staged and shot that I ended up revelling with the film in its excessive line-crossing mayhem.  It’s the kind of action scene that films don’t have the balls to make nowadays.

That’s what Kingsman has going for it.  Pure glorious debauched fun, where you can also actually make out what’s going on, which is an incredibly nice change of pace from humourless incomprehensible dreck like Taken 3, The Equalizer and their ilk.  I mean, it’s not the only thing going for it, but it is the main thing going for it and the thing that powers it through most of its problems.  Vaughn’s direction is always pacey and stylish, the performances are all excellent – in particular, relative newcomer Taron Egerton really nails lead character Eggsy’s innate goodness without losing sight of the fact that he’s a mischievous young adult, whilst Colin Firth legitimately (and surprisingly) impresses as a halfway convincing action movie star – and there are many legitimate belly-laughs to be found within.

This all being said, Kingsman does have many problems.  For one, at two hours and change, it is too long and that sustained energy eventually starts feeling a bit tiring at many points where the film isn’t going full-tilt.  For two, whilst I do give the film points for a female lead character, in the shape of competing Kingsman candidate Roxy (Sophie Cookson), I do take those points back for the film not really giving her much to do, despite making a big deal out of her existence.  This is actually a problem with the film overall, lots of time is spent on certain characters and plotlines – the main ones involving chav Eggsy beings groomed by Colin Firth’s Harry Hart to become the latest Kingsman, a member of an elite and highly secretive spy organisation, whilst tech billionaire Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson) puts into play an evil plan that threatens the world – and that split can, at times, leave the film feeling unfocussed and underdeveloped in parts.

More of an issue than those, though, is the simple fact that Kingsman is not Kick-Ass.  And I’m not just saying that because it’s the same people who made Kick-Ass the film (Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman) adapting work by the same people who made Kick-Ass the comic (Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons).  Kingsman has that same anarchic tone, that same gleeful desire to revel in immaturity, that same stylish nature, the same attempt at melding action and comedy, that same irritating self-conscious insistence on having characters refer to the type of movie the film is trying to be in-dialogue, that same shock death of [REDACTED] at the two-thirds mark…  I think you see what the problem is.

Kingsman ends up hitting a lot of Kick-Ass’ beats only without the surprise impact that Kick-Ass had back in 2010.  It’s also kinda just a lesser movie in general.  It’s nowhere near as funny, most of its cast isn’t as developed, its pace over the runtime isn’t as well managed, and I rarely found it as giddy and grin-inducingly brilliant as I found, and still find, Kick-Ass to be.  It feels less vital, less like a shot in my movie-going arm, and less brilliant than that film, basically.  When it’s going full-tilt, pushing itself well past the typical limits of immaturity and backing utterly ridiculous extended displays of violence in sync to “Pomp And Circumstance”, that lower-quality Xerox feeling rescinds completely and the film is a delight to watch.  When it slows down from that, though, my personal being was filled equally with enjoyment for what I was watching but also a desire to just watch Kick-Ass again.

That all being said, Kingsman: The Secret Service is still a delight and a far better film than its last minute delay and eventual January release date would have you believe.  In its lesser moments, it’s a less-great version of Kick-Ass.  In the moments when it’s on fire, and those do eventually come and my word are they glorious, it sets a high bar for the rest of 2015’s action films to clear.  Superbly directed, very well acted, and a great deal of fun, Kingsman is very much a delight that, although it never overcomes the shadow of Kick-Ass, is another excellent entry into the filmography of Matthew Vaughn: one of the best action movie directors working today.

Still feels weird saying that.

Kingsman: The Secret Service will be released in UK cinemas on January 29th, and in US cinemas on February 13th.

Callum Petch is as free as a bird now.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Failed Critics Podcast: Talkin’ ’bout Picking Our Globes

foxcatcherDISCLAIMER: If you’ve downloaded this podcast in order to torture ears belonging to either you or somebody else with horrendous screeching sounds and unbearably loud-then-quiet distortion, then you’ve come to the wrong place. Steve and Owen somehow managed to keep the podcast from trying to destroy itself and have produced their first actual audible episode of 2015. Quite the achievement, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Not only is the sound quality bearable, but our debutant guest this week, Andrew Brooker, chimes in with some great reviews of Foxcatcher, Into The Woods and The Salvation that are well worth a listen.

The trio also mull over the results of last weekend’s Golden Globes;  review the upcoming Reese Witherspoon movie Wild;  and lay into Olivier Megaton for somehow making Taken 3 worse than it was expected to be. There’s even time for Steve and American sports fan Brooker to discuss Draft Day and for Owen to go on even more about Bruce Lee with Enter The Dragon.

Join us next week for reviews of new releases American Sniper and Whiplash.



Taken 3

A predictable but acceptable plot, with the always reliable modern action film icon Neeson performing well enough, belied by some dodgy direction decisions and insufferable action set pieces.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

taken 3 2Does anyone still remember 2012? It wasn’t that long ago. Back when times were simpler. Well, they were simpler for me anyway. Back then, James was still the site editor and I was just a lowly Brummie who accidentally joined his fledgling film entertainment podcast after covering for an incapacitated Gerry.

Nevertheless, it also happened to be around August of that year that I watched the original Taken film for the first time, almost two months prior to the release of its sequel. Like a lot of other people, I too loved it, as much of a latecomer as I was. As a throwback to classic Stallone-era action thrillers with its outright evil bad guy, cannon fodder in every scene and an escalating sense of dread, it was immensely entertaining. Not only that, but the European location, fast pace, brutal execution scenes and anti-hero character of Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), a former CIA Agent hunting down the nasty non-American’s in Paris who’ve taken his daughter (Maggie Grace), it also meant it was the contemporary thriller for a new generation. It left behind the steroid-enhanced pectorals and biceps of the 80’s, the hair gel and smirking faces of the 90’s, and went instead for simply an ordinary looking (yet highly skilled) father tracking down his abducted daughter.

Each decade has its own action movies that defines it. Whether through the real blossoming of the genre in the 60’s in Where Eagles Dare, or a James Cameron blockbuster such as True Lies in the 90’s. There’s always at least one movie that seems recognisably “of its time”, yet still produces enormous amounts of satisfaction even today. I believe that the genre during the 2000’s is defined by three movies. Most notably, The Bourne Identity, Casino Royale and Taken. Not necessarily my favourites, but they’re the Die Hard‘s of their decade; the Rambo‘s of their time. At a push, in the first half of this decade, I suppose you could state that the defining action films so far would probably be The Raid and/or the comic book adventure actioners like Avengers Assemble; though there’s still plenty of time left for someone to pull a new classic out of the bag! Maybe this will finally be the decade that belongs to Van Damme? I can but hope.

As for Taken‘s sequels, they’re not quite so iconic or game changing. I’m not going to discuss Taken 2 in great detail. James made a stance back in 2012, and it seems only fair to continue to honour it. However, Taken 3 (or Tak3n as it is called by people trying to save a couple of characters in their Tweets) is fair game as far as I’m concerned.

It’s the first in the franchise to be set entirely in the USA. Immediately, that is cause for some concern. Part of what made Taken so distinguishable was that overriding Luc Besson European influence. The plot to Tak3n sees Bryan set up for the murder of his ex-wife. Using his very particular skills acquired over a long career, he is on the run from the law (led by Forest Whitaker making his debut in the series) whilst trying to get the person responsible… before they get to his daughter!

To say the previous film was great would be a lie. It isn’t. At all. The PG-13 (12A) rating held back on some of the violence and bad language, but it still had a grim ferocity underlining it. Murder was committed not in the name of justice, but revenge; and you were still somehow rooting for the guy doing it. The problem I had is that although the severity may not be as toned down as the majority of 12A movies, in most cases the more extreme moments are implied or happen off screen (which somehow makes it more acceptable to younger audiences?)

With Taken 3, this is still a problem. It too is a 12A in order to reach as wide an audience as possible, despite not actually changing the message of the film. It just has no blood and very little swearing, which suddenly means it’s fine for those under 12 to watch. Odd that, isn’t it? Best not to corrupt their mind with too many “fuck”‘s or “shit”‘s, eh? But let’s have this guy shoot someone in the face, that’s all dandy.

Sorry, went off on a bit of a tangent then. Anyway, it’s the use of jump-cuts during the action sequences that is absolutely horrendous to look at rather than the level of violence. It’s a bloody action film that, first of all, hides most of the action. If that’s not bad enough, the relentless jump-cutting during absolutely everything intended to be thrilling does little more than induce fits of nausea. I counted along with the more elaborate action scenes to see how long each shot was on screen for before it flicked to the next. Literally (literally literally, not figuratively literally) one second per shot. Whether it was Bryan first evading the police after finding Leonore’s (Famke Janssen) lifeless body in his apartment, or chasing down an aeroplane in a Porsche, there was barely any time to even register what you were seeing, nevermind make sense of it all. Bourne is often credited with originating this in the modern actioner. As per a discussion I had on Twitter recently, the word “frenetic” used to describe “a mess” instead of inferring “energy” in a scene can probably be attributed to the way the swarm of Doug Liman/Paul Greengrass copycats failed to emulate the Bourne films. But this really is a mess. Director Olivier Megaton apparently doesn’t even like action movies, yet was convinced to direct the series because he was told he was good at shooting them. Whoever told him that needs shooting.

That’s not to say the the film is entirely bad. The plot is quite a simple one, but then that’s always worked in Taken‘s favour. It’s an action-come-revenge thriller series. It has a few twists and reveals, a change of character here, an unexpected death there. It’s just that of the three so far, this is the most predictable. I don’t care what you think, nobody could’ve predicted using grenades as an impromptu sat-nav in Taken 2.

It’s not even the characters that let it down; Forest Whitaker’s introduction and dodgy police work was absolutely fine, all things considered. As were all of Neeson’s former CIA buddies, come to mention it, who I personally would’ve liked to have seen more of. Sure, the baddies are slightly generic, with their faux non-specific Eastern European accents, but they more than fulfill their role in the plot.

Liam Neeson is always watchable in these films (when you can see him in between the psychedelic jump cuts, that is). Whether it’s Unknown, The Grey or last year’s Non-Stop and A Walk Among the Tombstones, 7 or 8 years ago it would seem bizarre to say it, but he is now the archetypal modern action hero and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a good thing. It’s just a shame that Taken 3 is not a better platform for him to perform in.

The end of the film does suggest a Taken 4 (or T4ken) and that should be no surprise to anyone. The runaway success of the original, initially thought to be little more than a DVD-earner, suggests they will continue to make these movies until Neeson quits or Besson stops making a profit on them. With a better director, an improved script and (dare I say it) an 18 rating, there is still potential left in the series. Somewhere. Probably.

Taken 3 is in cinemas right now and you can hear Owen talk about it on the next episode of the Failed Critics podcast.