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Review

Suave yet with comic book energy, 'Kingsman' goes spying

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
With 'Kingsman' on the scene, James Bond encounters a bit of competition in the spy spoof genre

"Kingsman: The Secret Service," starring a natty Colin Firth, a newbie Taron Egerton and a naughty Samuel L. Jackson, is a dry, wry sendup of the 007 world, which is itself a sly, dry sendup of the spy game.

Directed by "Kick-Ass" action specialist Matthew Vaughn with slightly more vigor than necessary and a shade less restraint than needed, it's a bit too too to be "brilliant," as the Brits say. But it's not half bad either.

Based on a comic book — isn't everything these days? — the idea spun from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons' "The Secret Service" is as rich with possibilities as the spy genre is for spoofing. So is the bizarre weaponry, always good for a laugh in "Kingsman," from basics like a lethal fountain pen or cigarette lighter/hand grenade to the exotic Oscar Pistorius-style racing blades of one sultry Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) that can slice a man in half in mere seconds.

Unlike the fire power, foot power and fisticuffs, however, the script doesn't always hit its mark. Still, the screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman ("Stardust") is at times wickedly witty, having fun not just with spies but the British obsession with social class. If you can forgive the failings for at least some of the two-plus-hour running time, "Kingsman" serves up its share of entertaining froth.

Much of that is due to Firth, the film's true star. The Oscar-winning actor, who tends to be equally engaging in comedy and drama, plays the most revered Kingsman, Harry Hart, code name Galahad. Firth, displaying a charming bravado, genuinely seems to be having the time of his life playing a well-turned-out action hero.

In keeping with Knights of the Round Table code names, the Secret Service's leader is Arthur (Michael Caine). The villain is Valentine (Jackson), a mega-billionaire obsessed with global warming and old movies, which seem to be his reference point for all things. Seeded through the film, it's a conceit that movie buffs will likely enjoy.

Valentine has a nefarious "solution" for the planet's temperature problems that involves free SIM cards implanted in the populace so the world can text and talk as much as its wants. And he can rid the world of its texters and talkers when he wants.

There are few actors who can walk the bad guy/funny guy tightrope with quite the aplomb of Jackson. Every time the actor shows up in the midst of the mayhem of "Kingsman," he never fails to dole out a little comic relief. Gazelle is his girlfriend, bodyguard and No. 1 warrior. The special effects used to allow the actress to spin, slice and dice any adversary with those prosthetic running blades is quite amazing, though whether it represents a step forward for people with disabilities or not is a tough call. (Boutella is not disabled herself.)

Like Bond, "Kingsman" is British-suave, from its agents' tailored suits to its machine-gun-quality bumper shoots. It begins with a mission gone wrong. An agent, whose lower-class background Arthur always questioned, explodes while saving Harry. His son Eggsy is left with an apology and a medal of honor with a phone number etched on back than can only be used once in an emergency.

Seventeen years later, the death of another agent opens the way for a single replacement candidate to the Kingsman elite. Harry sponsors a now grown-up Eggsy after he bails him out of jail — that one emergency call finally used. We've gotten a glimpse of what the intervening years have been like for Eggsy, basically a hard-luck life for him and his mum, a vicious stepdad, and a talent for the extreme obstacle sport parkour.

The street-wise Eggsy is the only commoner in the Kingsman training class. The rest are upper-crust guys, Oxford or Cambridge grads, and a smart, pedigreed lass named Roxy (Sophie Cookson). Sparks between Eggsy and Roxy will fly.

The man putting the kids through their paces is code named Merlin (Mark Strong). He is also Harry's best friend in the Service and along with Harry becomes Eggsy's mentor. He's the solid center you need in the kind of stormy conflicts kicked up in these films.

Much of the movie is about making Eggsy into a spy. No need to look for movie allusions; Harry offers up "Trading Places" by example, Eggsy comes back with "My Fair Lady." Needless to say, it's a process to take Eggsy from street thug to gentleman spy.

The action is over the top and excessive and exceptionally well staged, with director of photography George Richmond doing a bang-up job making it remarkably easy to follow. The fighting style keeps the emphasis on comedy, the blood is almost nonexistent and the exploding heads at times are ethereal abstractions and quite stunning to watch. Production designer Paul Kirby, costume designer Arianne Phillips and music maestros Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson keep the lightness, brightness and wryness going.

It all helps remind us that "Kingsman" is very much rooted in the comic book fantasy realm. Don't take it too seriously and you'll have a little fun.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'Kingsman: The Secret Service'

MPAA rating: R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content

Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

Playing: In general release

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