I’m on board with this in principle — scrappy council-house kid gives stuffy old-rich-gentlemen’s club a kick in the ass is a solid enough baseline for the old-fashioned secret-agents-save-the-world story, and scenes of over-the-top, balletic violence provide an enticing hook. This is also an origin story — the jumping-off point for an obviously hoped-for franchise turning the film’s unknown Welsh star, Taron Egerton, into a street-smart action hero — and so we spend much of the film stuck in spy-school, where director Matthew Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman spit up a range of pre-chewed chestnuts from the history of elite-training narratives on film to show how fatherless protag “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) earns his super-spy status under the mentorship of the ever-dapper veteran Harry (Colin Firth). It’s not unpleasant, but it doesn’t go anywhere new.
The ensuing on-screen combat is certainly energetic, but it borrows an awful lot from the kind of cartoonish, Hong Kong-inflected tableaux that Tarantino perfected in the Kill Bill films. (If you’ve been hankering to see another one of those scenes where someone gets split cleanly from crotch to crown, the two halves of the body starting to slip slowly down the frame like a couple of wet steaks, boy, does Kingsman have the opening sequence you’ve been waiting for.) What sends the film over the top is the misanthropy that Vaughn brings to the table, most notably in a scene set in a rural church where a congregation of “God hates fags” types are massacred as “Freebird” blasts conspicuously on the soundtrack. The laziness of this easy American caricature being drawn as an excuse for a bloodthirsty fight scene rankles a bit. But Vaughn’s blatant swipe from the Southern-fried climax of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects is the more heinous cinematic crime—Skynyrd’s delirious gee-tar pyrotechnics would make perfect sense as lyrical counterpoint to the vertiginous swoops of Vaughn’s camera if the film actually took sides with Southern Man, which it doesn’t.
Vaughn’s (and Goldman’s) treatment of women is similarly half-assed. OK, there’s a fairly cool supervillain (with prosthetic legs!) in the mode of Sin City’s Miho and Kill Bill’s Gogo Yubari. But on the side of the righteous? There is one female secret agent, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who ably completes her training (with the help of a few attagirls from dear Eggsy) before being shunted aside with a nebulous mission as the film approaches its action climax (seriously, she’s attached to a pair of weather balloons and sent floating up into the stratosphere to shoot at a satellite) so that her male counterpart can go get the job done with his fists. Eggsy’s widowed mother, Michelle (Samantha Womack), has gone completely to pot without the kid’s dad in the house, taking up with a skeevy pub rat who treats her poorly and jokes about having her in a threesome with his skeevy pub rat friends.
And the only other woman of note in the film is a damsel in distress — the Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström, the poor woman) — whose sole story function is to be the butt of a vulgar joke at the film’s conclusion. Vaughn swears up and down that the gag itself isn’t sexist, but rather a parody of the always sexually available girls of Connery-era Bond films. And, fine, I believe him. It’s just a stupid joke. If he had a halfway decent female character to feed the line to, it might even have been funny.