Graphic-novel spy spoof full of visual thrills but lacks human touch

Many of the blockbuster films of the last 10 years have been inspired by characters or situations first found in graphic novels and comic books. Heck, both Marvel and DC Comics have studios now. But it’s not just subject matter dominating the creative transfer anymore. It’s also aesthetic. Movies are being reshaped to correspond with the artistic stylings of graphic novels. And I must confess, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

The latest example of this phenomenon is Kingsman: The Secret Service, a spy spoof drawn from the pages of a graphic novel by Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen). Visually stunning and extravagantly violent and profane, Kingsman is a comic book almost literally translated to the screen.

Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, a proper English gentlemen who is also a deadly and efficacious spy working for a shadowy non-governmental intelligence agency that operates with a Savile Row tailor shop as its front. He and his fellow spies—Arthur, Merlin, and Lancelot (ever so English, they take the names of Camelot knights as their aliases) pride themselves equally on their clandestine prowess and their upper-crust discretion.

The Kingsmen and their newest recruits find themselves combating a megalomaniacal Internet billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) with a plan for world domination and a fiendish lisp.

Kingsman drolly, and sometimes overtly, trades on all the tropes of spy movies and comics: the unflappable hero, the defective villain, inventively cruel henchmen (this one has prosthetic blades for feet!), fanciful weapons, secret lairs, etc. It’s all very clever and entertaining.

But one aspect of the comic book sensibility that doesn’t translate as well is the graphic, casual violence: people are dispatched in this film with great abandon but little human feeling. The numerous extended fight scenes serve only as tableaux of witty ways to wreak mayhem, and after a while they are just exhausting.

Director Matthew Vaughn has a keen sense of both visuals and rhythm, and his recent cinematic efforts (Kick-Ass and X Men: First Class) vibrate with energy. But I long for the more rounded narratives of his earlier films, Stardust and Layer Cake, which had both style and heart.

Everybody in Kingsman is having a good time though. The cast includes spirited performances from Firth (in a major departure from his usual posh roles) and Taron Egerton as “Eggsy,” the new recruit, with sturdy supporting work from Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and Sofia Boutella as assassin Gazelle. Mark Hamill even has a fun, even explosive cameo as a university professor co-opted by the villain.

After the film, I kept thinking of the chaos theorist played by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. Horrified by the idea that the park had so carelessly cloned dinosaurs just because they had the capability, Dr. Malcolm remarked acerbically that “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In a parallel way, Kingsman demonstrates that just because technology allows filmmakers to seamlessly make comic books into movies doesn’t mean that it is always a good idea.


Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.