The two heroes at the center of the cheeky, highly entertaining English espionage thriller “Kingsman: The Secret Service” – one a master spy, and the other his protege – are a study in opposites. The more senior of the pair, played by Colin Firth, is a dapper, James Bond-like super-agent code-named Galahad. He wears custom suits, speaks in a plummy, refined accent and carries an umbrella that performs double duty as both firearm and, when opened, a bulletproof shield.
His young student, on the other hand, is a rough-around-the edges Cockney lad with an arrest record and an affinity for ballcaps and sneakers. Played by Taron Egerton, Eggsy (as he is known to his friends) is not far from the loutish British youth demographic known as “chavs,” despite an innate sweetness and intelligence that belies his upbringing by a single mother (Samantha Womack) in council housing, a.k.a. the projects.
Like this odd couple, the film is also a mix of the juvenile and the sophisticated. Based on a series of comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, it’s both a sharp send-up of spy movies and a silly celebration of action movie cliches in the Quentin Tarantino mold. Though less bloody than that auteur’s films, “Kingsman” even boasts Samuel L. Jackson as the villain Richmond Valentine, a billionaire Internet entrepreneur with a diabolical plan. His henchwoman, an amputee femme fatale named Gazelle (Sophia Boutella), has prosthetic legs – Oscar Pistorius-like running “blades” – that are, quite literally, lethal weapons.
The plot is at once ridiculous and smart. Though Valentine is intent on human annihilation, he means to achieve this goal not with a doomsday weapon, but with an object whose ubiquity and potential for evil is becoming all too clear in the real world these days: the cellphone. How this unfolds is one of the film’s several pleasures, so I’ll leave it at that.
A major subplot concerns Galahad’s mentorship of Eggsy, who has been recruited by Galahad’s employer: the fictional Kingsman, an independent intelligence agency founded after World War I by members of the gentry. Eggsy must compete against eight candidates for a single slot that has opened in the ranks after the gruesome death, early in the film, of a veteran Kingsman operative (Jack Davenport).
Much of the film concerns Eggsy’s boot camp-like training, in which he must demonstrate – and, in some cases, learn for the first time – resourcefulness, teamwork, patience, loyalty, manners and, of course, the suave communication skills of a secret agent, at least the cinematic kind. One funny scene features Eggsy and his fellow recruits in a bar, where they have been assigned to use their “NLP training,” or neuro-linguistic programming – yes, it’s a real thing – to attempt to seduce the same woman with a blend of high-brow psychological manipulation and time-tested, if cheesy, pick-up lines.
It’s one of several clever, self-aware examples of “Kingsman’s” tendency to mix the new and the old. After Eggsy adopts a puppy, a requirement of Kingsman training, he names it J.B. – not for James Bond or Jason Bourne, as Galahad suspects, but for Jack Bauer. When Eggsy is being fitted for dress shoes – and learning the difference between oxfords and brogues – Galahad tells him, in a nod to “Get Smart” (itself a parody of spy movies), that, “in the old days, they had a phone in the heel.”
Of course, this being a modern movie, there’s loads of violence, though most of it is bloodless and surprisingly balletic. One massacre, set in a conservative Christian church in the American Deep South, is a master class in cartoonish fight choreography. Another set piece, featuring a room full of exploding human heads, looks like technicolor Orville Redenbacher popcorn. It’s more comedic than disturbing.
Not all gags, however, pop. Jackson’s lisping way of speaking, for example, while funny at first, quickly becomes annoying. And a dirty joke near the film’s end, which portrays Eggsy as way more lecherous than we have been given to believe – and less interested in his fellow Kingsman recruit Roxy (Sophie Cookson) than some may have hoped – comes across as crass.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, who, with co-writer Jane Goldman previously adapted Millar’s “Kick-Ass,” “Kingsman” delivers on its promise of escapist fun, with a touch that alternates between Galahad’s old-school polish and Eggsy’s roguish charm. Like the rookie who knows that you have to make a few mistakes while following the master, the movie shrugs off its missteps with a wink and a smile that makes them easy to forgive.
“KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE,” starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong and Michael Caine. Rated R for violence, obscenity, brief nudity and suggestive dialogue. Running time: 2:10