'Kingsman: The Secret Service': Film Review

Firth enters new territory with style and grace, anchoring a smart, high-energy movie that eventually runs out of steam.

Old-school spycraft meets cartoonish high jinks in a comic book adaptation starring Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson

Playing a world-saving and somewhat world-weary superagent, Colin Firth is the epitome of suave, as lethal as he is elegant, in the spy thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service. His sad-eyed heroics ground the comic book adaptation, while Samuel L. Jackson brings the goofball villainy, big-time, as a mad genius who concocts a ticking time bomb of a scheme.

As he did in X-Men: First Class, director Matthew Vaughn strikes an energetic balance between cartoonish action and character-driven drama, though the tinge here is darker, with a story that hinges on matters of climate change, the insidiousness of technology and the class divide. The mix grows less seamless and the story loses oomph as it barrels toward its doomsday countdown, but the cast's dash and humor never flag. And if the movie sometimes panders shamelessly to fanboys, that could serve it well upon its February release, when it goes head-to-head against a fantasy of another persuasion: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Just as the cast combines masterly screen vets and impressive newcomers, the film embraces old-school undercover sensibilities while updating them. A self-contained adventure, as opposed to a franchise-launching introductory chapter, the screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman is based on a comic book series by Kick-Ass writer Mark Millar and Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons (published by Marvel imprint Icon). Like its source material, it uses pop culture references to sharp effect. My Fair Lady, for example, provides an unlikely punch line. And there's more than a touch of Bond — James Bond — in the globe-trotting, London-based escapades.

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Kingsman is the name of the Savile Row menswear shop that serves as HQ for an organization of impeccably dressed gentleman spies. Headed by the inscrutable Arthur (an extended cameo by Michael Caine), they're latter-day Knights of the Round Table. Firth's Harry Hart, code-named Galahad, finds a new sense of purpose as mentor to petty criminal Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton).

Sponsoring the teen as a recruit for the Secret Service, Harry's not just trying to save a street-smart kid from a rudderless existence with his troubled mother (Samantha Womack) and her abusive boyfriend (Geoff Bell); he's atoning for the botched mission 17 years earlier that cost the life of Eggsy's dad (Jack Davenport), aka Lancelot.

That mission, a high-body-count fracas involving a kidnapped professor (Mark Hamill) in a ski chateau, opens the film and sets the tone of jokey mayhem and stylized gore. Making flamboyant first impressions in the scene are Jackson's cellphone gazillionaire Valentine and his sleek, murderous assistant, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), named for the flexible-blade prosthetics she wears, a la Oscar Pistorius.

In the present day, Valentine, whose idiosyncrasies include a prominent lisp and a squeamishness about blood that doesn't stop him from wreaking havoc, is preparing to press play on a devilishly logical plan to save the human race from the devastation of climate change. The ultimate showdown grows numbing in its back-and-forth, although the screenplay's clever use of Eggsy's toddler sibling brings home the panic with impact.

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Vaughn and Goldman, whose previous screenwriting collaborations include Kick-Ass, root the story's crazy gizmos, including Valentine's use of SIM cards as weapons of mass destruction, in recognizable tech, from biometrics to satellites and mainframes.

Less recognizable, and something to behold, are Firth's graceful martial arts moves. Exaggerated by effects and editing, they create a form of live-action animation that reaches its apex (or nadir, depending on your view of over-the-top violence) in a sequence, set to the wail of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," that pits Harry against the congregation of a Southern church. Nominally he's a soldier in the culture wars, but that doesn't quite hold up as more than a cheap shot in the context of the action.

The true engines of the movie are the chalk-and-cheese contrast between Firth's and Jackson's characters and the understated father-son dynamic between Harry and Eggsy. In his first major big-screen role, Welsh actor Egerton captures the character's resentment and suspicion as well as his longing to make something of himself and to be like Harry, who can coolly lay waste to a barroom of hooligans between sips of his pint. Beyond the unexpected physicality that Firth brings to the part, he imbues Harry with a bone-dry wit.

There's also something unfulfilled in his bespectacled eyes. The longing finds eloquent, unsentimental expression when he brings Eggsy to the Kingsman haberdashery to be fitted for his first bespoke suit and to get his first glimpse of the organization's stylishly deadly gadgets (ace work here and throughout by production designer Paul Kirby and costume designer Arianne Phillips).

Lending strong, unfussy support are Sophie Cookson, as Eggsy's chief competition and only friend in spy school, where he's a pleb among posh upper-crust types, and the dependable Mark Strong as Scottish spy Merlin, who trains the wannabe agents and oversees the group's inventive arsenal — the story's equivalent of the Bondian character Q.

Reviewed in nearly final form, the widescreen feature pops with sharp action, including a brief bit of parkour and a car chase in reverse. Until choppiness overcomes the final section, all of it is choreographed with urgency by cinematographer George Richmond and enhanced by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson's lush score.

The humor pops too, but a late-in-the-proceedings sex joke involving a Swedish princess (Hanna Alstrom) comes across as a desperate bid for edginess. (Not yet rated stateside, the film received a 15 certificate in Britain after some violent images were cut.) The gag is crude and out of tune with the rest of the movie. Harry Hart, it's safe to say, would not be amused.

Production companies: Marv, Cloudy
Cast: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Mark Hamill, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, Sofia Boutella, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Bjorn Floberg, Hanna Alstrom
Director: Matthew Vaughn

Screenwriters: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons
Producers: Matthew Vaughn, David Reid, Adam Bohling
Executive producers: Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, Stephen Marks, Claudia Vaughn, Pierre Lagrange
Director of photography: George Richmond
Production designer: Paul Kirby
Costume designer: Arianne Phillips
Editors: Eddie Hamilton, Jon Harris
Composers: Henry Jackman, Matthew Margeson
Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton

Not yet rated, 128 minutes