Thursday, February 26, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service, A New Template for the Spy Genre

Is it me, or has the spy genre of films been feeling stayed and dull for the past few years? Whether it was Jason Bourne, or Daniel Craig's Bond, I have found myself loosing interest based on the formulaic path they follow. The only film to draw me out previously was the 2011 film adaptation of John le Carré's book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (and this was not near as good as the 1979 TV miniseries done by the BBC). However, the new film Kingsman: The Secret Service, breathes new life into the spy genre bringing excellent cinematography, comedy, social cometary and class struggles along with the prerequisite action sequences and beautiful women.

The Perfect Cocktail: Stock Spy Story blended with Topical Current Events, and Comedy (Beware of Spoilers!)
Spy films are all about betrayal, global crisis, action, and occasionally character study (in the case of the recent Bond reboot). Kingsman manages to maintain the basics of the spy genre while evading campy pitfalls by creating an ugly duckling/redemption story that questions Britian's issues with class as well as global issues of the health of the planet. The basic premise is this: Colin Firth, a Kingsman agent known as Harry Hart/Galahad, attempts to repay a life debt to Gary "Eggsy" Unwin by bringing Eggsy into the Kingsman Agency. Eggsy's dad, it turns out, was a former Kingsman trainee who died protecting Galahad. During the boy's evaluation it soon becomes clear that a global threat is imminent as celebrities and dignitaries begin to disappear, and a technology mogul named Valentine, played by Samuel L. Jackson, releases a new sim card that gives free wifi and calls to everyone around the globe. Basic spy film story right? What I found more exciting was the deeper elements of the story dealing with class and the problems our planet is facing.

Britain has always struggled with issues of class. It seems that the lines have been firmly drawn in British society while still remaining permeable to those who strive to improve their lot. Despite those efforts however it seems engrained (at least in British fiction) that there are those in the gentry and elite of Britain that still think themselves superior to the common man by stint of their birth. This is the plot line that drives the  Harry/Eggsy plotline. Apparently, Kingsman agents had always been "gentleman" implying that their ranks were filled from the members of the landed elite and gentry classes. This is also emulated in the cover profession of Kingsman agents, elite Savile Row tailors. Harry's mantra is "manners maketh man" and it is Harry's "controversial" belief that Kingsman should start to recruit out of the wider population of Britain rather than sticking to the old class structures. That is why Harry first recruited Eggsy's father, and the bravery and self sacrifice made by Eggsy's father only cements that choice. In the beginning of the film, Eggsy struggles with his lot in life, displaying a sense of honor and morality as well as a thirst to prove himself when dealing with his social equals. This sets him apart and makes him a somewhat prickly person to deal with as he chooses to stand on his principles rather than bow his head to a threat. When brought to the training facility, Eggsy struggles not only to fit in amongst his "social betters" but has to deal with their taunts and provocations, while not fighting back. In recent years this has been a prominent issue in British social discussions, as class tensions are running high with the increase in economic constraints around Europe.

Another argument of class struggle is the villain Valentine's social engineering element to his evil scheme. Throughout the early stages of the film there are rumors of celebrities, dignitaries, and world leaders disappearing from all over the globe. At the same time politicians are running about claiming that every resource within their power is being expended to finding people. Valentine, who to the world at large appears to be an eccentric genius/technology mogul/philanthropist releases a new cell phone sim card that give free access for calls and wireless access to everyone all over the globe. What is the point to all this you ask? The sim cards are weapons, a neural augmentation device that triggers hyper aggression in people when broadcasting on a specific frequency controlled by Valentine. Valentine's kidnapping and recruiting of world leaders separated the wealth, intelligent, and elite from the masses that were consigned to die at the whim of Valentine. All of Valentine's allies were implanted with a chip of their own behind their right ear that protects them from the signal the phones broadcast, but at the same time acts as a remote monitoring device that allows valentine to super heat the tissues of the brain, causing them to explode should an ally be caught and compromised.  This dividing the "elite" from the masses is a throwback to the eugenics philosophies of the late Victorian era, and continued to thrive in certain circles through WWII.  Furthermore, Valentine's conceit displays a general disregard for human life based on birth, economic value, and talent choosing only to preserve those he deems worthy in his eyes.

Valentine's plot also ties into our real world problem of over population, pollution/climate change, the failure of Environmental reforms, and the seeming lack of will to change facing destruction at our own hands. Valentine takes what I like to refer to as the "Agent Smith" theory to humanity. Agent Smith of the Matrix, posits the idea that the pattern of human expansion and population growth is reminiscent of how viruses and bacteria spread in a body. The idea is that humans, like viruses, move into an area, expand until the population is not sustainable in that area and then move on to a new area. In the case of viruses this means the destruction of the host cell and the corruption of other cell,  for humans it means never ending growth and expansion. Valentine is somewhat driven by an altruistic goal, as well as the frustration of watching failed attempts to stave off the death of the globe. In his opinion, humans at large have proven themselves incapable of changing and saving the planet from destruction. He describes his situation as being a doctor and offered 2 choices do nothing and let the host (earth die) or kill the virus (humanity) and save the host. Valentine's solution is save the earth from humanity and preserve the "best" examples of human society, while causing the rest of the human population to engage in rage driven self slaughter until population levels reach a sustainable level for the earth to support.

Within these dark depths of evil plotting the film contains tongue in cheek comedy that pokes fun at the spy genre, garnering laughs from the audience while still taking itself somewhat seriously. One such element is the occasional reference to traditional spy film story arc. At one point Harry and Valentine are squaring off talking about films and they talk about spy movies. Valentine wishes to be the hero where as Harry acting under cover confesses to wishing to be a Bond like villain. There are other opportunities like this where the writers and film maker acknowledge the normal tropes and cheekily poke fun at them while paying them homage. There are gadgets galore in this film including a bullet proof umbrella that can shoot lethal and non lethal ammo of its own. Eggsy even gets to have some time alone with a beautiful woman after saving the world. There are plenty of other comedic moments through the film that will leave audiences gripping their sides in search of relief, many of them are supplied by Samuel L. Jackson's eccentric character Valentine who hates the sight of blood but is hell bent on destroying the human population.

While I was excited for the trailer when I first saw it, I did not realize my opinion of the finished product would change from my preconceived notion. I expected to see a spy thriller in the same vein as the older James Bond films. However I walked out of the theater happily surprised by the intelligence and wit that was contained in the film. This project could easily have fallen flat had there been an imbalance in the film. Yet the final product has the right mix of action, suspense, comedy and social commentary that created something fresh. I'm not suggesting that the Bond franchise should change, or if another Bourne film were made that it should deviate from what has been established. Rather, I am excited to see this new format of spy film and hope that more writers and directors are willing to take the risk to put a new twist on a favorite drink so to speak.

David is a local historian, techie, home brewer, stage hand, gamer and geek. He loves Star Wars and Shakespeare with equal passions and is prone to quoting it at random!

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