Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Starring: Colin Firth (Galahad), Samuel L. Jackson (Richmond Valentine), Mark Strong (Merlin), Taron Egerton (Gary “Eggsy” Unwin), Sophie Cookson (Roxy), Jack Davenport (Lancelot), Mark Hamill (Professor James Arnold), Sofia Boutella (Gazelle), Michael Caine (Arthur), and Hanna Alström (Princess Tilde).
The Spy Who Came in from the Round Table.
In Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman, The Secret Service, James Bond, Austin Powers and John Steed all take turns vying for a place at the Round Table in the Siege Perilous, with a trusty squire in tow. The film is based on the six-part comic book series, The Secret Service, by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, which was reissued by Marvel in a collected edition to tie in with the film’s release. The film retains the basic secret agent plot of its source, but adds to that source a less than subtle Arthurian twist by providing the agents with Arthurian code names—Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, Perceval, and Merlin—and by offering its own versions of two fairly common Arthurian narremes: the story of the Fair Unknown and the promise of the Arthurian return in a time of need.
The film’s plot develops around an attempt by a megalomaniac to end world overpopulation by a cull that will eliminate about two-thirds of that population. In the comic book version, the megalomaniac, who likes to kidnap actors who played roles in the Star Wars franchise, has taken Mark Hamill hostage. In the film version, Mark Hamill himself plays a more than hapless climate scientist named James Arnold. In the comic book version, the megalomaniac is thwarted by a secret agent and his nephew; in the film, by a decidedly upper class secret agent and his equally decidedly working class misfit of a protégé and, given the film’s Arthurian connections, squire.
The film opens in the Middle East in 1997 when Colin Firth’s Harry Hart (code name Galahad) is unable to prevent a fellow agent from being killed during an interrogation gone wrong. Fast forward 17 years to Argentina where an agent with the code name Lancelot attempts to rescue kidnapped university professor and climate change doomsayer James Arnold, in the process single-handedly killing more than a half dozen of his captors only to be literally cut in half by a woman with Oscar Pistorius-like legs that give new meaning to the idea of stiletto heels.
The death of Lancelot leaves a vacancy in Kingsman, an organization based out of a Saville Row tailor shop that has been supplying bespoke suits to the most powerful men since 1849—a gentleman never buys off the peg. Huntsman, an actual shop in Saville Row, has actually been doing so since 1849, and is the setting for the film’s tailor shop. When the sons of these most powerful men were killed in the First World War, their inheritances were pooled to fund an independent international intelligence agency, Kingsman, which has been operating ever since, clandestinely and above politics, to right wrongs globally. Headed by Arthur (Michael Caine), the members of Kingsman meet around a table—rectangular, alas, not round—to plan their courses of action, to toast their deceased brothers, and to seek their replacements. Caine’s Arthur is a died-in-the wool (tweed?) class-bound snob who wants to limit the ranks of Kingsman to those with Oxbridge pedigrees; Firth’s Galahad takes a more democratic view and sponsors Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, son of the agent killed in 1997, who is at first an unemployed Royal Marine dropout living on a council estate with his mother, abusive stepfather, and infant step-brother. Eggsy’s one memento of his father is a medal of valor acknowledging his father’s service to queen and country.
The villain of the film is Richmond Valentine (played by a lisping Samuel L. Jackson), a communications multi-billionaire determined to cull the world’s population, thereby eliminating undesirables and ensuring the survival of those whom he deems the fittest. His assassin sidekick is the blade-legged Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Valentine’s plan is put into motion when he provides everyone in the world with a free SIM card, and those whom he will save with an implanted micro-chip that will protect them when the culling takes place—and, unfortunately, blow their heads off if wrongly activated. Using those SIM cards, Valentine will send everyone a message that will trigger a murderous global rage which will result in the cull. But Valentine is not totally successful in winning those whom he would save over to his cause, and a number of VIPs and heads of state, including Sweden’s influential and voluptuous Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), have gone missing.
Galahad arranges for Eggsy’s training as a possible member of Kingsman under the tutelage of the heavily Welsh-accented Merlin (Mark Strong)—the film’s Bondian Q character— and then goes off to track down the missing VIPs and heads of state. At this point, the film’s narrative switches between Galahad’s quest and Eggsy’s apprenticeship. Galahad manages to find Climatologist Arnold, whose head soon explodes thanks to the chip implanted behind his ear by Valentine. Galahad, posing as a billionaire himself, subsequently meets with Valentine and learns of his plans, eventually following him to a Kentucky hate church where he becomes involved in a massive brawl triggered by Valentine’s SIM card. Singlehandedly, Galahad kills every member of the congregation before Valentine kills him.
Eggsy meanwhile is having mixed success in his training, which pits him against the Oxbridge crowd who dismiss him from the get-go because of his humble working-class origins. Finally, the search to find someone to succeed Lancelot comes down to two candidates, the level-headed Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and Eggsy, with Eggsy being dismissed when he is unwilling to shoot his dog, his failure further fueling Arthur’s snobby prejudices against the working classes. When it turns out that Arthur himself has been comprised and joined forces with Valentine, it is up to Roxy, Merlin, and Eggsy, who uses a bit of working-class sleight of hand to thwart Arthur’s attempt to kill him, to save the world. Eggsy and Merlin assault Valentine directly in his bunker, while Roxy, using a high-altitude balloon, temporarily knocks out the communications satellite tied to Valentine’s SIM cards. When Valentine restores the satellite thanks to a little help from his ally, the President of the United States, Merlin overrides Valentine’s signal and blows off the heads of everyone in Valentine’s bunker and all of his other allies around the world in an at times hilarious, at times gratuitously violent, CGI sequence to the accompaniment of Pomp and Circumstance. Eggsy then fights and defeats Gazelle, thanks to a poison tipped blade in the toe of his bespoke Oxfords—the only shoes a true gentleman would wear. Eggsy, champagne flutes and bottle in hand, then rescues Princess Tilde who had promised him that she would make sure things ended for him well once he saved the world.
Kingsman is both reverential and comic (and, in one case, more than crass) in its treatment of the secret agent film genre. Galahad and Valentine have several exchanges in which they lament the current sorry state of the genre as opposed to its golden age with the early- to mid-Bond films from Pinewood Studios. Winks and nods abound in the film to other examples of the genre. Both Firth and Strong appeared in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Caine took a turn as the title character’s father in Austin Powers in Goldmember—Jackson has become a regular on film and television in several of the MARVEL comic franchises. (In a nod to a non-Bond film, Firth also played the King in The King’s Speech, of course.) James Bond’s nemesis in Tomorrow Never Dies was another communications mogul and megalomaniac, Elliott Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce. The Bond franchise had already moved down the social ladder with the casting of Daniel Craig as the more rugged looking latest Bond in Skyfall—Eggsy’s characterization just moves a bit further down market.
Early in Kingsman, Lancelot, Professor Arnold and Valentine all share a tumbler of rare 1962 Dalmore Whiskey, which was featured in Skyfall. Lancelot and Eggsy’s weapon of choice is an umbrella reminiscent of Steed’s in The Avengers. Eggsy’s pug is named JB for Jack Bauer, the hero of Fox television’s 24—not for Jason Bourne or for James Bond, as Arthur guesses. The poison knife-tipped Oxfords, worn by both Galahad and Eggsy, are straight out of From Russia with Love, where more sensible working-class shoes with such a concealed blade were former SMERSH Colonel and current Chief Operations Officer for SPECTRE Rosa Klebb’s signature weapon—Klebb having been played by an over-the-top Lotte Lenya. Valentine’s mountain lair and cave landing strip are reminiscent of those of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the villain in several Bond films. Sophomorically, in a somewhat startling variation on a Bondian narreme, Eggsy does end up with the girl, but Kingsman records their encounter not with a deft pun or with a bit of sexual innuendo, but rather with an in-your face shot confirming that Eggsy does indeed “end up” quite well—he ends up Princess Tilde’s butt!
More interesting for my purposes are the Arthurian and medieval elements that the film adds to the original comic book series. Again, the film assigns the heroes Arthurian code names. Eggsy’s father’s medal for valor shares a design suggestive of that of Gawain’s endless knot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Galahad’s—and eventually Eggsy’s—personal motto is “Manners makyth man,” also the motto of Winchester College and of New College, Oxford—both founded in the fourteenth century. Kingsman tailors provide bespoke suits which, we are told, are “the modern gentleman’s armor,” while the Kingsman himself is “the new knight.” Eggsy and his mates hang out at the Black Prince Pub.
Eggsy, given his working class pedigree, is also the latest iteration of the popular folk motif known as the “Fair Unknown,” a motif with especially strong connections to the Arthuriad. That motif posits a young man of questionable or unknown lineage, who is at times amusingly uninhibited (cf. the final encounter with Princess Tilde), and who becomes a hero saving the society that at first rejects him. Eggsy, following the motif, must prove his worth through a series of adventures. While Arthurian variations on the motif grant the Fair Unknown a relationship with the Round Table through kinship—he is often a relative of Gawain and thus, by extension, of Arthur, Gawain’s uncle—in Kingsman, Eggsy becomes Galahad’s adopted son and heir.
In a further Arthurian connection, Kingsman trades on the myth of Arthur’s promised return, a key element of the Arthuriad from at least the twelfth century when it appeared in the works of William of Malmesbury and Wace. Based on the belief that Arthur lies dormant not dead in his tomb, the myth promises his awakening in a time of need to come to the aid of England, or even of the entire world, in a time of peril. Earlier Arthurian films such as King Arthur Was A Gentleman, Four Diamonds, Seaview Knights, and The Mighty had used the promise of that return with varying degrees of success. In Kingsman, Arthur has returned with his knights, but he is eventually killed. However, his decidedly more democratic and inclusive legacy lives on in Eggsy who seems well prepared to succeed Arthur and to guide Kingsman in its future efforts to defeat any and all forces of evil that threaten the peace and stability of the world.
For more than a century, cinema Arthuriana has taken a number of forms and been adapted to fit a number of film genres. In Kingsman, we have the first adaptation of the Arthuriad as a secret agent film—with decidedly mixed results—but with a clear promise of yet another return. Kingsman ends on a note that sets us up, depending upon its success at the box office, for a sequel, if not for a franchise of sequels—profits makyth sequel(s)!
Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University