Film review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Playing Kingsman’s top man Harry Hart is Colin Firth. The British star of The King’s Speech is hardly known for his action chops, but an early sequence puts that concern to rest.

Colin Firth as Harry Hart, a smooth and sophisticated spy, with Taron Egerton who plays Hart’s protégé Gary “Eggsy” Unwin. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
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Kingsman:The Secret Service

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Starring: Colin Firth, Samuel L Jackson, Taron Egerton, Michael Caine

Four stars

It seems 2015 is the year of the old-school spy. Still to come, there is Guy Ritchie's reboot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and, of course, the return of James Bond in Spectre.

For now, we have Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a rollickingly old-fashioned caper from Matthew Vaughn, the British director who gave the superhero genre a boot up the backside with Kick-Ass. And like that film, Kingsman is based on a comic book by the Scottish writer Mark Millar – 2012's The Secret Service.

Kingsman is an elite espionage agency that is so British, its secret base is in London’s luxury tailoring street, Savile Row. But while this team values a gentlemanly code of conduct at all times, this is no nostalgia trip to a bygone era.

Scripted by Vaughn's regular writing partner Jane Goldman, Kingsman is very much a modern-day tale – with the villains ranging from gangs of pub-dwelling thugs to Samuel L Jackson's lisping technical genius, Valentine.

Playing Kingsman's top man Harry Hart (code name Galahad) is Colin Firth. The British star of The King's Speech is hardly known for his action chops, but an early sequence in which he dispatches a roomful of Neanderthals with a few twirls of his trusty umbrella soon puts that concern to rest. Forget Bridget Jones's Diary – he should have played 007.

While Hart seems heavily inspired by The Avengers' John Steed (as played by Patrick McNee in the classic 1960s British TV show), there's a touch of My Fair Lady in the mix, too. As the agency tries out new candidates after the death of one of their members, Hart recommends council estate-raised Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), the Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins, who hardly seems like Kingsman material.

It turns out that he is the son of a fellow agent who died due to a mistake made by Hart. Now Hart hopes taking the youngster under his wing will go some way to repaying the debt.

Egerton, who also appears in Testament of Youth (also opening in cinemas on Thursday, February 12), is an appealing presence as Eggsy. It's not long before Eggsy is battling Oxbridge toffs for the right to join Kingsman. Vaughn has a riot with some of the training sequences – an aerial scene in which the candidates jump out of a plane, only to discover one of their parachutes isn't working, is utterly thrilling.

Valentine, meanwhile, is cooking up a plot for world domination that involves controlling everyone via their mobile phones. Rather like his lament for the “far-fetched diabolical” plots “like the old Bond movies”, it’s entirely ludicrous, so it is just as well that Kingsman never for a second makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously.

With Michael Caine also along for the ride as Firth’s boss – reminding us that he too played a suave 1960s spy in the Harry Palmer films – inevitably the two plots dovetail.

In truth, the final act is not quite as satisfying as the set-up, missing the banter of Hart and his protégé. But this is still a blast, seamlessly blending thrills and smarts.

Mr Bond and those men from U.N.C.L.E. had better watch their backs.