Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014): A Masterful and Fun Deconstruction and Celebration of Classic Spy Thrillers

Kingsman The Secret Service

    Watching this film made me realize just how much of a fan I am of Matthew Vaughn’s work and that I look forward to reviewing “Snatch” and “Lock,  Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” He is a director who specializes in action, but it always drives the plot and his films are always so much fun. I haven’t seen the two films mentioned above but “Stardust,” “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men: First Class” are some truly great films, and “Kingsman: The Secret Service” should be added to that list as well.

      As stated above, Matthew Vaughn directed the film as well as being one of the writers and producers. The other writer was Jane Goldman and the other producers were David Reid and Adam Bohling. The story is based off the graphic novel of the same created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.

    The story follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who is brought in as a potential recruit to the Secret Kingsman after his Father who was in the Guard saved Harry code name “Galahad” (Colin Firth). He must face the class discrimination from the guard as well as help them to defeat the threat of Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) who plans to use a chip to make humanity destroy itself as his chosen few create a new humanity from the ashes.

The Pros: The Action – The action is amazing in this film! Whether it is Harry taking on a Religious Cult that has the chip turned on and winning, or Eggsy and Merlin infiltrating Valentine’s Headquarters, the action is fantastic and stands out. It manages to be both beautiful and elegant, like the Kingsman.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and compliments the music and writing as it emphasis where a character is emotionally or provides a contrast to the scenes. George Richmond did a great job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is a lot of fun and usually country, or rock or disco will be playing over the action giving it a surreal feel while also showing just how brutal it is. It’s a great use of cinema and music to create such memorable scenes, it is thanks to the soundtracks that so many of the fight scenes stand out beyond how well they were filmed. Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson did a great job.

The Story – The story is simple, but it works. Eggsy is the outcast from a poor family pulled into high society and ends up discovering a gentlemen is not based on sex or class, it is about how you treat others and yourself. This is a story that has been done before and there have been tons of spy movies, but this one manages to set itself apart in that Valentine kills Harry and doesn’t give him a chance to escape and Valentine actually succeeds for a few minutes at the end.

The Characters – The characters are the most memorable part of the film, this is due both to the acting and the writing as all of them have distinct personalities that further elevate the plot.

Harry – Colin Firth owns this role as an older badass who manages to take on multiple people on occasion as well as emphasizing that a gentleman is not based on class, race or sex but on how one acts. This comes through all the time with his character when he confronts Arthur to his relationship to Eggsy. His death by Valentine actually means something because of it.

Roxy – Sophie Cookson is good as the nervous recruit who manages to be the new Lancelot. She is great at following orders in contrast to Eggsy but also has much more fear, though that doesn’t stop her from befriending Eggsy and standing up for him against the entitled prats. She stops Valentine by destroying one of his satellites before he can activate the chip the first time.

Gazelle – Sofia Boutella plays Valentine’s assassin and she is fantastic! She has swords for legs and only loses at the end because of a poisoned knife in Eggsy’s shoe. She is a true believer and truly loves Valentine. She is the one who isn’t afraid to kill or murder while Valentine in contrast to his goals is sensitive and afraid of murder and blood. It is great seeing her in action! She kills the first Lancelot who Jack Davenport plays. Not putting him on the list because he was around for such a short amount of time we didn’t get any character.

Arthur – Michael Caine plays the corrupt leader of the Kingsman and he joins Valentine since he thinks humanity deserves to be destroyed due to everything he’s seen in the field. His betrayal I saw coming since it is a cliche point, but Caine handles it well and he is complicated every time we see him as he truly cared for Harry.

Merlin – Mark Strong plays the hacker who manages to help beat Valentine and survive it all. He is the brains and also the one who has great chemistry with Eggsy and Valentine as he never had the same class hangups that Arthur did. Mark Strong makes this character both arrogant and sensitive.

Valentine – Jackson is such an amazing actor! In this we see him play a senstive character with a lisp who just wants to save the world and plans to do it by having humanity destroy itself and keeping the idealists all for himself in order to build a better world. He’s truly a criminal mastermind and his character reminded me a lot of the villain he played in “Unbreakable.” He is weak but brilliant and clearly villain though not a simple character.

Eggsy – Taron Egerton plays a poorer Englishman whose father was a Kingsman. He is a thief and crook who turns around and becomes a gentleman as he begins to care for others beyond his family. His arc is cliche but his character is great as he is self aware of the the spy tropes, like Valentine, this makes him smart and self aware as well as funny too.

Deconstruction of Classic Spy Films – We get to see the weapons room, the gentleman fighter and even sleeping with a princess over the course of Eggsy’s growth while at the same time Valentine and Harry referencing the films they drew inspiration from like Bond or Bourne and throwing those elements away for the smarter move. It was very well done and I like that the self awareness enriched the film.

The Cons: The Introduction – The introduction is a random military operation in a middle eastern country where Eggsy’s father risks his live to save Harry. It would have meant more if we knew something about the operation and the people but since we don’t it functions only as a motivator and was the weakest part of the film thematically and writingwise.

Professor Arnold – Mark Hamill plays this character and all he does is function as a plot devise. W enever get ot know him, we just know what he does. What a waste of Mark Hamill. Wasn’t impressed with how this character was written at all.

This was a really good film that I highly recommend. Not only does it deconstruct and celebrate the genre it drew inspiration from but it manages to be just an all around great film in both music, characters, story and cinematography. I definitely recommend this film to anyone who loves spy films and I plan on reading the graphic novel after this, given there is a lot here and this world has potential to be explored further.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10

The Lady Vanishes (1938): A Political Mystery That Could Have Been Great

The Lady Vanishes Poster

      Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, but this is not one of his best films. There are a lot of good ideas here…both in the political mystery and the location that are used, but it is never reaches its full potential. I’ll explain why in the assessment.

    “The Lady Vanishes” was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and produced by Edward Black, The story was also written by Alma Reville based on the story The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.

    The premise is that English tourist Iris (Margaret Lockwood) meets a kind old lady named Miss Froy (May Whitty) who takes care of her when things don’t go well as she’s hit on the head twice before entering the train. When she passes out from exhaustion she wakes up to find Miss Froy is missing and no one in her cabin believes that she even exists. From here the story unfolds as works with another passenger she’d had an antagonistic relationship with named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to find out why everyone is acting as they are and where Miss Froy went.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Premise – A conspiracy to cover up a lady whose origins are unknown is a fascinating premise, especially when we learn about the politics of the area (Italy) and the time period (Before World War 2) really raise the stakes. The reasons given to Iris on Miss Froy not existing are really good too as she was hit on the head and was suffering from a lack of sleep because of Gilbert causing music and dancing in the floor above her and later harassing her in her room. All these factors strengthen the premise of the film.

Iris – Iris is the main character who drives most of the action. She clashes with Gilbert as he’s hanging out with the locals in the attic and playing music for them to dance too and she knows she needs sleep so she’ll be ready for the train the next day so they clash early on. She also is taken in by Miss Froy who quickly becomes her friend and reveals her selfless side as at the hotel she was being waited on every beck and call and we never saw her act with awareness towards anyone but herself. Miss Froy’s actions change that and when Gilbert is the only one who believes her they form a friendship and later a relationship. Margaret Lockwood did a great job in this role and it was wonderful seeing her go from powerless and spoiled to selfless and and powerful as she takes on armed agents with Gilbert to get Miss Froy’s data to the English government after it’s revealed she’s a spy.

Gilbert – This character starts out really annoying and childish but grows into his hero role and a man who respects Iris. They even get married at the end he’s changed so much as he remembers the tune that is code about Italy’s Alliance for the British government to know. he does a good job rallying people to action is a great contrast to Iris throughout as he is much more open while she is initially much more guarded. Michael Redgrave really gives a good range in this film.

Miss Froy – She starts out as a kindly old lady and is a great caring person…and is shown to be more at the end when she attempts to escape on foot from the train and gives Gilbert the code. We don’t know if she survives but her minor role was really good and she enriches every scene she’s in. May Whitty is fantastic.

Dr Hartz – Dr. Hartz is the government agent on the side of the fascists and is a brilliant opponent as he succeeds at almost all he sets out to do. It’s only because one of his agents messes up that things fall apart and the fact that the members of the train choose to fight him at the end. He is best described as the Noble Bastard as he doesn’t kill Iris and Gilbert and does all he can to avoid violence, only knocking out Gilbert and Iris once they’ve figured everything out. He even wishes them luck once they respect as he seems to have a good idea of threat of war about to come. Paul Lukas does great.

Okay: The Music – The soundtrack isn’t super memorable or great. It isn’t bad either. It’s okay. Louis Levy and Charles Williams soundtrack didn’t create any tension and it really depended on the script and actors for that.

The Cons: Execution of Premise – The execution starts out really slow almost too slow as we spend way too much time in the hotel before leaving which doesn’t really give us good knowledge about characters except that everyone is annoyed at being stuck from the snow. It picks up in the middle but than at the end there is one scene where one of the agents of the Italian government wakes up and holds Iris and two others hostage but his defeat is just glossed over, it’s hard to remember it even happening. This went for character arcs too as most went like this – 1)Resist doing anything. 2) Resist doing anything. 3) Give in and do something. Because of this even though the characters were interesting, they didn’t feel fully fleshed out or real.

Questions – We never know fully who the agents are and who Dr. Hartz serves. This doesn’t help the story as that mystery is part of what drove things. How Miss Froy knew the information is also left in the air as well as the consequences of their escape out of the country. For a movie that became a political spy thriller at the end it should have gone more into the implication of characters and events…instead we don’t get anything and that really brings it down.

      This was a solidly good film, but not great like many of Hitchcocks. There were too many questions and the character changes and how many minor characters were one note characters just didn’t help the plot. It put so much at stake but never fully explained why. The most we can do is guess at the implications given when the movie was made but that still doesn’t give us much to go off of. If you like Hitchcock, chances are you will like this film. I like Hitchcock and the film was good, even with these problems so I’d recommend it.

Final Score: 8 / 10. Solidly good but not a favorite.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – An Amazing Spy Thriller That Changes the Marvel Universe

Captain America Winter Soldier

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” is one of the best movies I saw in theatre this year. The only one that beat or was comparable was the “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” In my Disney Marvel Franchise Adventure this film is top of my list to write about, along with “The Avengers,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” once I see it.

There are a lot of reasons I like this film, but for the non-spoiler version that is as vague as possible: The security state is critiqued, we see the price of war and the it asks us the question of freedom versus security and what makes an organization good or noble.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” is a sequel to both “The Avengers,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” tying it to both and furthering the continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The story picks up with Captain America working for S.H.I.E.L.D. as an agent, but quickly finding out that he doesn’t know what is going on when Nick Fury is attacked by unknown agents and the Winter Soldier arrives the scene who is a famous assassin who Black Widow knows about only through rumors largely but who she witnessed in action in one of her missions. From here Captain America and Black Widow go undercover to find out what is going on as S.H.I.E.L.D. sees them as possibly guilty for the attack on Fury. They also get help from Falcon, a veteran who is part of an airborne division where he had prototype wings that he used in combat. From here the story unfolds as the conspiracy is unraveled.

Spoilers Ahead

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Tone – “Don’t trust anybody.” Is what Nick Fury tells Captain America at one point, and that level of unknown and fear pervades the film. We get hints of it in the beginning with Widow’s side mission and after that it continues on throughout the rest of the film continuing to grow with the face of that unknown in the Winter Soldier and the actions against the protagonists.

Black Widow – Johansson does it again. We get to learn more about her past and why she doesn’t trust anyone, and we get to see her in the mentor role, since Captain America is Super Hero that has never had to do undercover work. She is the secondary protagonist besides Falcon and is the best that we have ever seen her. She even makes a pretty hard choice at the end that I will discuss later in the review.

Falcon – Can’t wait for this guy to take Chris Evans place after he leaves…which I hope they do now that Falcon is Captain America in the comics. Falcon is a veteran who helps veterans, and because he isn’t a super soldier depends on his training as a soldier with a prototype weapon and adaptability to help Widow and Captain find out how far the conspiracy goes. He is there only friend at the end at one point. Anthony Mackie is fantastic.

Nick Fury – Is the mentor in this and has some great reveals about his past and why he doesn’t trust and is so brutal. This is the movie that gives us Fury as a fully realized character, and it is awesome! From his friendship to Pierce and to Captain America and the choices he makes. Samuel L. Jackson owns this role.

S.H.I.E.L.D. – I shown to be a complex government organization that ends up being compromised. The first warning signs are the Helocarriers that have been programmed to deal with threats. It is Captain America who first questions this but is shutdown by Nick Fury through his story of growing up rough and how his grandfather always was armed to protect himself…and that the government needs to do the same (a reaction to Loki’s attack on New York). Alexander Pierce (one of the heads of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the main guy advocating for this protection and offensive might. I’ll go into what happens with them later.

Fury’s Death – Fury has an awesome fight with The Winter Soldier and unknown agents and eventually takes them out after a pretty big fight and goes into hiding with Captain America. He delivers his warning and is shot…

Arnim Zola – This guy is back! We saw the government take him in after World War 2 and he worked for them but also used it to plant the seed of H.Y.D.R.A. there as well as making himself into a program to control and use S.H.I.E.L.D.’s data. He turns S.H.I.E.L.D. into an arm of H.Y.D.R.A. He is also one of the creators of the Winter Soldier. We see him face Black Widow and Captain America from an old style computer that he eventually sacrifices to try and kill the two of them. We learn that he was loyal to H.Y.D.R.A. all along which was a question after the first film given he betrays The Red Skull. I hope we returns later on and that some part of his program is still active. He was a lot of fun and a great threat.

H.Y.D.R.A. – Using the Winter Soldier they “kill” Nick Fury and try to kill Black Widow, Falcon and Captain America…regardless they win to some degree in this. They destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. by becoming S.H.I.E.L.D. it is brilliant and show how idealism can get hijacked by the corrupt as well as the danger of concentrated power in anything with military might.

The Winter Soldier – Is “Bucky,” Captain America’s old friend who has been brainwashed and given a metal arm by H.Y.D.R.A. he is a huge threat and pumped full of the super soldier serum. He is like the terminator throughout the film but gets some great moments with Captain America as he fights to find who he once was and get control over himself again.

Fury and Captain America – There is a great conversation here when we learn he Fury faked his own death to go underground…and rather than it being cheap, like it has kind of become with Marvel…it has consequences. It is when Black Widow and Nick Fury fight to bring down S.H.I.E.L.D. it is the death of this organization that changes everything in this universe.

The Confrontation – This is where everything comes to a head. The Winter Soldier has been rebrainwashed and is being used to kill the heroes, the Helocarriers are taking off and haven’t been implanted with Fury’s virus. This is some of the best action I’ve seen (much better than “Avengers” or “Iron Man 3,” and “Thor 2,”) and in it all it has a point in it too.

Alexander Pierce – As the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. Robert Redford gives us a fascinating character who sees ends justifying the means because of how Fury disobeyed orders. He saw that on the large scale which lead to his corruption. He is clearly bad but you can at least sympathize with this very flawed villain who is all the corruption of the security state justifying itself. Fury gets the kill on this guy when he tries to kill the Council.

Captain America – He grows a lot in this film. From having to make hard choices in regards to killing, to trusting Black Widow fully and becoming an agent undercover…to all his interactions with the Winter Soldier. Chris Evans nails it all and is a pleasure to watch.

The Reveal – Baron Von Strucker has 2 mutated children (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch) and plans to feed Fury, Widow and Captain America false info. to keep them away from key H.Y.D.R.A. facilities. Giving us a hint of things to come.

Bucky returns to the museum we saw Captain America at in the beginning, showing him in his quest to find out who he is.

I highly recommend this film. There really weren’t any cons for me. It is what I want out of a Super Hero movie. It knows what it is about, has a consistent tone, the characters actually grow and the action actually means something. Captain America actually became an interesting character too and I hope Falcon will have the chance to be him after Chris Evans leaves.

Final Score is 10 / 10. The greatest thus far.