The age of the gentleman spy returns with a vengeance in this vibrant, irreverent caper from Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn. Cult 1960s TV show The Avengers meets James Bond as Colin Firth (in brilliantly pithy form) stars as Harry Hart, an elegant, umbrella-wielding agent in the secretive Kingsman organization, where operatives are codenamed after Round Table knights – Firth is Galahad, Michael Caine is Arthur, Mark Strong is Merlin – only with Savile Row suits and ingenious gadgets.
Plotwise, it’s a case of the urbane rubbing up against the urban when Hart recruits a dead colleague’s tearaway teenage son (Taron Egerton, in a career-launching performance) and puts him through his secret-service paces. This involves a collection of death-defying training trials, in which Egerton’s savvy street kid Eggsy is pitted against a group of plummy blue bloods, with only the winner (or is that survivor?) able to become a Kingsman. It also allows Vaughn to get a few “class war” beefs off his chest, as Eggsy’s brand of smarts comes in handy in trying to get the better of his toff rivals.
Lying in wait for Harry and the successful candidate, however, is a larger-than-life billionaire villain (Samuel L Jackson, having a ball as a megalomaniac with a lisp and an aversion to violence) and his lethally leggy henchman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), whose plans to take over the world would make Blofeld turn green with envy.
It breezes along with slick action scenes (Firth “teaches” manners to a gang of thugs in a pub), a cameo from an iconic Star Wars star and plenty of snappy, knowing banter.
As he did with superheroes in Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, Vaughn injects some much-needed fun into what has become an increasingly grim genre. The director loves his 60s spy yarns but isn’t afraid to send them up, with Caine riffing on his Harry Palmer character and Firth showing he’d be perfect to play John Steed (if anyone dared to make another Avengers movie).
But, be warned, this is no Austin Powers-style spoof; there’s bawdy, violent material of a more contemporary vintage here – an investigation of a redneck church in America ends up like a scene from The Walking Dead (only with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird soaring in the background). Ultimately, though, light-hearted, fast-moving entertainment is the name of the game, with Firth a quite excellent action hero.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is in cinemas from Friday 30 January