Mark at the Movies
A few days ago I wrote:
We had a bit of mail about this from people who thought that meant I was arguing it was a "conservative" movie, or wanted to know why I would recommend a picture with an anal-sex joke and a bazillion f-words in it. So I figured I might as well expand my observations:
Kingsman: The Secret Service is a kind of meditation on British spy movies. It's not a spoof of 007 - from Matt Helm to Austin Powers, we've had a thousand of those, and Bond himself trembles on the brink of self-parody. But Kingsman does play around and up-end the conventions, starting with its basic premise: if you're going to have a spy in bespoke suits, like Connery, Brosnan et al, why not actually locate the spy agency inside their Savile Row tailors and thereby make style and substance, so to speak, seamless?
That's a cute notion - as are the film's reminders, however, that stylish accoutrements will only get you so far. Kingsman begins with a natty British agent performing a daring mountaintop rescue and going into the shaken-not-stirred shtick over a tumbler of Scotch only to be sliced in two by the baddie. And it ends with the traditional bit of Roger Moore eyebrow-cocking sexual innuendo being taken away from the legover maestro and instead rendered as a very blunt proposition by the posh totty.
All these bits of business are entertaining and easily explained by reviewers: instead of the Bond girl being on the receiving end, the closing gag empowers the woman, etc, etc. And it's precisely because much of the rest of the film can't be interpreted quite as reassuringly that critics seem to have been baffled. The old country-house murder mystery used to be dismissed as "snobbery with violence", but Kingsman is snobbery-with-violence on testosterone: Colin Firth limbers up by beating up a pubful of knuckle-dragging effin'-'n'-bllindin' Brit yobs after one of them ill-advisedly suggests Mr Firth's character may be seeking to procure a rent boy, and then dear old Colin does the same thing across the Atlantic on an industrial scale to a church congregation whose principal offense seems to be that they're stump-toothed rednecks. Some critics seem to have been expecting the film to "subvert" notions of class, which is hard to do when Colin Firth spends the entire picture ass-kicking rubes who are worse-dressed than him. To be sure, the redneck congregants hold unenlightened views on fornicators, sodomites and abortion-providers, but the US scene seems to owe less to any ideological antipathy than to the latter half of Kingsley Amis' condescending sneer that he'd finally worked out why he didn't like America: "Everyone's either a Jew or a hick."
This is why liberal commentators seem to be befuddled by the film, a state nicely captured by the headline appended to one bewildered pajama boy's take over at Vox.com:
And these days in Hollywood a film's "politics" are meant to be so plonkingly signposted that you know from the beginning who you're meant to boo and who you're meant to cheer. In the climate-change era, the earnestly brain-dead The Day After Tomorrow from a decade ago is the gold standard. In Roland Emmerich's film, a speech by Dick Cheney leads to (warning: plot spoiler) the flash-freezing of the entire Northern Hemisphere.
Boo! Bad Cheney!
The pampered, priviliged survivors of a consumerist society need to learn how to survive in a cold, hostile landscape, and fortunately there's a helpful homeless man with a friendly dog, and he's full of useful tips about how to huddle in very cold temperatures.
Hurrah! Who doesn't like homeless people? We weren't there for him, but he's there for us!
And, thanks to his survival techniques, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum and the gang hole up in the New York Public Library and start burning the books for warmth.
Boo! Book-burners are Nazi, right? And anyway the library's full of wainscoting which would burn longer and give off more heat. Er, well, Emmerich got a little confused here, although he did eerily anticipate the current state of climate alarmism in which Michael E Mann and his fellow ayatollahs are gleefully torching papers by Willie Soon, Judith Curry, John Christy, etc.
At any rate, Emmerich's soon back on track and, with the entire United States frozen solid, Americans start fleeing south. So - get this - the Mexicans close the border. And then - oh, the irony! - the fleeing Americans are forced to swim across the Rio Grande!
Hurrah! Who's undocumented now, huh? The ol' boot is on the other foot, eh?
But just in case you miss the irony and the ceremonial swapping of the boot, Emmerich explains the southbound tide of illegals to you via a TV news voiceover: "And now in a dramatic reversalâ€¦"
That's how a Hollywood blockbuster is meant to address climate change - by telling you what to think every step of the way.
Because Kingsman isn't that kind of earnest yawneroo, nervous critics find themselves pausing in mid-laugh to wonder whether the premise of the jest is entirely sound. I was sad to see my old friend Anthony Lane in The New Yorker succumb to this syndrome and fret as to whether having a wealthy black villain serve his dinner guest a McDonald's Happy Meal on a silver salver might not be, gulp, a wee bit racist.
Film-making isn't climate science: You don't have to be in 100 per cent agreement with everything the director and screenwriter does. All you want is evidence that they have a rich and varied and sometimes contradictory well of wit and allusion on which to draw, and that they're not just painting by numbers like The Day After Tomorrow.
Kingsman has a traditional Bond villain - the megalomaniac bent on world domination. He's so traditional he even has a traditional Bond villain's lair hollowed out of a mountain. But he happens to be a liberal tech bazillionaire whose principal cause is "climate change". There's no way around this: It's not subtle and up for interpretation like "Doctor Mann" in Interstellar. The lisp-laden Thamuel L Jackson's Richmond Valentine is the bad guy, and just like the fellow in Moonraker or The Spy Who Loved Me he wants to destroy humanity in order to save it. This isn't peripheral - a Hitchcock MacGuffin. Valentine is tired of giving money to politicians for action on climate change and nothing happening. He loves the planet and man is destroying it. So he's concluded that the only solution is to eliminate the vast majority of mankind, leaving only those pre-selected individuals he's invited to his mountain lair to re-emerge when the dust settles to live on a now Edenic earth cleansed of what he calls its "virus" - man.
This actually makes way more sense than the average Bond villain's plan. Indeed, it makes so much sense that the pajama boy at Vox isn't too sure who to root for. I mean, why would Colin Firth and the good guys even bother saving the world "only so it can be destroyed decades later" (by global warming)?
Oh, my. What a shame.
They'll like even less seeing how progressive politicians respond to the megalomaniac's plan to destroy 99 per cent of humanity. The Obama lookalike - that's to say, a black president with prominent ears - eagerly says count me in. Not everyone does: the "Crown Princess of Sweden" says you guys are nuts, and is immediately taken hostage. But Vox is not wrong that this film's politics are "ultra weird": Kingsman is a Bond movie in which Obama is one of the bad guys.
And (this is a bit of a minor sub-plot spoiler so do avert your gaze and skip to the next paragraph) the Obama character gets his head blown up to the tune of Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March No 1 - or "Land Of Hope And Glory", which, at the Proms, the Commonwealth Games and many other ceremonial occasions, serves as England's unofficial national anthem. Sony were so discombobulated by Kim Jong-Un's objections to The Interview that even, in its cool, samizdat, under-the-counter Netflix-only release, the exploding head of the North Korean nutcake remains excised from the film. But at every multiplex across the United States you can see America's black president getting his head blown off to a notorious anthem of English imperialism. Not just weird but, as Vox would say, "ultra weird".
The filmmakers - Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman (she's the missus of Jonathan Ross, my old confrere on the BBC's "Loose Ends" a zillion years ago) - are British, and therefore less likely to find themselves sitting across the dinner table from Leonardo DiCaprio or Barbra Streisand being put through the wringer. But it's not that they're liberal or conservative or anything else, so much as they insist on the right not to be constrained within the usual feeble Jon Stewart limousine-liberal straitjacket. And that's this film's principal contribution: instead of the usual Halliburton executive or Koch brother, it says you can make a blockbuster movie in which the baddie is a Big Climate activist. As I said when Joseph Brean interviewed me in The National Post a couple of weeks ago:
And just as The Interview took the Road formula and put Kim Jong-Un in it, Kingsman takes the old-time Bond formula and puts a climate-change megalomaniac in it. That's not just a funny idea, but a great service to mainstream pop culture - and an expansion of the boundaries at a time when actual real-life climate scientists like Michael E Mann are trying to shrink them even further.
And yes, I know, a brace of swallows don't make a summer. As I said earlier this week:
If so, I hope you'll consider picking up a SteynOnline gift certificate, so we can afford some decent CGI fight scenes.
from Mark at the Movies, February 28, 2015
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