Counterprogramming. The definition of the word is the release of writer-director Matthew Vaughn's ultraviolent, psychedelic and mad-as-a-hatter paean to the British spy film (featuring an actual hatter) on the same weekend Fifty Shades of Grey hits screens. Except for its literally cheeky final scene, I doubt it overlaps in any way with the adaptation of E.L. James' bestseller. That's Kingsman's mission — at least from its studio's point of view — and it accomplishes it with lunatic boldness and style.
Vaughn may need some introduction. He cut his teeth as a producer of Guy Ritchie's first films, two of which — Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) — are bona-fide classics of an English gangster genre the pair virtually invented. In 2004, Vaughn made his directorial debut with the crime drama Layer Cake, which starred a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, and which you must drop everything to see if you haven't. Films such as Stardust (2007) and Kick-Ass (2010) followed.
It's tempting to regard Kingsman simply as a Bond reboot aimed at millennials. The martini-shaking spy's legacy certainly is the heart of the enterprise. It offers affectionate riffs on lethal gizmos, smart roadsters, sexy women and colorful bad guys. Its soul, however, may be the more intriguing part of the picture.
It is, after all, the story of a street tough (Taron Egerton) who finds his place in the world when a debonair stranger (Colin Firth) welcomes him into a society of secret agents. The theme must have special resonance for the filmmaker, who (I swear) grew up believing his father was Robert Vaughn, star of the spy series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
With that bit of background, it's possible to view Vaughn's gonzo, candy-colored bloodbath as a sort of touching gonzo, candy-colored bloodbath. Firth is a revelation in the role of Harry Hart, a deadly dandy who takes a teen named Eggsy under his wing because the boy's father died saving Hart's life years earlier. The kid undergoes training with a group of privileged types. Put through their paces by the great Mark Strong, they suggest Hogwarts students with dreams of automatic weapons instead of magic wands dancing in their heads.
One of the candidates, Roxy, is played by Sophie Cookson, and it's worth noting that the film's creators set a rare standard for gender parity with her role. She beats the boys at their own games. She doesn't fall in love. She simply rocks, and undue fuss is not made of the fact.
Samuel L. Jackson plays lisping tech billionaire Valentine. His diabolical scheme is to reverse global warming by ridding the planet of humanity — at least the 99 percent who can't afford admission to his luxury apocalypse bunker. Little do people suspect that the free wireless service he donates to the world can be used to broadcast a signal that will transform everyone into homicidal monsters.
The film's most controversial sequence features a hyper-stylized massacre in a hate-mongering church. In a million years, nobody watching The King's Speech could've imagined that one day the Oscar winner would clean house in a house of worship armed with a bulletproof umbrella. But he just did. Somewhere, Tarantino is kicking himself.
Kingsman won't be everyone's cup of Earl Grey. But it does what it sets out to do — namely, give the half-century-old 007 tradition a fun, frequently meta face-lift. Vaughn has always been drawn to eye-popping visuals, and here he pulls out all the stops. His latest is a razzling, dazzling blast and a half that, by infusing the genre with fresh ideas and energy, does it a service unlikely to stay a secret.