Friday, January 1, 2016

Kingsmen: The Secret Service

Kingsmen:  The Secret Service (2014) is an anthology greatest hits from other movies.  There is nothing original in the film except, perhaps, Matthew Vaughn's lurid panache in aethesticizing violence -- at the climax of the film, a thousand people have their heads explode.  Vaughn's imagines this carnage as a kind of fireworks display -- the heads (acting under the influence of explosive transmitters buried in the flesh of the victims' necks) burst into bright, gaudy fountains of glittering, multi-colored confetti.  There's no gore really -- just a computer effect in which each head dematerializes into a floral display of splashing rainbow-colored pixels.  Vaughn stages this mass beheading to music -- heads erupt in geometrically choreographed mayhem, something like a nightmarish Busby Berkeley routine.  This climax is characteristic of the entire film -- a female assassin who darts around on razor-sharp blades (like the Olympic athlete and murderer, Oscar Pistorius) blithely decapitates and dismembers a small army of attackers; again, there's no blood, just chopped-off limbs fluttering here and there.  Although the film is inexcusably violent, it's really not gory with one notable and disturbing exception that I will address below:  when the protagonists gun down people at close-range, whirling and somersaulting, colorful puffs of scarlet signify bullet-impacts -- it looks like a Hindu festival, Holi, in which celebrants hurl brightly colored powder at one another.

Kingsmen invokes James Bond and, indeed, aspires to some of the cool, vicious elegance of those films.  Tarantino-style, characters rant about Bond movies and emulate scenes in those films -- in particular, Samuel Jackson, equipped with an ultra-annoying lisp, harangues his unfortunate victims with references to Bond movies.  But Vaughn isn't content to pay homage to Bond.  At one point, Eggsy, the movie's hero, is asked why he has selected the initials "JB" for a pseudonym -- Michael Caine, slumming as spy-master, guesses "James Bond", then, pauses and asks "Or Jason Bourne?"  Eggsy responds:  "No, Jack Bauer."  And, indeed, there are episodes in the film that resemble scenes from the Tv series, 24, in particular, one sequence in which Stanley Tucci, also slumming as a kind of drill-sergeant training new spies, leads Eggsy through a maze by accessing computer diagrams of the site and whispering directions into the hero's ears via a telelink.  The movie features a bravura skydiving scene involving one too few parachutes taken directly from one or another of the Bond movies, albeit filmed with splash and MTV vehemence of Katherine Bigelow's Point Break, another picture featuring people parachuting from great heights.  When a female assassin rides a balloon into the edge of outer space to use an RPG to shoot down a death-dealing satellite, she falls to earth in a sequence yanked right of Phil Kauffman's The Right Stuff.  Eggsy mows down armies of white-clad henchmen who move robotically like Star Wars stormtroopersThe film's plot-line is a variant of the creaky narrative machinery that drove a dozen or so Bond films -- a super-villain, played by the foul-mouthed ranting Samuel Jackson has distributed free cell-phones to everyone in the world.  There is only one problem, the cell-phones can be satellite-triggered to emit a noise that provokes homicidal rage in every human being that hears it.  When the cell-phones make this noise, people immediately pick up knives or spoons or bats and try to hammer their family members and neighbors into pulp.  The villain's motive for imposing this mayhem on the earth is simple and politically correct -- there are too many people in the world and the population must be culled.  (Jackson has created an ark in some "fortress of Solitude" Arctic, or Antarctic mountain range where he has selected the chosen few who will survive the purge of the earth's population.)  The first third of the film derives from Harry Potter:  the movie shows a group of young assassins being trained by spymasters Colin Firth and Michael Caine at a kind of Hogwarts Academy. The kids are mean to one another and there is a strong whiff of class privilege in the humiliations meted out on Eggsy, the most talented of the killers in training, but, also, a lad who comes from a lower class background and has, even, worked at a McDonald's restaurant. 

About two-thirds of the way through the movie, a scene occurs that reminds us that in present-day Hollywood (or the international pop cinema), there is only one group of people who can be portrayed with merciless contempt with complete impunity --- these are right-wing Fundamentalist Christians.  A group of yokels is gathered in a Church to hear a sermon by a preacher who denounces gays, gay marriage, evolution, and abortion.  The hillbillies in the congregation are white supremacists to boot -- a radically unfair conceit.  We are told not to equate Islam with terrorism, but Vaughn conflates conservative fundamentalism with racism apparently reflexively -- and he does this for laughs.  Then, Jackson's death-ray activates in the cell-phones of the parishioners, triggering homicidal rage.  For the next 8 minutes, the film luxuriates in a brilliantly staged and choreographed massacre -- Colin Firth literally kills everyone in the church possibly a 150 people.  Unlike the other slaughters in the movie, the violence in this sequence is graphic, brutal and gory.  Implicit in the sequence is the idea that these people deserve to butchered.  The scene's tastelessness resonates, unfortunately, with audience recollections of a massacre in a liberal African-American church in Charleston, a real-life blood bath that everyone rightly decried.  So we are left with this question:  if a murderous assassin infiltrated a White Southern Baptist Church, a conclave of Ted Cruz supporters, would it be all right to butcher these people en masse?  The answer that Kingsmen suggests to this question is disquieting.

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