Midway through the hip new spy comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service, ultra-classy secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) infiltrates a sermon at a hate-spewing rural America congregation clearly modeled on the Westboro Baptist Church. Their sign out front proclaims "America Is Doomed," and their pastor leaps across centuries' worth of bigotry in a single bound. As Harry tries to quip his way out, a supervillain's mind-control plot springs into motion, and he is compelled to murder all the churchgoers for no reason, in a brightly photographed, slow-motion frenzy of martial arts, gadgeteering, and impalement set to the Southern rock anthem "Freebird."
The sequence teeters from cheeky to brutal, its humor from winking to shocking, both building on and desecrating the careful mythology the film has established. When a well-dressed man shows off a grenade disguised as a cigarette lighter, he will eventually use it; we just don't expect it to be used so inelegantly, or that the inelegance will itself become the joke. This anti-gag is at the heart of Kingsman, which keeps finding new ways to surprise with well-trodden territory.
The stylish super spies are members of a privatized espionage group founded more than a century ago by tailors to the wealthy, and the idea that menswear is keeping the world's peace is just the tip of this film's cult-ready sensibility. The gadgets, including an umbrella that doubles as both a shield and a projectile launcher, are designed around the Kingsmen model of the ideal gentleman: an expressly polite and impeccably dressed do-gooder who never wears brogue shoes and will only lay waste to a group of hoodlums after he's already asked them nicely to leave. Years after one of their members is killed in battle, his street tough son Eggsy (relative newcomer Taron Egerton) finds his way to their latest recruiting class under Harry's tutelage. But first, Harry will have to help Eggsy find the gentleman within. It looks so easy when Colin Firth wears that suit.
There's naturally a villain at large: Valentine, a tech mogul (aren't all modern supervillains?) whose world domination plot involves mind control transmitted via cell phones and computer chips planted in the minds of the global elite, like the world's worst Davos conference. He's played by Samuel L. Jackson, America's favorite shouter, with an odd lisp. Valentine wants to wipe out the human race, but he can't stand the sight of blood, and the funniest part of Jackson's performance is that he plays this trait unironically: he cowers from his own gun even as he shoots it. A sultry sidekick with razors for legs named Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is the most Bond-ian character to have never appeared in a Bond film.
But the film's true conflict is between Eggsy and the oppressive posh legacy of the organization he's trying to enter. During the long training sequence, Eggsy dodges jeers from his Oxford-educated rivals, resenting the class system even as he tries to climb it. But he isn't above whooping with joy over Spy 101 stunts like skydiving, during a plummet which director Matthew Vaughn shoots with dizzying speed. There are so many activities the film drops the ball on a few, like a seduce-the-target training exercise that ends before realizing any comic potential.
Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman are the umpteenth filmmakers to send up the spy genre, but they're also cleverly subverting the cult of Bondian Brit sophistication. After years of watching Michael Caine play the benevolent elder, it's refreshing to see him here as a stubborn crank obsessed with bloodlines and absurd tests of character. When he commands Eggsy to shoot an adorable dog, we do a double-take — what if we can't trust everything Michael Caine says, after all? — and Vaughn's frenzied close-ups keep the scene from going off the rails.
Vaughn also made Kick-Ass, which, like Kingsman, is an R-rated genre sendup based on a Mark Millar comic book. (Question for the class: How popular do sendups need to be before they become the establishment instead of merely mocking it?) This film maintains the same irreverence and ultraviolence, but blessedly without the sour tone of Kick-Ass: The joke rarely goes too far. Even so, scores of innocents still die, as in most save-the-world movies these days. Surely if gentlemen have rules about brogue shoes, they have rules about this sort of thing.