Tone is the secret sauce of cinema.
A film can have an interesting plot, good acting, great production values, but if the tone is off the whole thing sits queasily on the stomach like a cheap Mexican dinner.
Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman” has a lot going for it. It’s a wicked spoof of Bondish spy films with tons of over-the-top action. At its center it has a nifty mentor-student relationship. And in Colin Firth and newcomer Taron Egerton it has a couple of hugely charismatic leading men.
And yet the tone is, well, iffy.
Borrowing the arched-eyebrow approach of Patrick Macnee’s John Steed from the old “Avengers” TV show, Firth plays Harry Hart, aka Galahad, a member of a super secret agency known as the Kingsmen.
Operating out of a men’s clothing shop in London (which explains why its agents are so nattily dressed with pinstriped suits, tortoise-shell glasses and deadly umbrellas), the Kingsmen were formed decades ago by a cabal of obscenely rich men who thought international security too important to be left in the hands of governments and politicians.
The story — adapted by Vaughn and Jane Goldman from the comic Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons — has two main components.
First, the suave, lethal Galahad recruits for the Kingsmen the scruffy but incredibly talented son of one of his late colleagues. Young Eggsy (Egerton) is a brilliant student who dropped out of school, a spectacular gymnast who uses his skills mostly to steal cars. The bond that develops between the older Galahad and the punkish Eggsy as the kid goes through rigorous Kingsman training (it’s like Hogwarts with guns and body bags) provides the movie’s emotional core.
Then there’s Valentine, a lisping, self-made billionaire in rapper regalia (Samuel L. Jackson, having a high old time). Valentine is a global warming alarmist who, having given up on humanity’s ability to heal itself, has decided to cull the excess population through digital implants that — under the guise of providing free internet and phone service — will turn just about everyone into homicidal maniacs.
The action scenes are furious and well staged. Firth is at his debonaire best. There’s fine supporting work from Michael Caine as the leader of the Kingsmen, Mark Strong as the clipboard-bearing baldie in charge of the recruits, and Sofia Boutella as the villain’s deadly sidekick Gazelle, whose legs have been replaced with sleek, razor-sharp metal prostheses.
The main problem is that director Vaughn (whose resume includes “Layer Cake,” “Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class” and, regrettably, “Stardust”) cannot balance the project’s “fun” elements with its darker overtones. This is a mean yarn about a plot to get rid of most of Earth’s population, and yet we’re supposed to find it hugely amusing.
The film satirizes the one percent (who can buy immunity from the villain’s evil scheme), the moronic British criminal class and religious fundamentalists in the American South — and yet the very premise and name of the Kingsmen smacks of monarchism and oligarchical manipulation.
In short, “Kingsman” pulls us in too many directions all at once.
It’s not bad. At times it’s terrific. But it cannot make up it’s mind what it wants to be.