Review: Kingsman – The Secret Service (Film)

poster_3118786cTL;DR – This is a brilliant spy movie pastiche of the old school (pre-Dalton). It is a delightful mix of nods to various spy films – most especially Bond – but also a nod to the gentleman spy genre on a meta-level. I’ll try not to spoiler things too much, but if you’re a fan of the surreality, gadgets and sense of fun of the old Bonds (or Our Man Flint) this is a film you have to see. At the same time its a film with more depth and nuance than a lot of older films, with commentary to make about class, moral grey areas, Malthusianism. It’s also presented in a much more modern style, with some of the viciousness and dirty humour of Kick Ass, as well as a modern sensibility to the fight scenes. All the better.

Introduction

Did you grow up liking spy films? Bond’s the obvious choice, but there were plenty of others. Still, Bond looms large over the whole espionage genre and the Napoleon Solos, Flints and later examples don’t hold a candle to him.

I loved Bond. Maybe it was the gadgets, maybe it was the cars, maybe it was his way with the ladies (maybe it was just the way they’d swoon and say ‘Oh James’, the name we share. One must also consider the fact that he was British, in a sea of American heroes. Whatever it was, I was hooked. Connery, of course, was the best Bond but the films I loved the best were, perhaps, two of the most camp ones. You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me.

Kingsman-Hollywood-film-6-14I even liked Moonraker.

The new Bond is definitely an improvement on the – sadly poorly done – later Brosnan Bonds, but while the deadliness and sociopathy harks back to Connery’s early stint the cheekiness and sheer, hell-for-leather enjoyment has been missing.

These things move in cycles and perhaps Kingsman represents a push back to the more joyful, over-the-top enjoyment that has been missing.

The Story

I don’t want to give too much away as this is an early review (the film was only released today). However, I think a certain amount of synopsis should be alright.

The film revolves around the relationship between ‘Eggsy’, a young lad growing up on a grim London council estate and Harry Hart, a member of the Kingsmen. Eggsy’s father was a prospect to join the Kingsman organisation who was killed saving Hart on his graduation mission.

Wracked with guilt over what happened, Hart presents his widow – and young son (Eggsy) with a medal and the promise of a favour in the future.

Things don’t go well with Eggsy and his mum, they end up beholden to an estate thug and Eggsy grows up poor and borderline delinquent, washing out of the Marines and generally having no prospects until things go badly enough that he calls in the favour his family is owed and ends up being taken into The Kingsmen – who recently lost another member.

The film takes on three strands. Eggsy’s training and competition to become a Kingsman, the plans of the supervillain (played by Samuel L Jackson) and the efforts of the Kingsmen to uncover that scheme – largely headed up by Hart.

This results in an inevitable climax at the villain’s secret lair, but without much consideration for a sequel, the film is freely able to ‘go large’ and Eggsy is able to earn his stripes, and a fine prize to boot.

kingsman-bladesThe Presentation

This is a slick film, presented in a refreshingly clear style that allows you to see and appreciate what is going on. The story is fairly simple, playing to existing tropes and ideas and it does’t spend needless time explaining them. This may seem shallow and predictable – and many of the story beats are predictable – but something doesn’t need to be that sophisticated in order to be fun.

The film also has fun undermining and playing around with the tropes and uses the common language of the genre to convey a slightly more subversive twist. Where Bond is establishment, Eggsy is ‘common’, though his chief critics for his low status all get satisfying comeuppances.

The villain’s mission isn’t, actually, evil. [SPOILER] Concerned by global warming, his idea is one that has been proposed before in relation to overpopulation and famine – cutting down the human population. While he is, no doubt, a pretty evil man all told, it’s hard to argue with the logic.

Some of the class issues are a nod to the fact that despite his status as gentleman spy, Bond was often played by lower class people. Connery came from a very poor background, Lazenby too. Moore had something of a more privileged background, at least in terms of education, but despite playing many gentlemanly roles, he was from a middle class background at best. Dalton was the only one really to have a relatively privileged upbringing so making the ‘playing at gentleman’ more explicit is a nod and a wink to the Bond films on a more… meta level.

The fight scenes are fantastic, brutal and balletic. Pub, church, base. All wonderful and Colin Firth as an action star is a surprise and a delight unparalleled since Liam Neeson started growling into telephones. I hope he does more.

Also, blades are cool. Despite Oscar Pistorious.

The Score
Style: 5 (While it misses a few beats here and there and the final conflict runs out of steam it’s not enough to dock a point).
Substance: 3 (You don’t need to know much, but I’m a stickler for backstory and the hints here and there weren’t enough).
Overall: 4 (Go out and see this film immediately.

Now I need to buy a suit…

122211f38e7397553f33e7ff7e69a4e0002f0f66

Review: Pacific Rim Blu-Ray

pacific-rim-victoryI got the two-disc blur-ray edition with the special features bonus disc.

I didn’t get to see Pacific Rim in the cinema, but I’m not that sure that having missed it there is a huge loss. On a 52″ high definition plasma screen and at high volume – albeit without surround sound – you arguably get a better experience than the cinema. It can be hard to track what’s going on up on a cinema screen if you have to turn your head and if you don’t get good seats that can be even worse. You also don’t have to pay a stupid amount, you can avoid the 3D and once you’ve watched a disc 2-3 times you’ve gotten your value for money compared to a cinema visit anyway. You also don’t have to sit in spilled cola or have the back of your seat kicked.

I think, if you can afford halfway decent entertainment devices, the cinema has become redundant. With the internet you can also share your enthusiasm without having to whisper or spoil anyone else’s fun. I’ve felt this way for a while, but I think Pacific Rim cemented the fact that I can now get a better-than-cinema experience at home.

Pacific Rim is a great adventure movie and Del Toro’s love letter to the anime and mecha series of the past as well as the Japanese kaiju genre as a whole. It features giant robots smashing giant monsters in the face and really that’s all you need to know. Going into it you know that the day will be saved, the monsters defeated and humanity will stand triumphant. It doesn’t matter that you know though, this is modern cinematic technology, tried and true storytelling, old-school adventure and all delivered with a sense of joy and excitement that pervades the whole film.

The technology allows the giant robots and monsters to feel ‘weighty’ and ‘real’ while the lighting, style and detail simultaneously make them dream like and epic. The storytelling is age old, coming of age, facing up to responsibilities, facing evil, fighting for the highest stakes. The joy and excitement Del Toro has for the genre and its content – coupled with his attention to detail – brings the whole thing to life in a way that brings to mind a six year old jumping up and down and thrusting toys in your face while reciting endless detail about them – and it’s infectious.

This is apparent from the film, which is beautiful, epic and stirring, despite not treading any particular new ground in its story (other than the female lead not really being anyone’s romantic interest). It is even more apparent from the commentary and the special features in which Del Toro speaks often and at length about his passion for the project and the genres involved and this really comes across.

Visually there are only nods to the anime and kaiju influences, really the designs are their own thing, a new visual language for mecha and monsters taken from nature and from various other sources rather than the obvious ones. Every little detail is thought out and watching and re-watching the film you will always find new detail and new depth in the background.

Striker-Eureka-Australian-Jaeger_jpgThe only real weak points in the film were, for me, the scenes with Charlie Day’s scientist character ‘Newt’ who, despite having really cool tribal-style Kaiju tattoos was mostly annoying and whose scenes played out a bit too much like that 1998 abortion of a western Godzilla film. I could see the need for humour to be injected into the film but it was almost like he was in a completely different film to everyone else.

The best part of the bonus disc is the ‘notebook’ presentation of Del Toros ideas. The film apparently had a many-hundred-page setting bible and even though the film is fast-paced and doesn’t dwell on detail too much you can feel the weight behind it and you get more of an insight into that depth from the sketches, the explanations and the ideas presented in the extras. It’s some of the better bonus material I’ve seen for any disc.

Score
Style: 4
Substance: 4
Overall: 4

Review: John Carter

I saw John Carter opening day in the UK and I was pleasantly surprised. Given that I’m British and we have a talent for understatement, let me rephrase that in an American-friendly fashion.

This film is goddamn awesome. Go see it right now!

Liberties have been taken with the story – somewhat – but it’s recognisible. The racism and sexism of Burroughs’ writing (a product of its time) has been tempered with some modern sensibility, but by no means has the naive charm of the story been destroyed.

The effects are excellent, the CGI is grounded and is not disruptive or included ‘simply for the sake of it’. The landscapes are gorgeous, the props solid and while, perhaps, it’s a little less colourful in palate than it could have been it doesn’t succumb to the ‘beige = realistic’ mistake of many CGI heavy films.

First the little nitpicky criticisms:

1. Not enough nakey: there was no way Disney was going to go with the original. Tits were out of the question and loose-flapping wang was absolutely never going to happen. It’s a pity we can’t see the ‘real’ vision brought to life but this is as close as it gets and I can deal.

2. 3D: I saw the film in 3D. It had absolutely no reason to be in 3D and while the 3D didn’t ruin the film it did detract from the experience. In many of the wide landscape shots it made the travelling figures/mounts look like little toys and spoiled the sense of scale they were trying to convey. If you can see it in 2D, see it in 2D.

Now the gushing praise:

I haven’t felt like this about a film since, perhaps, the original Star Wars. It was wonderful, truly wonderful. There was nothing cynical about it, nothing knowing or nodding. It didn’t make fun of itself or view itself in a self-deprecating way. It was a great, ‘old fashioned’, adventure film.

I mean, I loved it. I felt like I was ten again. I want to go charging around a playground having pretend swordfights and rescuing princesses (fortunately, as a gamer I can do some of that).

The Tharks were believable and harked back to some of the best illustrations of those there ever have been and while the creatures weren’t always true to the book descriptions they were close enough.

Carter wasn’t a huge, buff, hero, more an everyman of the type you can relate to physically. A break from the book, certainly, but also one that I think is an improvement. Dejah Thoris is, equally, a believable beauty rather than a barbie girl and the ending scenes had a palpable chemistry and a look of convincing adoration in her eyes worth a hundred more explicit love scenes in a hundred other movies.

Martian women have always been fierce in the novels and in another break they introduced her fierceness a lot sooner in the story. Again, I think this improved it though I do think it will upset purists. It was one of the chief things that concerned me going into the film (along with the atrocious marketing) but I left reassured and happy.

I sincerely hope they’re able to follow up with sequels and that they remain this true to the books in the future. The perfect balance between respect and modernisation.

Just, see it in 2D if you can.

Style: 4

Substance: 5

Overall: 4.5

Here’s some Michael Whelan cover art to end with. The original had no panties 🙂 Also here’s a download of a Barsoom compilation, which is public domain in Australia and Canada, but ABSOLUTELY DO NOT DOWNLOAD IF YOU LIVE ELSEWHERE. I certainly didn’t.