Two major releases that open this week suggest that the best approach to relationship security, for some couples, this Valentine’s Day weekend might be to go to the theater together but then see separate movies.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is loosely based on a series of comic books about Britain’s intelligence agency M16. However, the movie distances itself from any actual agency by focusing instead on a private organization of spies and agents and, in doing so, releases itself from any set of rules, conditions, or established procedural parameters. This is a neat approach as the film comes at the spy genre comedically and is essentially an action parody of decades of Bond and Bond-like subject matter. It’s like “Our Man Flint” but with Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” style.
Appreciating the intent is important in expectation formation. Early previews for “Kingsman: The Secret Service” made it seem like much straighter subject matter, albeit with comedic undertones. A few months later and armed with some much more representative promotional material, the film delivers on revised expectations extremely well.
Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, or Galahad, a long time Kingsman. It’s a small group and they’re known internally by Arthurian names (Michael Caine has the role of Arthur, leader of the group), consistent with an image of modern day knights saving those in distress. In an establishing scene, we’re shown a mission that went wrong many years in the past, with Galahad having to explain the circumstances to a younger colleague’s widow and young son. This in itself is odd, as Bond films, for example, tend to start off with some unrelated mission going extremely well – and “Kingsman” doesn’t actually show us, directly, any successful missions although the clear implication throughout the film is that failure is extremely unusual. Indeed, it’s a small enough group that they couldn’t afford to sustain much loss of life and each loss is deeply felt, with a ritualistic toast to the fallen member and a requirement that each remaining member propose a replacement recruit.
Recruits are trained and tested by, not surprisingly, Merlin – played by Mark Strong. It’s a demanding process, the logistics of which shouldn’t be considered too deeply, which is true for the rest of the film also. This is a film that delivers on delivery, more so than on story (after all it’s a parody of films in which the stories are outlandish to begin with), and it’s a blast from beginning to end with Galahad and his fellow Kingsmen tackling an intentionally stereotypical villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson.
Firth is delightful in the Hart/Galahad role – already suitably urbane in his bespoke suits and shoes (“oxfords not brogues”), and having trained hard for the action sequences which aren’t typically his genre (although this isn’t quite the action rebirth of Liam Neeson in the “Taken” films). Jackson also shines in a role that seems at first as though it might become tiresome, and which might have done so with less self-aware material. This is a film that knows what it’s poking fun at and which pokes fun at itself along the way.
Taron Egerton, a new face for most of us, is Hart’s young protégé – and seemingly quite out of place as the working class lad surrounded by competing Kingsmen wannabes recruited from elite schools and families. He’s Hart’s Eliza Doolittle – a reference so obvious that the film even makes it itself, just for good measure. As the audience, we always know he’s going to be successful but, as the character, he delivers a fine performance full of self-doubt and trepidation about a world that has nothing else to offer him. It’s really quite neat how a film that is as broadly comedic as this manages to also deliver some nuance along the way. These aren’t entirely two-dimensional characters, at least not all of them.
There’s only one moment that feels a little like a misstep, with an explicit sexual reference that doesn’t seem to fit with any of the rest of the film’s content. It’s a potential shame as it may very well alienate some viewers who might otherwise enjoy the film – and it makes it harder to take younger viewers. Other than that, although rated R, most of the violence has a video game quality to it and the film feels as though it could have been PG-13. The sexual reference actually felt to me like the kind of scene a filmmaker puts in as a bargaining chip to then be removed while negotiating rating level – and it seems remarkably out of place, more fitting for this week’s other major release (“50 Shades of Grey”).
Aside from that one concern, this film is wall to wall fun. It’s the kind of film that works so well that I find myself wanting to see more yet also fearing the curse of sequels that don’t manage to live up to their origins.
Fifty Shades of Grey
Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is the much anticipated film adaptation of the first book in the series that swept the nation, providing daytime talk show discussion content and late night talk show punchlines along the way. It tells the story of the relatively innocent young Anastasia Steele who, shortly before her college graduation, finds herself filling in at short notice for a friend, interviewing the reclusive billionaire bachelor Christian Grey.
Grey is a bit of an enigma, having never been photographed with a woman, and one of Anastasia’s friend’s interview questions is the very blunt “Are you gay?” However, as the two find themselves drawn to each other, he reveals that his own sexual interests and proclivities are very specific, so specific in fact that he attempts to break off any contact with her as he feels she’s unlikely to be receptive to his needs.
Grey is into bondage and, as Anastasia discovers to her amazement (as the film delivers one of its best lines about his games room), he has an extensive sex dungeon built into his swanky Seattle apartment. Either he did a lot of the work himself, or he has some extremely discrete interior decorators.
I haven’t read the books but I’ve heard passages and this is a film that seems to pull its punches. There’s more overt sexual content in the dialog than in the actual sex scenes, with the actual onscreen sex not seeming especially steamy. Anastasia is new to all this and so, perhaps, is most of the audience – but there’s a scene in which the two main characters read through a list of sexual activities that’s like a glossary of extreme pornography, followed by sexual encounters employing only feathers and riding crops.
It’s an interesting choice for a Valentine’s Day release as it delivers “romance” in the form of violence and control – not exactly mainstream material. But it was a very successful book series and also delivers a built-in audience eager to see the books’ graphic content on screen. The problem is that a film simply can’t do that within the bounds of an R rating. If ever there was a film that needed an NC-17 rating while having the potential to still deliver a sizeable audience, this was probably it. Instead, the sex that’s depicted ends up seeming rather tame and even dull, compared to the advance reputation of the material.
It’s a controversial film as it’s seen by many to promote violence towards women. Interestingly, the backstory of Christian Grey involves him being the submissive partner in a relationship with a dominant older woman, starting when he was just 15. There’s plenty of potential outrage that could be thrown around about child abuse and formative experiences, without focusing solely on the fact that Grey likes to hit women, as the film clearly references a broader sub-culture in which there are also women hitting men for all the same reasons, and both men and women electing to be hurt. The bigger question of why isn’t really addressed, although Grey alludes to a traumatic earlier childhood in a manner that might offend some with similar tastes who might feel that the film implies it to be a direct outcome of emotional injury. So it has broad potential to offend, and not just women’s rights advocates.
Having not read the books, it’s hard to determine exactly where all this is going, but Grey seems more interested in control than physical violence and, in Anastasia, he’s unexpectedly drawn to a woman who might be meeting his match. While she may be on the receiving end of the riding crop, she’s also redefining his boundaries and may ultimately be the one who is exerting more control by permitting or not permitting his desired behaviors, with him as much under her spell as she is under his.
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are quite competent as Steele and Grey, with more subtlety delivered by Johnson, and a reasonable amount of chemistry between them. The problem being that they’re asked to provide steamy performances with a pressure release valve that’s set too low. The film actually works better when it’s being a head game than when it’s being a bed game and, although that might also be a significant part of the books’ content, it isn’t as representative of the series’ reputation. It might work better as an illustration for those already intimately familiar with the material, who can overlay memories of greater detail in their minds while watching less happening on screen, but it seemed to me like a big teasing letdown. Truly anti-climactic – but then it’s only part one of three.