This is Part 4 of The Netflix Project, where Netflix itself is in the driver’s seat of what to watch next.
Netflix choosing Kingsman: The Secret Service for me makes very little sense at all. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that this profile has remembered that I am a grown-up and to get a break from all this animated stuff but… what? Anyway, let’s get into it.
It’s generally understood that violence is an unacceptable form of problem-solving. Except in circumstances of self-preservation and the prevention of mass human suffering, ours is not a time where disputes are solved by duels to the death. We are a soft, doughy people who solve problems through snark, not hand-to-hand combat, and yet, we (this is the unfairly oversimple “we”) are obsessed with violence in film. I’m looking through the Imdb Top 250, and it’s rare to see a movie that doesn’t include characters whose daily routine involves punching, stabbing, or otherwise rending life from others. The list is bursting with mafiosos, hitpeople, cowboys, knights, cyber soldiers, murderers, and hard-edged cops. Kingsman: The Secret Service presents an opportunity to look at why violence is both so appealing on film and so appalling in the real world.
The movie has a truly staggering body count but it’s also about violence. When the big baddie, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), unleashes a “plague” upon the world, it takes the shape of a cellular network that removes people’s inhibitions. The idea is that by giving away billions of free SIM cards, he can ensure that the vast majority of people will be affected, and, in their unleashed state, will kill each other, culling the herd of humanity to more sustainable levels. The Kingsmen – a team of highly-trained, highly-funded, highly-fashioned spies based out of England – are the only ones who can stop the impending “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” by way of their own personal brand of gymnastic superspy asskickery. In Kingsman (subtitle withheld for future brevity), violence is both the threat and the solution, the disease and the cure.
Visually, Kingsman oftens treats violence as spectacle. There are a few characters, namely Harry (a tenured Kingsman, played by Colin Firth), Eggsy (a Kingsman recruit, played by Taron Egerton), and Gazelle (Valentine’s henchwoman, played by Sofia Boutella), who have refined their violence into an artform, where style takes precedence over boring, workaday limitations, like physics. These characters are able to unleash a vicious level of barbarism without a well-coiffed hair ever leaving its place. These scenes are a frenetic ride, filled with novel exhibitions of combat, focused on the movements of the players rather than the emotional consequences of the actions.
Whenever the movie wants to decry violence, it takes the opposite approach, focusing on the circumstances and context rather than just how cool violence is. When Kingsman wants us to feel empathy for Eggsy’s mom’s abuse, it doesn’t show her getting hit but we get a good look at her black eye. When a Kingsman recruit is killed, she doesn’t go out in a blaze of Crouching Tiger high-wire kung fu; her death is played as a tragic afterthought. When Valentine’s rage chip is activated, Eggsy’s mom is affected but she doesn’t look sexy or stylish as she’s hacking at a door with an axe; she looks manic and ragged, allowing us to feel horror and fear for the baby she’s trying to slaughter. It’s when violence it made real and given consequences that it becomes despicable. The actions themselves have the power to be poetry of motion, spectacular celebrations of human physicality but there’s a reason we never see the grieving widows of Valentines’ army of guards. In the finale, as their heads explode like champagne bottles, the bursting heads are anonymous ones. They are not people, they are gooey props to be disposed of at the altars of novel brutality.
It’s sometimes more complicated than just putting violence in a vacuum in order to make it tantalizing. For example, there’s a scene where Valentine tests out his rage chip. For his test site, he chooses a Westboro Baptist Church-type congregation. The preacher, in delivering his sermon, is immediately despicable, spewing vitriolic hatred toward pretty much anyone who isn’t an aggressive, white, straight hillbilly. Like a pro wrestler mocking the local sports team, the preacher gets instant cheap heat using hate speech that’s normally reserved for YouTube comments. So there’s an uncomfortable righteousness in knowing these people are going to be the victims of whatever Valentine has planned. It doesn’t feel entirely unjust for these hatemongers to get some kind of comeuppance. The wrinkle in the scene, however, is that Harry, creme-de-la-creme superspy is in the congregation, so when the signal is put out and everyone is sent into their blood boiling rages, he starts doling out murder with Oprah-like generosity.
It’s a lengthy, murderous, brutal, gorgeous sequence that never settles morally. You’ve got your badass gentleman spy (yay), being forced against his will to murder people (boo), who themselves follow a doctrine of zealous intolerance (boo?) but looking really impressive while doing it (yay), all set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” (yay) but all happening inside a church (um…?). Like Homer Simpson’s cursed frogurt, there are too many mixed emotions about the violence to really know how to feel. It’s a fascinating scene that challenges black-and-white depictions of violence in film (including Kingsman itself), making these folksy proto-terrorist racists the subjects of an enormous act of violence. Are they victims? Are they criminals getting their apt punishment? If nothing else, it brings to light the finality of choosing a route of violence.
Valentine himself has a peculiar relationship with violence. He is the primary source of all of this destruction but, as we learn early on, he cannot abide the sight of blood, death or violence. He’s a drone-warfare kind of guy who is fine to make the decisions that lead to apocalyptic destruction but he needs there to be a trigger-person or some level of disassociation before he can put his plans into effect. Valentine is like the opposite of us, the audience. All we want is the spectacle but all he wants is the results. He’s using violence as a tool for creating massive global change. We’re using it as a way to spend two hours with our jaws aslack. Valentine is the one who sucks the fun out of all the carnage by giving it context and consequences. He’s the killjoy who takes the violence out of the vacuum.
Kingsman serves a reminder that we, as a consuming public, are self-conscious barbarians who don’t want to be reminded of the victimization that comes from our bloodlust. The movie is a shocking, exhilarating showcase of violence that only stops being fun when it reminds us that it is, fundamentally, a movie about people murdering other people.
So, let’s pop something into the old Netflix profile to see what pops out next.
1 – Hated it
2 – Didn’t like it
3 – Liked it
4 – Really liked it
5 – Loved it
This was my second time seeing the movie and I honestly did like it a little less the second go-around. The spectacle was less spectacular having seen it before, which allowed a bit more room for distaste to slip in.
Let’s throw that 4-star rating in and see what kinds of recommendations pop out. My “Top Picks,” as assigned by Netflix, are…
5 – American Dad!
4 – Astérix: The Mansions of the Gods
3 – Ex Machina
2 – Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas
and finally, the movie I’ll be tackling next time:
1 – The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water … Goddamnit.