There’s a thrilling sequence in Matthew Vaughn’s latest secret agent caper, Kingsman: the Golden Circle, set in the inevitable Alpine mountaintop retreat. So many familiar ingredients are there — cable car, Eagles Nest-style lair, machine-gun-toting heavies in snowsuits, etc — that you could almost be watching the next Daniel Craig Bond movie. Except you know you’re not because of one key detail: you’re wearing a big, stupid grin.
All right, perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on the recent James Bond movies. But I think we can agree that they are somewhat lacking the jauntiness of the Sean Connery/Roger Moore eras. Sure, Craig is great at looking moody, tortured and buff, and Sam Mendes’s direction has given the last two a depth and arthouse sheen far beyond anything Ian Fleming wrote. Where, though, is the wit, the cheek, the eccentricity that made those early Bonds so much fun?
Enter Kingsman. ‘I could have cried with happiness when Daniel [Craig] signed for five more years,’ says Mark Millar, executive producer, and author of the original Kingsman comic book (though he didn’t write this sequel). ‘Bond has now forgotten what people liked about James Bond. We’re here to remind them.’
The idea came, as so many of Millar’s ideas do, in a pub. He and Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn were working on an earlier joint venture — Kick-Ass, a deliciously over-the-top superheroine movie starring Chloe Grace Moretz as a foul-mouthed, ultra-violent 11-year-old martial arts killer — and they got talking about writing a series about a young James Bond-type character.
Privately educated Vaughn wanted to give him a background similar to his own. Working-class Glaswegian Millar, however, wanted to make him rougher, more streetwise. The result, Millar says, was ‘his [early Bond director] Terence Young life meets my Ken Loach life’. And so the character of Eggsy was born.
Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton, is an unemployed London street kid plucked from semi-criminality to join a very secret ‘independent international intelligence agency’ called Kingsman, whose highly trained killers — like Eggsy’s mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth) — all wear bespoke Savile Row suits and handmade shoes, behave with super-elegant manners and deploy a splendid range of silly gadgets (bulletproof brollies) redolent of the days when Q was played by Desmond Llewelyn.
In mood and tone, the films are a nostalgic homage not just to Bond but to that odd mix of pastiche, dry wit, black comedy and high style you find in classic late 1960s British cinema: Egerton’s Eggsy is a dead ringer for Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File; the action scenes have that Carnaby Street-goes-mad-abroad feel of The Italian Job; and several of the characters have that debonair, self-deprecating Englishness of David Niven (who of course played Bond in the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale). Yet there’s a bold, irreverent freshness too, which the critics have yet to appreciate properly. I love Vaughn’s stuff: his Layer Cake (starring Daniel Craig, oddly enough) was by far the best of the millennial British gangster movies; his X-Men First Class is the classiest Marvel superhero movie; and there were so many great moments during my private screening of Kingsman II that I kept craning round in the empty screening room, wishing there were people with whom I could cheer and laugh and whoop.
‘Matthew’s got drive, he’s got vision, he knows exactly what needs to be done. Above all, he’s got immaculate taste,’ says Mark Strong, who plays agent Merlin in the two Kingsman films. ‘I love working with him. It’s like being part of a loyal rep company, where everyone knows everybody else’s steps. And, incredibly, he’s had five hit movies in a row — six counting this one — which in this business is almost unheard of.’
I wish I could tell you more of my conversation with Strong, but a lot of it revolved round a key detail which would spoil the plot. What did strike me about him, though, is that he’s an intelligent, thoughtful fellow. I ranted to him about how much more brilliant Bond would be if they’d handed the franchise to Vaughn (as was indeed once mooted) rather than to a Cambridge-educated luvvie such as Sam Mendes.
‘Yes but how do you think it would have gone down with the core audience? Do you think they would have got it?’ It’s a good point. Perhaps the reason Kingsman works so well is because Vaughn can get away with things he’d never have been allowed to do with Bond.
This, says Millar, is part of Vaughn’s problem. ‘Kick-Ass grossed $100 million; Kingsman $420 million; Kingsman II will do more than $500 million,’ he says. ‘It’s professional jealousy from the luvvies. In Britain people are ashamed of success.’
The other problem is Hollywood, which is terrified of Vaughn — and therefore doesn’t properly promote him — because he doesn’t need its money. All his movies are self-financed, mostly from British backers. ‘I’ve never lost anybody any money,’ he says.
Hollywood is in crisis, according to Vaughn. ‘In the past, even if you made a bad movie, DVD sales could bail you out. But now they’ve got competition from the internet, from Netflix, from TV series on fire. Hollywood is run by big accountants and they’re all afraid. Fear destroys creativity.’
Millar has a theory that all the big Hollywood franchises are reaching the end of their natural cycle — ‘Pirates, Superman, Batman… These things don’t last for ever. Look at the 1930s, when the biggest movie hero was Sexton Blake. Now no one’s even heard of him.’ It’s why he recently signed up to do a mega deal with Net-flix: to break this mould by creating a range of new vehicles and characters embodying ‘all the things you loved as a kid, but supercharged and with an R rating’.
A lot of Hollywood action movies these days feel as if they were designed by a committee, policed to ensure representative casting on race and gender, and sanitised so that nothing strays beyond the bounds of middlebrow taste, nothing too complex or controversial. You never get that feeling with the Kingsman series.
In the first Kingsman, for example, the chief baddie — played by Samuel L. Jackson — is an insane environmentalist who wants to save the planet by culling the human race. (Very off-message for fanatically green Hollywood.) And the new one sneaks in the highly subversive suggestion that lots of decent and otherwise law-abiding people take drugs and that it might be better and safer for all of us if they were legalised. How on earth do they get away with this stuff?
‘Because we don’t have a bunch of Hollywood suits telling us what to do. If we did, I promise you wouldn’t be liking the movie,’ says Vaughn, listing all the things that would never have been permitted in the first Kings-man film by a conventional Hollywood studio: the comedy violent massacre in the Baptist church; the exploding heads; the scene where various world leaders get blown up; the swearing; the complicated plot; the post-modern references.
He’s dead right. There’s a scene in the new movie (written by the brilliant Jane Goldman, who does all the Millar/Vaughn screenplays) where Eggsy has to insert a tracking device into an attractive blonde in her designer yurt at Glastonbury festival using an intimate method you simply can’t imagine passing muster with the po-faced Bond franchise. And there’s the difference. If you wanted to characterise it in political terms, I’d say it goes like this: new Bond = cosmopolitan, inoffensive, globalist, pro-EU; Kingsman = spiky, rebellious, defiantly old school, pro-Brexit.
Not that Eggsy or his fellow secret agents are members of Ukip or anything like that, but they definitely give off a pro-Brexit vibe. This idea appeals to Millar, an unlikely combination of millionaire working-class Corbynista and bug-eyed Eurosceptic. When Vaughn signed one of those public letters saying how damaging Brexit would be for the creative industries, Millar teased him mercilessly. Vaughn admits he’s torn on the issue: on the one hand his heart yearned for the freedom of Brexit; on the other, he’s married to a German (the supermodel Claudia Schiffer). During my phone interview with Vaughn and Strong, they invite me up to that evening’s opening of the Kingsman pop-up store, situated rather impressively on St James’s bang next door to wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd. My son Boy insists we go — and while I talk bespoke shoes and plot twists with Strong, then politics and money with Vaughn, Boy gets to chat up Claudia…
As well as being a great director and a lucky husband, it turns out that Vaughn is an extremely canny businessman. With Kingsman he has taken merchandising to a whole new level by selling high-end fashion brands (Turnbull & Asser shirts, George Cleverley shoes, Drake’s ties, Swaine Adeney Brigg brollies, etc) and premium booze. These are all promoted in the movies via the website Mr Porter and, for a limited period, the St James’s shop.
I thought this was just a promo gimmick. But no, it’s bringing in serious money. ‘We’re on our eighth Kings-man collection,’ says Vaughn, who owns the brand. ‘We sold 300 watches, some of them costing £25,000. We sold 5,000 cases of whisky in the first day; we sold 2,000 bottles of a limited-edition single malt at £550 a go. I thought if Disney can do it with cuddly toys, I can do it with high-end fashion. It’s worked out beautifully.’
When I tell Vaughn that Mark Millar reckons the film is going to gross more than a half a billion, he says: ‘If it does that, you can have the item of your choice from the shop.’ When I tell Millar this, he’s sceptical. ‘There has to be a catch here as Vaughn notoriously never buys a round,’ he says. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed all the same.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle in cinemas and IMAX from September 20