Take Me to Church, by David Bax
Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service would certainly appear, in a superficial manner, to have “something to say.” Its plot, wherein a villain plans to remove most of the world’s population with the exception of the richest and most powerful elite, contains a blunt smack of social relevance. But just where do the film’s political and moral allegiances lie? The story I’ve just described implies an opinion of income inequality that lines up with liberal ideals (and the film at least twice directly references the liberal fable Trading Places). But this is also a film that derides the wasteful and ineffective bureaucracy of large governments and chides one of its leads for blaming his station for his lack of life achievements. Ethical ambivalence is intrinsic to violent action movies. But in one centerpiece scene, already gaining notoriety, Kingsman puts the confusion on gonzo display, not in a manner that clarifies anything but that explodes these issues and more in a way we’ve never quite seen before.
This is where I have to warn you that, if you haven’t yet seen Kingsman, you may wish to stop reading. Spoilers are forthcoming.
At the end of the second act, Colin Firth’s character, codename Galahad, attends a service at a church where the sermon is a deluge of vile racism and homophobia and a few other hateful ideologies to boot. Having heard enough, Galahad claims to the woman next to him that he represents everything she despises – describing himself as a Catholic whore with a black, Jewish boyfriend, among other things – and then, with a polite “Hail Satan,” excuses himself. The woman follows him toward the door, invoking perdition all the way. Just before exiting, Galahad stops, draws his gun, turns and shoots the woman in the head. What follows is a brutal melee and a massacre. Galahad lays waste to the entire redneck congregation in a ballet of gory fight choreography on par with recent violent cinematic exhilarations like The Raid and John Wick.
If you’ve seen the film, you know I’m leaving out a crucial element of motivation but we’ll circle back around to that in a minute. For now, let’s focus on the fact that Galahad is the film’s representative of good, the Obi-Wan to the young tyro protagonist. When he puts a bullet through the brain or a knife through the throat of another human, we are meant to assume its in service of a larger righteousness. But he is also someone who makes an early impression by beating a group of hoodlums into unconsciousness for the crime of rudeness. If that sounds more like Hannibal Lecter than a noble hero, it should. By any objective appraisal, he’s a psychopath. Then again, that puts him in good company. Most of our action heroes are unrepentant murderers whom we root for nonetheless simply because, despite the morality of any single action they take, they fall on the right side of the good/bad binary we agree to observe when we sit down to enjoy such entertainments. The reserved coolness (really callousness) of the gentleman spy subgenre to which Kingsman pays homage makes for a potent example of the unexamined psychosis we’re talking about here. In a discussion about all the pop culture spies with the initials J.B., the film name checks James Bond (famous for his post-kill quips) and Jason Bourne (who at least has some angst about his lethal ways) before the film’s protagonist, Eggsy, tellingly reveals that his personal favorite is Jack Bauer. Perhaps no character in history has asserted more strenuously the notion that the ends justify the means.
No character, that is, until Vaughn presents us with the litmus test of Galahad’s slaughter of the hicks. Mid-scene, it is revealed that Galahad is in fact not acting under his own power. His brain has been temporarily fried by the bad guy’s doomsday whatsit. But Vaughn withholds that information just long enough for us to wonder if we’re meant to condone the spectacular carnage laid upon the racist herd. Galahad’s mocking of the woman has already established her and her clan as an opposing force to the hero, not to mention their pre-existing awfulness. In the 15-30 seconds before Vaughn clears things up (which is a lot of time given the efficiency with which Galahad kills), we are invited to confront just how far we will take the moral compartmentalization that is de rigueur in these kinds of movies. How much violent fascism will we endure if it’s in the name of the (ironic in this case) liberal platform of fighting intolerance?
Prior to the church scene, the movie’s titular organization has already stated that they only condone taking lives when doing so will save others. So is the dogma of hatred espoused by those folks listening to the sermon threatening enough to qualify? Perhaps not, since Vaughn lets Galahad off the hook for their murders. But the gonzo extremity of the sequence sets the stage for what’s to come. It’s disturbingly dazzling when the heads of the evil elite start to explode but was every single one of them a certifiable, fatal threat? And what about their servants, who suffer the same cranial fate? How do their deaths save anyone from danger? What amount of collateral damage is acceptable to a Kingsman? By the time these questions arise, however, it’s too late to object. Kingsman already crossed the moral Rubicon back in that church.
The church house massacre is, on its own, a marvel of aesthetic execution, far outpacing Vaughn’s usual, antiseptically stylized violence. But it also stands as something larger than the film that contains it. It’s a dramatically drawn line in the sand that’s as thrilling to ponder as it is to watch.