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Kingsman - The Secret Service review: Spy spoof has a licence to thrill

Matthew Vaughn's latest effort completes the British writer-director's unofficial trilogy of quirky, comic book-adapted blockbusters. Like Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a cartoonish blast of fresh air in an increasingly stale and oh-so-serious genre. Indeed, throughout the spoof spy thriller, Vaughn and co-scripter Jane 'Mrs Jonathan Ross' Goldman poke fun at their cinematic peers, making a strong case that the Bond and Bourne franchises really need to lighten up.

At one point, we're told that spy films are "only as good as their villain", and Vaughn goes to some effort to present us with a memorable bad guy here. Samuel L Jackson's Richmond Valentine is a sideways baseball cap-wearing megalomaniac with a plan so nefarious it makes Blofeld look like Mr Blobby. The character's lisp may be an affectation too far, but otherwise, Jackson nails the gonzo, menacing qualities long lacking from 007 nemeses.

"Looks like a lot of people are going to die," warns metal-legged henchwoman Gazelle, played by Madonna backing dancer Sofia Boutella. "Do I look like I give a f***?" Valentine smirks in reply.

And that pretty much sums up the tone. It's the kind of movie where people can cut their adversaries in half with razor-sharp, artificial limbs, where agents can shoot amnesia-inducing darts into witnesses' necks and where Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, can make a scenery-chewing cameo as a crumpled, English college professor.

Elsewhere, Vaughn gives us fight scenes that wouldn't disgrace The Raid, a gleefully demented training montage involving submerged dorm rooms and skydiving Russian roulette, and more exploding heads than a Scanners marathon.

Sure, it's filmmaking on Red Bull, but there is some substance fighting to get out. Taron Egerton's apprentice 'Kingsman' - a secret division of spooks concealed behind the facade of a high-end tailor's shop - enjoys more of a story arc than is usual in this sort of thing, the Welsh newcomer successfully essaying Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin's journey from itinerant chav to besuited government hard nut.

But it's Colin Firth who really steals the show. The 54-year-old Oscar-winner has the most fun of his career as gentleman spy Harry Hart, alias 'Galahad' (the Kingsmen's codenames are one of many UK-centric touches in the piece). The erstwhile Mr Darcy wows as a highly-trained killing machine capable of taking on a pub full of armed thugs with nothing more than an umbrella. In fact, he's so convincing that if he's not careful, Firth could soon find himself with a lucrative sideline in Liam Neeson-style 'geriaction' vehicles.

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Kingsman doesn't just go over the top, it's attached to a bungee cord, so that any time you think you've landed safely amidst a nice, quiet bit of exposition, Vaughn yanks you back up into a lightning storm of pulpy madness. It's exhausting, but in a very good way.

The only shame is that the joie de vivre had to be accompanied by a stream of swear words and explicit nudity where a nod and a wink used to suffice. But that quibble aside, Kingsman: The Secret Service will most certainly shake you, stir you and then some.

Four stars

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