Happy Valentines Day, everyone! And what says ”romance” like a fight to the death while dance music plays and disco lights flash? No? Maybe classical—a symphony?
I wonder if this is why I don’t have a date.
Fortunately, I spend my free time well: catching up on movies people have been recommending I watch for the past year or so. In this particular case, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015).
I am, however, going to maintain that the films are fairly Romantic, in the sense of the nineteenth century movement that supported individualism, passionate emotion, and—though many forget this—nationalism. Of course, it was also a fairly anti-industrialization movement, while spy flicks take almost as much joy in technology as science fiction, but I think it’s the ideals that matter—the dream of a simpler time, when men were good or evil, acted on impulse and emotion rather than cold machine logic or staid formula. Or, as quoted in Kingsmen:
Harry: Give me a far-fetched, theatrical plot any day.
Valentine: The old Bond movies, oh man. Ah, when I was a kid, that was my dream job. Gentleman spy.
Harry: I always felt the old Bond films were only ever as good as the villain. As a child, I rather fancied a future as a colorful megalomaniac.
I love a good double-edged conversation, don’t you? (For those who haven’t seen the film, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is a gentleman spy, while Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is both distinctly colorful—right down to the literal costuming—and very much a villainous megalomaniac.)
On the other hand, Kingsman does a decent job showing that neither side is entirely black and white, with the Kingsmen Agency’s snobbishness and Valentine’s actually quite reasonable point that we need to do something to curb the global population, because it’s spiraling out of control and nobody is doing anything to stop it. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. handles this as well, with the Russians and Americans working together only long enough to stop the Nazis (leftover from WWII; it’s 1963) from developing advanced nuclear technology. As soon as the mission is done, both the CIA’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the KGB’s Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are ordered to shoot each other if necessary to get the disc with the new scientific developments. Such complex morality has always been a hallmark of spy thrillers—what are spies, after all, but those who do dirty work in the name of Queen and country? Or whatever office of rule. There’s your Romantic nationalism.
The individualism shines through in the titles of the films themselves. Kingsman, when one of the lessons Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Roxy (Sophie Cookson) learn is that only through teamwork will they survive. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., when the entire premise of the film is that it’s two men, one Russian one American—and one young woman, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), who is rather more skilled at undercover work than either of them. But it is the individuals’ choices and actions that matter—Roxy’s bravery, Eggsy’s determination, Napoleon and Illya’s decision to burn the disc rather than share it with either of their employers. And lo, a team is formed.
And the passion, the sheer joy of a good old-fashioned Bond film. Neither Kingsman nor U.N.C.L.E. takes themselves particularly seriously (which, frankly, I’m not sure the Bond films ever did either—killing a man by painting him with gold? Really?) I’m really here for the passion, the tragedy and joy and gut decisions at high-stakes. The adventure and the romance—yes, in the lower-case sense with the accompanying nudge-nudge-wink-wink. “Well this ain’t that kinds of movie,” says Valentine right before he shoots Harry in the head, but his own name, conflating romance and Romance, betrays the truth: this is exactly that kind of movie. Which is why he sighs contentedly when Eggsy quips it back at him after returning the favor with a blade to the chest: “It’s like you said to Harry. This ain’t that kind of movie, bro.” Then Eggsy picks up a bottle of champagne and a couple glasses, and goes to have victory sex with a kidnapped—now saved!—Swedish princess.
Exactly that kind of movie.
But really, the action scenes are the best of it. That’s what I started with and by St. Valentine, that’s what I’m going to end with. Because you haven’t quite lived until you’ve watched the climax of Kingsmen where Eggsy essentially has a lethal hip-hop dance-off with Valentine’s knife-heeled assistant. Seriously, she has blades instead of feet. It’s a big step forward for the disabled community, because she’s really cool-looking when she’s killing people with them. Particularly when she’s all but break-dancing to do it, while disco lights spin and a rocking instrumental of KC and the Sunshine Band’s "Give it Up" blasts from the speakers. The camera moves as well, alternating long circles around the action and rapid-fire cuts between the fighters, speeding with the stress of combat and slowing to show off the particularly impressive moves.
It’s a little bit less cheerily exciting when the music continues but the shot cuts to people killing each other around the world, maddened to uncontrolled bloodlust by Valentine’s “neurological wave.” I admit: that sort of violent contrast is another thing for which I am gloriously present.
But nothing can beat the scene in U.N.C.L.E. in which Napoleon calmly sits in a truck, eats a sandwich, and blasts a lovely Italian ballad while, visible out the windows, Illya engages in a high-speed, high-stakes boat chase. So removed is Napoleon—and the audience—from the action that we don’t even hear it, or see it as more than blurred background movement. It is not, however, true distance, but casualness, as the music continues at full volume when Napoleon eventually concedes to go back and help his comrade-in-arms.
The truly most self-enjoying thing U.N.C.L.E. does, however, is split its camera view into sections like the panels of a comic book, which shift and slide to show multiple characters moving at once. Some are split by striking diagonals, some dissolve into half a dozen smaller screens then converge again on a different scene. There is no dialogue, just music, a heavily beating baseline in time to the movements of the panels, for dramatic suspense. The tension and excitement—as the spies explore a weapons factory, or later team up with the British Royal Marines to storm the villains’ base—is palpable, and, as I said, reminiscent of the clean fun of superhero comics. There is no blood, no gunshots; just music and movement and period-appropriate drama.
Far more Romantic than any box of chocolates.