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Trailer park: Spectre, Southpaw, Spooks

Trailer park

First things first, let’s get the big guns out of the way. As far as new trailers go, the latest Bond film gets top billing. There’s also one from Jake Gyllenhaal – who’s in a bit of a purple patch – and some spy thingy set in London and starring ‘fit Kit’ Harington (him off Game of Thrones).

Spectre
Bond is back baby, oh yes. Tying up the Skyfall and Quantum of Solace storylines nicely, this sees the return of his biggest foe, evil network SPECTRE. Mr White is back looking harrowed, Bond calm and collected, and, the thing that’s going to get most fanboys excited, Christoph Waltz as the big baddie. With Sam Mendes again directing and new additions Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux joining the cast expect another triumph.

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My top film of last year was Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal putting in a phenomenally chameleonic performance. Physically he changes tack here to beef up for this tale of a boxer out to do right by his little girl and return to the ring. Interestingly, the UK’s very own Rita Ora plays a drug addict in it too.

Spooks: The Greater Good
It’s impossible to mention this film’s title without bringing to mind a certain scene in Hot Fuzz. That aside, it’s nice to see the Game of Thrones lot branch out. We’ve recently had Richard Madden (Rob Stark) in Cinderella, and now here’s Kit Harington (Jon Snow) tearing around London as an MI5 agent trying to uncover a conspiracy, doing what we can hope is a darn better job than Jack Bauer did in the last season of 24.

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Focus: Smith and Robbie zing but the plot falls flat

Film

Will Smith is a movie star. An A-lister. Granted he’s been off his game lately, but he’s not done with the box office yet. And Margot Robbie is a rising talent and undeniably one of the most beautiful actresses working today. Sticking the two of them together in a caper about con artists seems like a good idea on paper. They can both hold the screen and chances are they’ll have good chemistry. If you can sense a but coming that’s because there is – and more than one in fact.

Films about conning are notoriously tricky these days, probably because as an audience we’ve seen it all before and this one goes to great lengths to spell out every con just in case you miss anything. ‘Remember, it’s all about focus’, Smith’s legendary con artist Nicky explains, showing raw talent Jess (Robbie) how it’s done in an early scene. ‘You focus here whilst I steal from here’, he teaches her as they dance round each other. She’s hooked. Talk about smooth criminal.

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With this sophisticated, knowledgeable guy and the raw, sassy girl you’ve got a tale that’s been told plenty of times before – often in a better way too. The Oceans films spring to mind, as does Confidence, a lesser known one with Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman. Maybe the film is called Focus because our focus is drawn towards thinking this is about conning when actually that’s a backdrop and the filmmakers are more interested in the romance to drive the whole thing along. In that sense also reminds me of Mr & Mrs Smith and Out of Sight.

Plot wise it’s fairly light. Maybe light is the wrong word, predictable or pedestrian is more on the money. What we have is guy meets girl, guy teaches girl a few things and cuts her loose (not before falling for her). Guy meets girl again on a job, she causes him to lose ‘focus’ and things don’t go to plan.

Sound familiar?

There’s nothing wrong with telling the same story again, but you’ve got to put a new spin on it. Here, writer-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (who last gave us Crazy Stupid Love in 2011) don’t really push the envelope at all. You’ve got Will Smith as your lead, test his mettle. His character, Nicky, is supposed to be a legendary con artist yet the situations he finds himself in never feel that dangerous or mentally challenging. What he needed was a proper adversary, perhaps some other criminal who he’s wronged in the past or stolen his girl… or something.

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What he’s given comes in the film’s final third in the shape of the owner of a racing car team played by Rodrigo Santoro. He’s far too vanilla for a bad guy, he turns up too late in the movie, and consequently feels incidental to the whole thing. Maybe it should have just turned into a game of one-upmanship, with Nicky and Jess conning and out conning each other in a sort of twisty, seductive criminal dance.

That would have been a good movie to see. But we didn’t get that. What we got was a fairly satisfactory – but not groundbreaking – tale with some nice performances from the two leads, but in a film you’ll have all but forgotten five minutes out of the cinema.

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Chappie: Short Circuit gets a reboot?

Film

Johnny Five is very much alive. Apologies to kids of the ’90s, this reference to the 1986 film Short Circuit will be lost on you.

What I’m trying to say is that Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie doesn’t feel like it’s hugely treading new ground when it comes to exploring artificial intelligence, but it’s quite a fun experience nonetheless.

We start with genius programmer Dion (Dev Patel) working for a South African company called Tetravaal who produce robotic police officers known as scouts. They’ve been instrumental in helping keep the crime rate down in Johannesburg, a city on the edge of slipping into chaos.

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Through a series of events Dion acquires a robot due for scrap and manages to install his newly developed artificial intelligence system into him. Around the same time he’s thrown together with some local gangsters who want to use the robot for their own ends.

Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

Put forward by Descartes in the Principles of Philosophy in 1644 and, in recent years, has been tackled and toyed with by filmmakers, particularly in terms of humanity’s uneasy relationship with artificial intelligence. As we develop things designed to make our lives easier we’re becoming increasingly attached to the very things that are meant to help set us free. Who’s to say we won’t become even more dependent on technology like advanced AI, when it develops?

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And specifically with the case of Chappie, learn to love robots like they’re children and part of our family. A large part of the film’s first half deals with this notion and it’s probably where it comes across strongest, as there’s a lot of warmth and humour there.

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) as a character seems somewhere between a pet and a child, constantly learning and enthusiastic. His performance (and dialogue) largely set to ‘dog mode’. Chappie do this, Chappie go there, Chappie has been a good boy, yes! It’s fairly charming and endearing, but we’re still firmly in Johnny Five territory.

Sticking the moral (but childlike) Chappie in with a bunch of gangsters is a nice idea, and the comedic situations work well. The problems occur when the film moves into more traditional action territory. And this is where you feel that so much time has been spent on Chappie and the characters immediately around him, that supporting characters get rather short shrift.

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Particularly Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman’s characters. They do their best but they’re lumbered with thinly drawn parts, clunky dialogue and – at times – rather ludicrous scenarios where their decisions are as baffling as the situation (particularly Jackman, who seems to be kitted out to look like Aussie crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, complete with bush outfit and a fearsome mullet).

As films go Neil Blomkamp set his own bar almost unsettlingly high with his debut District 9. Each of his films that followed this primarily explored similar themes, but with diminishing returns.

However, that said, there’s really nothing wrong with Chappie. It’s fun and entertaining, but given the subject matter it could have been so much more. You get the sense Blomkamp was more interested in exploring a situation where a childlike robot with a moral compass gets raised by gangsters (like some sort of ghetto Mowgli), than really mining the depths of consciousness, artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.

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This is evident in the film’s final third, which rushes through key sections almost like an afterthought. The same sort of thing happened in Luc Besson’s Lucy with Scarlet Johansson. Although, if we’re talking a more sophisticated handling of AI, you’re probably better off watching the film she did with Joaquin Phoenix, Her. Or more recently Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Hell, even I, Robot.

But before this descends into a Chappie bashing (which he gets enough of in the film), this movie is warm, its heart is in the right place and it’s engaging for the most part. And despite other characters not getting the love they deserve in the script, Copley keeps us hooked in, making us care about Chappie’s fate.

All in all, though, this isn’t a classic take on the genre, or even classic Blomkamp, but it’s entertaining enough and worth your time… for Copley’s plucky performance if nothing else.

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Trailer park: Ultron, Tomorrowland, Crimson Peak and Aloha

Trailer park

To butcher Led Zeppelin lyrics a little, there’s a whole lotta love out there for a whole lotta films coming out in the next few months. Too many to go through in much depth, but here’s a few I’d like to briefly pick out for your consideration.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ok, not everyone is a fan of this current glut of superhero films, yet this one really does look impressive. And so it should, given the budget, cast and studio muscle. At one point or another it’s all going to implode, it has to. But for now, I’m on board.

Tomorrowland
This film started life as a theme park ride and whether it turns out to be a franchise behemoth a la Pirates of the Caribbean remains to be seen. What we do know is that Clooney is attached, and he rarely joins doomed projects, so it could be a blast.

Crimson Peak
It’s high time Guillermo del Toro got back to what he does best… inhibiting a niche genre perhaps only rivalled by Tim Burton. But where Burton comes at his stories from more of an oddball outsider perspective, del Toro opts for horror and macabre fantasy.

Aloha
Ah, the sweet and observant writer-director Cameron Crowe, who doesn’t love his films? His last beautiful little story was We Bought a Zoo in 2011, so he’s been out the game a while. This looks like a good return to form with a cracking cast to boot.

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Still Alice… Still sad, sorrowful Julianne Moore

My musings

I haven’t seen Still Alice yet but I appreciate Julianne Moore’s performance is meant to be quietly brilliant. It’s won her a Best Actress Oscar, so it should be.

And you have to hand it to her, no one does sad, sorrowful and full to the brim with pain and anguish quite like Julianne Moore. The film poster for Still Alice is masterful in its simplicity and use of vibrant colours to contrast Moore’s expression.

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Looking at her filmography, she took supporting parts for years across a number of different genres. Maybe she has now, in recent years, found her niche?

This may sound like a rant, of sorts. But it’s really not. I’m a fan. But now she’s got the Oscar for sad, why not mix it up? I’d love to see happy, feisty, aggressive, bitchy and bad ass Julianne Moore. I’m sure she’s got those qualities in her locker.

So how about it Julianne, fancy embracing a new career direction?

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Jupiter Ascending: Have the Wachowskis lost their way?

Film

There’s a moment in the Wachowski siblings’ latest epic film where the main character realises bees respond to her and protect her. It’s quite tender and touching. A quieter moment in an otherwise epic – and thoroughly bonkers – sci-fi action film.

To say Andy and Lana Wachowski have been getting weirder of late is an understatement. Either that, or they’ve got to the point where they can now – as Sinatra once said – do it very much their way. A couple of years ago they tackled a book widely considered unfilmable (Cloud Atlas) and did a commendable, perhaps even brilliant, job. They delved into some big themes, jumped across time zones and dealt with constant shifts of tone, all whilst keeping the focus on the human side of things. And of course we all know just how good the first Matrix film was. Great concept, great story, with some exhilarating individual moments and scenes.

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And so on to their latest… Jupiter Ascending. One of their hits or a giant misfire? Well the truth is it’s somewhere in-between. Plot wise it’s utterly ludicrous. Although perhaps no more so than other sci-fi films, so maybe it’s the way it’s told and the performances, which we’ll come to in a bit.

After a bit of setup backstory we quickly meet Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), living out her life as a cleaner. We jump between her grim life and also get introduced to ‘the bad ones’ of the film, three siblings from the Abraxas family, a bunch of power-hungry, rather mad intergalactic royals; Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth).

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Through certain events the Abraxas lot discover Jupiter is the descendant/reincarnation (or something like that) of their family line, and she actually stands to inherit the earth ahead of all of them. Earth being the most profitable planet in their collection in terms of ‘mining raw materials’ (see the film to understand those quotation marks).

Obviously Jupiter has no idea about any of this until handsome splice (part human, part wolf) soldier Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) walks into her life. He thens whisks her into space for further adventures (with his top off a lot, naturally). Let’s leave it there plot wise, shall we? Beyond that it starts to go off the wall and then some.

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Getting a handle on a Wachowski film is the thing. With most directors you’ve got an idea of their style and material they get drawn to. With these two, the best you can say is they like characters that are fluid in terms of their sexuality and gender and race and colour and all that stuff. They love sci-fi and pushing the limits of what special effects can do. However, this does not make a good story, it just augments it.

I think, what it looks like they’re going for with Jupiter Ascending, is a fun thrill ride. A space adventure – and a bit of a love story. In that respect it delivers. It is fun, and thrilling and adventurous. It has funny moments and a few really odd ones (a sort of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy/Brazil moment in the middle of the film is, tonally, very confusing and kills the pace of the movie dead). On the plus side, it looks gorgeous. The sets are beautifully detailed and stunningly realised. And the effects are thoroughly immersive (particularly Caine’s rather fetching anti gravity boots).

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By and large, the characters are not vastly fleshed out. They probably suffer in that respect due to the vast amount of world building the Wachowskis have to do in the film’s first third. Kunis and Tatum are compelling enough leads (albeit largely lumbered with some particularly clunky, soap opera-esque dialogue, particularly Kunis) and Redmayne, after the emotional heavy lifting he did as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (which recently won him an Oscar), is clearly having the time of his life as the big baddie, really cutting loose going full out Emporer Palpatine. With his creepy, withered voice you half expect him to say something like, ‘Oh, I’m afraid the Death Star will be fully operational when your friends arrive.’ It’s that sort of performance.

His siblings, Titus and Kalique fare less well. Or just have a lot less to do. Each gets a scene or two, but it’s not much, after which they’re pretty much forgotten. You half wonder if the Wachowskis overcomplicated it having three siblings. Why not just have Redmayne’s Balem as the main antagonist and give him more scenes facing off against the strong and silent Caine? Actually, come to think of it, the same happens with Sean Bean, he turns up for a few scenes as Caine’s buddy Stinger (half man, half bee… keep up), then he bows out for an early bath and an easy pay cheque.

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Tonally, the whole thing feels like it sits quite well with the first Star Trek film of recent years (the J.J. Abrams’ one) or a slightly more melodramatic (less funny) Guardians of the Galaxy. Frankly, it’s no Matrix, but then what is? However, if you judge it on its own terms as a bit of a caper in space with some fun action set pieces, you’ll probably enjoy it.

So, get in the popcorn, leave your ego at the door and sit back and take it all in.

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Oscars 2015: As the dust settles

My musings

So that’s the Oscars done for another year. Were they everything you expected? Did the actors and films you’d hope get recognition actually get it? And, more importantly, does it all even matter?

In answer to the last question, probably not, but industry acclaim is often (but not always) indicative of a job well done. And who wouldn’t want a big shiny award for their efforts?

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This year it seems Grand Budapest Hotel cleaned up (production design, best score, costume design, makeup and hair). As did Birdman (picture, director, original screenplay, cinematography) and Whiplash (supporting actor, film editing, sound mixing).

Eddie Redmayne took Best Actor for The Theory of Everything and Julianne Moore Best Actress for Still Alice.

So, were these all worthy winners? Were any overlooked or snubbed?

Yes, yes and yes.

There’s always going to be unhappy people come awards season, but I think Birdman perhaps did a little too well – although it does seem typical Oscar material. Last year my film of the year was Nightcrawler, which got barely a look-in, although it got a nomination for Original Screenplay and it would have been nice to see it beat Birdman, but this was a tough category and all entries there were outstanding ones.

Talking of tough categories, Best Actress was apparently a shoo-in for Julianne Moore for Still Alice. I’ve not seen the film yet but it sounds very ‘Oscar worthy’ in terms of the material and her performance. Literally all of the other nominees could have won in my book, they all were fantastic (Rosumund Pike – Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon – Wild, Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything, Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night).

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I’m pleased Redmayne took Best Actor. His performance was truly astonishing and a thoroughly affecting one as Stephen Hawking, edging out Keaton’s washed up actor trying to reinvent his career in Birdman. And out of a category with five nominated, two were Brits (the other being Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game) which was pleasing to see.

Given the experimental nature of Boyhood or the electric performances in Whiplash it would have been nice to see either take Best Picture, but losing out to Birdman is something I can grudgingly accept with a ‘well played, sir’.

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Best Supporting Actress went to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood. Now I haven’t seen the film but I’d have really liked to see Kiera Knightley take this category for her underrated performance in The Imitation Game, or perhaps Laura Dern for her tender one in Wild.

I could go on and on, but let’s stop there. To sum up, not a bad list of winners. Not too many surprises or upsets. There’s some I would have preferred to win over others, but I’m not too cut up about it all.

What was your reaction to this year’s winners and losers?

Oh, and a final note, The Lego Movie should have won for Best Original Song. In that respect, everything is not awesome.

Until next year.

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Top 5 button-down psychos

Best Of lists

Sitting having lunch outside recently my eye was drawn to a rather odd fellow walking past. With a bolt upright posture and off-kilter gait, shirt tucked neatly into high waisted chinos and a backpack pulled super tight, he instantly put me in mind of a psycho.

Not an overt ‘Begby’ style one a la Trainspotting, but a buttoned-down average Joe, one of those blue-collar types. The kind that no one notices… Until it’s too late.

To paint you a better picture here are some creepy characters that sprang to mind. Pray you never meet them as your day will most likely get a hell of a lot worse.

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William Foster (Michael Douglas) Falling Down
Douglas’s Foster is the most average Joe on this list (if you couldn’t tell from his outfit) and managed to dominate every situation he encountered – in a zen like way only achieved by a man who’s long ago fought the devil of insanity and lost but grimly accepted the outcome.

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John Doe (Kevin Spacey) Seven
Whatever you do, ensure you know where your wife is at all times, especially if you’re on the hunt for an unassuming chap like Spacey’s Doe. Only appearing completely in the flesh near the end of the movie, he still made a profound and visceral impact.

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Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) No Country for Old Men
Beyond his supremely creepy haircut, which just screamed psycho, Bardem gave his character a really understated level of malevolence and menace. His weapon of choice, too, was inspired, and should earn a place in the psycho hall of fame.

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Don Logan (Sir Ben Kingsley) Sexy Beast
Barely concealed fury personified. In Logan, Kingsley created a character which, in other actor’s hands, could have been laughed at or dismissed as thinly drawn; yet here he commands you watch and fear him. Ray Winstone looked scared to death.

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Kevin (Ezra Miller) We Need To Talk About Kevin
This film didn’t grab me initially but there’s no denying Miller’s consummate performance as Kevin. The subtle yet brazenly disturbing way in which he torments his family – particularly his sister – before letting loose on his school is truly frightening.

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Whiplash: Who knew jazz could be so brutal?

Film

His knees weak, arms are heavy, vomit on his sweater, mom’s spaghetti… Sorry, lost myself in the moment there.

Short of a hoodie and a rap battle, there’s a lot of similarities to be drawn between Whiplash and 8 Mile. In fact, any sports movie (if you consider freestyle rapping a sport). There’s blood, sweat and tears aplenty. Not what you’d expect from jazz, but then you don’t even have to like or appreciate jazz to enjoy this film. What you do have to like – and what it comes down to – is the will to win, to succeed, to be the best whatever it takes. To really dig deep.

Beyond that it’s essentially a character study.

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We start with music student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) furiously practicing his drumming, then in walks feared and revered teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who gives him a mini grilling then leaves, clearly unimpressed, returning briefly – as Andrew’s face lights up – only to say he forgot his coat.

In this opening scene we’re introduced to the main characters, we find out who they are, their motivations and their attitude – all within a few short lines of dialogue. Great screenwriting from Damien Chazelle (who also directs this). This also sets the scene for what follows. Neiman eventually does enough to work his way into Fletcher’s sought-after studio band, but then that’s when the hard work really starts.

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If you’ve ever had a tough boss count yourself lucky. They all pale in comparison to Simmons’ ferocious Fletcher. Not since the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket have we witnessed characters be subject to such abuse. Yet Neiman comes back for more. He wants to be the best and, deep down, he knows that if he meets Fletcher’s exacting standards, he will be.

The other students in the class are scared to death of Fletcher, yet Neiman has an inner fire that sets him apart and he gives as good as he gets. As an actor, Teller is a bit of a rising star. He’s been in Rabbit Hole, Footloose and Divergent, and he’s soon to be seen in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot. He also has a musical background (as a drummer for a church youth group band), which clearly stood him in good stead for the drumming scenes, which are frenetic, frenzied and exhilarating.

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The camera circles Neiman during many of these scenes where Fletcher tests his mettle, screaming at him to drum faster. He’s soaked in sweat with blood dripping off his hands. These scenes could be at home in a boxing movie (Rocky, we’re looking at you) but in jazz it’s somehow all the more frightening.

If you had to explain this film to someone you’d probably end up doing a poor job. ‘Well it’s about jazz and drumming and a guy who wants to be a jazz drummer and, er, that’s about it.’ So plot wise it’s not too dense. But, as I said earlier, it’s a character driven film, so plot is somewhat incidental.

And as the drums roll and the sparks between student and teacher fly, all the way up to the film’s finale, you’ll be utterly hooked. You’ll come out exhausted and elated and emotionally drained – and quite possibly never look at a cymbal in the same way again. And those reactions – all of them – will be very much a good thing.

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Kingsman: Bond on steroids!

Film

A dollop of James Bond, some London swagger straight out of a gritty Noel Clarke film, and a dash of the weird and fantastical lessons from Hogwarts in early Harry Potter films and… You’re not particularly close to what Kingsman: The Secret Service is all about.

Ok, let’s take Colin Firth. A bit of The King’s Speech, a sprinkle of Bridget Jones and, er, this really isn’t going to work. How on earth did Matthew Vaughn get funding to direct this film? It must have been impossible to explain, assuming he genuinely explained what he was actually going to do.

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I bet getting Firth on board was the easiest job of all. You can imagine the conversation. ‘Colin, I want you to take all the things that audiences love most about you and embrace them for this part, but turn them all on their head. Oh, and in the process I want you to kill people. Lots of people. All whilst in an impeccably tailored Savile Row suit.’

After Kick Ass, technically, people shouldn’t be surprised at the kind of films Vaughn likes to create. Or at least, the ones where he’s clearly having the most fun. Free from the shackles of a big studio – and with source material (graphic novel) from the twisted mind of Mark Millar – he’s been allowed to show the creators of the Bond franchise exactly what he’d do with a spy movie, given the chance. Vaughn doesn’t hold back in the slightest, picking up where he left off in Kick Ass, in a way, he really pushes the envelope. Not just shocks for the sake of it either, every moment of hilarious violence or edgy joke is there to serve the story and the characters.

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And talking of characters, newcomer Taron Egerton plays young tearaway Eggsy. A chap with bags of natural talent but has so far squandered it. Indebted to his family – and therefore looking out for Eggsy – is Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a Kingsman and super spy extraordinaire. Taking Eggsy under his wing he trains him up, under what Kingsman trainer Merlin (Mark Strong) calls ‘the toughest job interview in the world.’ During this time their big bad nemesis Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, having a whale of a time) is cooking up a plot to reduce the world’s population by having them cull themselves in a mass brawl.

So, plot done, what are we left with?

Well, this is a film that is, simply put, a ton of fun. Yes it’s ultra violent in a cartoonish sort of way, and yes it revels in that fact. But that’s sort of the point. There’s an early scene with one of the Kingsman, Lancelot (Jack Davenport, great to see him back) that really sets the tone in a gruesome yet hilarious way. And it goes on from there.

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Egerton impresses in his first major role. Rumour has it that Aaron Taylor-Johnson was considered for the part, but Egerton brings a freshness and vitality and is less of a distraction than a more established actor would have undoubtedly been. Jackson plays a meglomaniac, which probably wasn’t much of a stretch, but he, too, is allowed to let loose, which is a joy.

And then there’s Colin Firth. Never again will you look at him in the same way. Taking an entire career’s worth of withering, foppish, and very droll put-downs and quips, he inverts them in a most glorious manner. Has his filmography been building up to this moment? We can only hope so.

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There’s been talk of Kingsman developing into a franchise, but, if it does, it will probably go the same way as Kick Ass, and you’ll never have that same level of surprise and delight (or horror, depending on your point of view) as the first time round. Better to leave as a one-off I say, preserve the insanity and balls-out brilliance just as it is.