Action movies over the last decade have seen a sharp decline in quality. Driven by explosions, shaky camera angles, and rapid cutting, it’s become more a chore than a pleasure getting through a 90-minute action flick. The rise of directors like Michael Bay have seen the frenetic new style become the norm, with studios seeing nothing but dollar signs in their eyes at franchises like Transformers. Others have followed in Bay’s footsteps, with movies like The Expendables acting as the letter of the law. Who needs skilled actors and a compelling story when you can cram as many explosions and quick cuts in as possible?
But lately there’s been hope on the horizon, in the form of a brand new theatrical release: Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. You may recognize Vaughn from his work directing Kick-Ass and X-Men First Class, making him no stranger to the action genre. But with Kingsman, we see a director who’s taken all the best visual elements from Kick-Ass, and matured them into a full-on spy thriller that entertains on a number of levels.
The places where Kingsman succeeds visually are rooted in movies like The Matrix, The Bourne Identity, and pretty much anything Jackie Chan has ever been in. The mark of a truly well-made action movie is one where the audience is never confused as to what’s happening: In any fight scene, the stakes are clear, it’s obvious who’s fighting who, and uninterrupted wide shots show actors who are clearly skilled fighters. It’s easy to spot a movie compensating for poorly trained actors; one need only look as far as the quick cutting, a device typically used to compensate for swapping in stunt doubles.
Kingsman‘s fight scenes follow a simple formula that seems to have been forgotten in recent years. In it, we see gorgeous uninterrupted shots that glorify campy violence reminiscent of classic kung fu movies. The camera remains steady and unwavering, giving us a clear look at the participants of each fight. Despite the prowess of our heroes, we always feel as though there are stakes every time they clash with our villains. When we fear for the safety of our heroes, that’s when we become truly emotionally invested in a movie. Kingsman accomplishes this to a tee, making for a refreshing break from the unnecessary clutter of your typical Michael Bay offering.
The art of the action movie has simplified to a fault of late, leaving us with bloated, special effects-laden monsters. Vaughn’s Kingsman though, brings us back to a place where skill and story are valued over flashy visual elements. In one particular scene, we see Colin Firth in a church with about a hundred other people. A mass brawl breaks out, where he’s forced to single-handedly take on a mob. The fight itself is characterized by smooth tracking shots that rarely cut, and Firth running from one end of the room to the other, grabbing everything from axes, pieces of wood, and anything else he can find to use as a weapon. It’s a clear-cut example of how a fight sequence should be filmed to give an audience a sense of what’s happening to whom, rather than simply blowing up a building and calling it a day.
Kingsman provides us with a movie that stands above its contemporaries as both a compelling spy thriller and well-shot action film. Now it’s up to the rest of Hollywood to follow suit. With a respectable opening weekend box office haul of $35.6 million, Kingsman is clearly what audiences want. Hopefully it’s what we’ll get more of moving forward.