Having deconstructed the comic book genre with their blackly comic hit Kick-Ass, director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman repeat the trick with Kingsman: The Secret Service – only this time it's the spy movie in their sights. Once again working from a graphic novel source by Mark Millar, Vaughn and Goldman's rip-roaringly OTT adventure is intended as a throwback to the campier James Bond movies of old, with more than a dash of The Avengers (the John Steed/Emma Peel version) and The Ipcress File thrown in for good measure. Colin Firth brilliantly takes to his first proper action movie role as suave super spy Harry Hart, member of the top secret and impeccably tailored Kingsman spy agency whose job it is to keep the world safe. Hart decides to take gobby Marines dropout Eggsy (newcomer Taron Egerton) under his wing out of loyalty to Eggsy's late father, a fellow Kingsman who sacrificed himself on a mission. Put through a rigorous training regime, Eggsy's fledgling spy skills are soon put to good use when lisping megalomaniac Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) threatens the globe with a diabolical plan involving corrupted SIM cards.
With an impressive supporting cast including Mark Strong and Michael Caine, Vaughn's film is intended as both a celebration and parody of the classic 007 movies he grew up loving. And the same can be said of the rip-roaring score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson, which honours the memory of the late, great John Barry whilst also establishing itself as an action score for the 21st century. Jackman has collaborated with Vaughn on his films Kick-Ass (co-composed with several others) and X-Men: First Class, as well as the Vaughn-produced Kick-Ass 2. Until now, Margeson has been credited as providing 'additional music' on the aforementioned scores. Here however he has been officially elevated to the role of co-composer and the two have stressed in interviews that writing the Kingsman score was a true collaboration.
Broadly speaking, Jackman's career has split two ways: generally charming and inventive scores for animation and comedies (Big Hero 6; the controversial The Interview) and somewhat underwhelming efforts for big blockbusters (the aforementioned X-Men; Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Happily, Kingsman belongs in the former camp, a spirited pastiche soundtrack that really gives its respective film some added oomph. It's also a terrific listen on its own terms, beginning with the gutsy "Manners Maketh Man": beefy horn blasts that rekindle memories of the classic Bond scores, combined with racing string ostinatos recalling Jackman's schooling at Hans Zimmer's Remote Control studio. It's both traditional and contemporary, and utterly thrilling.
"The Medallion" then calms things down with a quietly poignant piano theme, stressing the honourable life led by Eggsy's father and anticipating whether he'll head down the same path. This then builds into a wonderfully muscular, unabashedly heroic statement of the main theme, as Eggsy embraces his destiny and decides to become a Kingsman agent. "Valentine" then introduces the material for the film's villain, a piece led more by texture than melody with 'sampled phone dial tones' in Margeson's words mixed with moody strings and a delicious bass woodwind arrangement that's pure Barry. Eggsy's piano-led theme opens "To Become a Kingsman", alternating with the low-toned brass before the full orchestra rises up to add a sense of quintessentially British nobility and strength.
"Pick a Puppy" begins on a pensive note before Eggsy's theme rises up through the string and brass sections, launching into a strident ostinato-led action piece with a prominent electric guitar accompaniment lending a modern kick. The bass woodwind variation on the Kingsman theme then competes with Valentine's material in "Drinks With Valentine", accompanied by tense strings that call to mind David Arnold's work on the more recent Bond movies. The Arnold comparison rears its head again in "Skydiving", one of the score's highlights that begins with a soaring rendition of the Kingsman theme before building into a thrilling action sequence as electronics and racing strings join forces with the onslaught of the brass section to build a sense of tension and excitement.
"Shame We Had to Grow Up" sees the Kingsman and Valentine textures anxiously circling around one another before another rousing slice of John Barry-esque pizzazz from the horn section. "Curious Scars and Implants" is low key and tense, establishing an air of danger through Valentine's theme, staccato strings and prickly harp scales before the surprisingly poignant "Toast to a Kingsman" builds a genuine sense of emotion through the proud brass section and moving strings. "An 1815 Napoleonic Brandy" begins on a similar note with strained strings before suddenly darkening, the strings and brass churning in the lower registers with an unexpected choral and bell injection too. Out of this darkness, the heroism of the Kingsman theme slowly rises, building anticipation for the next track "Eat, Drink and Paaaarrty". Valentine's theme here reaches especially dramatic, almost militaristic proportions as the baddie's plan starts to come to fruition, only to face unexpected resistance in the form of the heroic Kingsman theme. The lengthy "Calculated Infiltration" is where the various elements of the score start to come together: sexy, swaggering, brassy bursts of the Kingsman theme, electronics for Valentine, doomy choral outbursts to reflect the impending catastrophe of the latter's plan, and plenty of dynamically rhythmic strings and percussion. The tension escalates ever further in "Hand on the Button" before everything comes to a roaring close in "Finale", the Kingsman theme ending the score in brilliantly grandiose fashion.
Pastiche and parody scores are a tricky thing, capable of either being played seriously or for quirky laughs. Thankfully, the excellent Kingsman score falls into the former camp, done with a sense of tongue in cheek fun yet dramatically robust enough to lend a sense of excitement and tension where necessary. Jackman and Margeson have done a superb job in honouring the classic sound of John Barry whilst also bringing it bang up to date. The score features a strong central theme, put through a series of creative permutations, and a host of intelligent secondary ideas, all of which circulate around one another in interesting ways. Much like Colin Firth's delightful performance in the movie itself, the score has numerous tricks up its sleeve, proving a highly enjoyable listening experience in the process. Rule Britannia! The album is available for download and on CD at these links: Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.