The Films of Matthew Vaughn
Layer Cake (June 7/05)
If Layer Cake feels like a watered-down Guy Ritchie film, that's probably because it's been directed by longtime Ritchie producer Matthew Vaughn. The movie features the same sort of emphasis on tough-guy characters and illicit criminal activities, though Vaughn eschews Ritchie's predilection for over-the-top camerawork in favor of a grittier sort of vibe. But that's precisely the reason that Layer Cake just doesn't work; stripped of Ritchie's flashy visuals, the film comes off as a flat riff on a tired genre. The film stars Daniel Craig as an unnamed drug dealer (the end credits refer to him as XXXX) who - by following a rigid set of rules - successfully eludes the more dangerous aspects of his profession, until his boss (Kenneth Cranham's Jimmy Price) sends him on a risky search-and-rescue mission. That he's also been sent out to retrieve a cache of stolen ecstasy pills only exacerbates matters, and it's not long before XXXX must become the very sort of violent criminal he abhors. That Layer Cake never becomes an all-out bore is thanks primarily to the performances, particularly Craig - an underrated actor who does a marvelous job of stepping into the shoes of this scarcely developed character. The film is based on a novel by J.J. Connolly (who also wrote the screenplay), and it's clear almost immediately that Connolly is interested in using the characters only as a means to move the virtually incoherent storyline forward. While Craig and a few of his costars (eg Colm Meaney) are undeniably quite effective, they're not given a whole lot to work with; these are the same kind of figures one would expect to find in any film of this ilk (eg the ill-tempered thug, the wacky comic relief, the smooth ladies man, etc). It certainly doesn't help that the exceedingly heavy accents make it difficult to follow the busy storyline, and since the film is all about plot rather than characters, this becomes increasingly problematic. Yet there's no denying that this is the least of the movie's transgressions, and it's impossible not to wonder why the film has been receiving heaps of kudos from critics and audiences alike.
Kick-Ass (April 17/10)
Based on the ongoing comic series, Kick-Ass follows put-upon teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) as he spontaneously decides to become a masked vigilante named Kick-Ass - with his transformation paving the way for a quirky survivalist (Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy) and his foul-mouthed daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz's Hit-Girl) to join the crime-fighting fray. Filmmaker Matthew Vaughn captures the viewer's interest right from the get-go by effectively poking fun at the superhero genre, with the admittedly familiar setup primarily employed as a springboard for a fresh, thoroughly irreverent take on the standard comic-book origin story. Johnson's personable turn as the central character is matched by an eclectic supporting cast that includes Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jason Flemyng, and Mark Strong, yet there's little doubt that Moretz stands as the film's most valuable asset - as the diminutive actress offers up a commanding and flat-out captivating performance that ultimately leaves the viewer wanting more of Hit-Girl (and less of Kick-Ass). It's only as Vaughn bogs the proceedings down with a steadily increasing number of subplots and side characters that one's interest begins to wane, with the narrative's decidedly overstuffed nature - ie it's almost as if a superhero trilogy has been compressed into one seriously uneven movie - inevitably wreaking havoc on the film's momentum and ensuring that the first and third acts are far more engrossing than the flabby second. The strength of the spectacularly violent climax ultimately makes it easy enough to overlook such problems, however, and it goes without saying that the novelty of such brutality within the context of a progressively standard superhero movie alone cements Kick-Ass' undeniable success.
X-Men: First Class
A prequel to the X-Men series, X-Men: First Class follows Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as he and future Magneto Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) team up to round up other mutants and, eventually, battle a maniacal supervillain (Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw) bent on world domination. It's a relatively simple premise that's employed to consistently watchable effect by director Matthew Vaughn, with the inclusion of several striking sequences within the film's opening half hour - eg Bacon's character goads a young Erik into unleashing the full extent of his powers for the first time - effectively establishing a fun, fast-paced, and distinctly retro feel that proves impossible to resist. At the same time, however, X-Men: First Class suffers from a pervasively uneven atmosphere that is, in its early stages, most keenly reflected in the disparity between Lensherr's revenge-fueled exploits and everything else (ie Fassbender's commanding performance is just that engrossing). And although the film does begin to improve once Lensherr and Xavier begin working together, Vaughn offers up a flabby midsection that's devoted primarily to the training of the team's various members in preparation for the inevitable showdown - with the inherent tediousness of such moments heightened by the lack of compelling younger characters (ie none of the new X-Men possess the charm or charisma of, say, a Wolverine or a Cyclops). The ongoing presence of admittedly electrifying stand-alone sequences - eg Lensherr single-handedly storms the well-guarded home of a Russian politician - plays a key role in keeping things interesting throughout, while the exciting, thoroughly engrossing third act ensures that the movie finishes on an unexpectedly positive note. The end result is an above average entry within a consistently entertaining franchise, and it goes without saying that future installments set in this universe will probably fare a whole lot better (ie with the groundwork now firmly set into place, the series can explore further adventures in this era without all the backstory and exposition).
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Based on a comic book, Kingsman: The Secret Service follows Taron Egerton's Gary Unwin as he's recruited by Colin Firth's Harry Hart into a secret spy organization - with the narrative detailing the pair's eventual efforts at preventing a megalomaniacal madman (Samuel L. Jackson's Valentine) from executing his predictably diabolical plan. Filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, along with co-screenwriter Jane Goldman, is clearly looking to satirize the various tropes and cliches associated with the James Bond films (and movies of that ilk), and yet Kingsman: The Secret Service has been infused with a decidedly (and palpably) contemporary feel that grows more and more problematic as time progresses. (There is, for example, no overlooking the heavy use of computer-generated effects in the movie's many, many action sequences, with the majority of such moments drained of their energy by Vaughn's hyper-kinetic sensibilities.) The ongoing emphasis on Egerton's rather obnoxious character certainly doesn't help alleviate Kingsman: The Secret Service's mediocre atmosphere, nor does the heavy emphasis on training and planning sequences within the film's middling midsection. There are, however, a handful of admittedly engaging stretches contained within the movie's overlong running time, with, for example, a tense meeting between Firth and Jackson's respective characters standing as a refreshingly low-key highlight. But by the time the aggressively over-the-top (and somewhat endless) climax rolls around, Kingsman: The Secret Service has confirmed its place as a barely-passable big-budget extravaganza that benefits from the efforts of its stellar supporting cast and the inclusion of an impressively unexpected mid-movie twist.