Welcome back to another installment of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s ongoing series of Directorial Retrospectives. This is where I cover the complete filmography of any given director in the film industry. Past installments of this series have covered the likes of DCEU director Zack Snyder, the master of ‘Bayhem’ himself Michael Bay, the dark and quirky gothic genius Tim Burton, and film buff favorite Edgar Wright. And today, we’ll be looking at the admittedly brief but still Grade-A directorial career of a filmmaker who’s been well-known for producing high-quality adaptations. Yes, folks, today we’re talking about director Matthew Vaughn. His newest film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel to his 2015 effort Kingsman: The Secret Service, hits theaters this weekend and is shaping up to be an exciting, action-packed follow-up to one of the most entertaining films of 2015. And in honor of its release, today we’ll be looking at the past directorial escapades of the famous UK-born filmmaker. As I noted earlier, the interesting thing to note about Vaughn’s directorial career is that all 5* (soon to be 6) of the films that he’s directed have been adaptations of literary works. After getting his start as a producer on some of fellow director Guy Ritchie’s films, including 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000’s Snatch, Vaughn has since moved into directing himself. Since then, he’s often collaborated with screenwriter Jane Goldman, who’s worked with him on all but one of his films, and comic book writer Mark Millar. And so, with that in mind, it’s time to put on your best finely-tailored suits and remember the words of wisdom spoken by Harry Hart (“Manners. Maketh. Man”) as we look at the films of director Matthew Vaughn.
LAYER CAKE (2004)
Vaughn’s directorial career officially kicked off in 2004 with an adaptation of author J.J. Connolly’s 2000 novel Layer Cake. Connolly himself wrote the screenplay for the film which, nowadays, is commonly regarded as ‘Daniel Craig’s James Bond audition tape’. Yes, it was thanks in large part to this film, in which Craig plays a drug dealer known only as XXXX who finds himself forced into doing some jobs for an associate of his, that eventually led to him being cast in the role of 007 in Casino Royale. And, sure enough, while XXXX and James Bond are entirely different characters, there are some instances in this film where XXXX’s actions feel very reminiscent of something that Craig’s Bond would do in one of his Bond films. Craig does a great job in the lead role while being backed by a solid supporting cast that includes the likes of Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, and Craig’s future Bond quartermaster Ben Whishaw. The film itself is a sleek and entertaining crime thriller that boasts some cracking dialogue, excellent cinematography, and solid editing, which all helps to give it a stylish look and atmosphere. Sure, some parts of the story are admittedly a bit standard for the genre, but thanks to strong direction and a terrific lead performance, Layer Cake is a strong debut for Matthew Vaughn as a director. And yes, in retrospect, it’s easy to see why this film was one of the major contributing factors behind Daniel Craig’s casting as the U.K.’s most famous MI6 agent.
For his next directorial outing, Vaughn turned to the works of famed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman; specifically, his 1999 novel Stardust, a story about a young man from a small village who ends up embarking on a grand adventure when he comes across a literal ‘fallen star’. This was also the first instance where Vaughn collaborated with screenwriter Jane Goldman, who’s been his most frequent collaborator ever since. I recall seeing ads for this film back when it came out in 2007. However, I didn’t end up seeing it in theaters, and that’s a shame because, having watched it now, I must say that I really loved this film. I found it to be a very entertaining fantasy adventure reminiscent of films like The Princess Bride and The Chronicles of Narnia. For one thing, the film benefits from an incredibly likable lead duo in the form of villager Tristan Thorn and the celestial being Yvaine (the ‘literal fallen star’ I mentioned earlier). Charlie Cox and Claire Danes have terrific chemistry with each other and are backed by some solid performances from the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer as the main antagonist, a witch who is looking to use Yvaine’s powers to regain her youth, and Robert De Niro as an eccentric pirate captain. I also really appreciated the film’s great sense of humor, like with the whole subplot revolving around the princes of the kingdom of Stormhold. In their efforts to become the next king, they all try to kill each other and when they do, they then appear as ghosts who basically form their own peanut gallery. Really, if I had any major gripes with this film, it’d be that some of the visual effects haven’t exactly aged well. In fact, I’d dare say that they were mediocre even for the time. Still, Stardust delivers when it comes to being exactly what it wants to be, a light-hearted and charming fantasy adventure that I’d argue is quite underrated.
The other frequent collaborator of Matthew Vaughn’s is comic-book writer Mark Millar. Their first collaboration together turned out to be an adaptation of Millar’s 2008 comic Kick-Ass, the story of an average high-school student named Dave Lizewski who one day decides to be a superhero. The film, like the comic, is a satirical take on the superhero genre. It poses the simple question of ‘how come no one’s ever tried to be a superhero’ and then proceeds to answer that question in an unwavering manner… mainly by showing how dangerous it’d be if done for real because no one has the same kind of powers that characters like Superman or Spider-Man have. This farcical approach is well-handled by Vaughn and Goldman thanks in part to some of the hilarious instances in which the film juxtaposes its different bits of imagery. For example, one of the main protagonists is a young girl named Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz in her breakout role) who constantly swears and goes around killing bad guys as the vigilante Hit-Girl alongside her father Damon AKA Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage in a hilarious standout role), who wears a Batman-esque costume. And while the final act of the film basically turns into exactly what it’s satirizing, Kick-Ass is a highly entertaining riff on the superhero genre thanks to strong direction from Vaughn and an entertaining ensemble cast. Ironically, though, Vaughn’s next project would end up being a film in the exact same genre that he had just satirized.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)
This is a film that I’ve talked about several times before, whether it was during an X-Men series retrospective that I did way back in 2013 or basically anytime that I brought it up while discussing its two follow-ups, 2014’s Days of Future Past and 2016’s Apocalypse. Thus, I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here other than the fact that, suffice it to say, I love this film. This was the film that effectively resurrected the X-Men film franchise after it had gone through a notoriously rough span in the late 2000’s. Part of this film’s success was due to the return of the franchise’s original director, Bryan Singer, as its producer/co-writer. However, it was ultimately Matthew Vaughn who took on the role of director for this installment of the series, and with it, he imbues First Class with a stylish James Bond-esque atmosphere. And while it does technically serve as the one thing that is commonly seen as a dirty word amongst film buffs, a prequel/soft reboot of the franchise, it does manage to be an effective take on the ‘origins’ of several of the series’ main protagonists. Specifically, the trio of Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique, all of whom are played excellently by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively. But they’re not the only stars of the show, though, as this was arguably the first X-Men film to truly emphasize the franchise’s team element, something that was eventually perfected in its two sequels. Admittedly, some of the visual effects have dated a bit and not everyone in the cast is a perfect fit in their respective roles (e.g. January Jones as Emma Frost) but, all in all, I still really enjoy X-Men: First Class. Obviously, I know that this isn’t exactly saying much, but for being the dreaded prequel of a long-running franchise, it ends up being one of the best prequels ever made.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)
And finally, we end with Vaughn’s adaptation of Mark Millar’s 2012 comic series, Kingsman: The Secret Service. This was one of several big-name spy films to come out in 2015 alongside the likes of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre, just to name a few. It’s also another film that I’ve talked about before in the past, namely via my original review of it back in February 2015. So, again, I won’t repeat myself too much here. Simply put, this film is a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza with a completely ludicrous plot and extremely over-the-top action sequences… and yet, that is exactly one of the main reasons why it is so damn fun to watch. Another reason why it works so well is because amidst all the crazy action in this film (e.g. the iconic/infamous fight scene inside a hate group’s church that’s made up of several long takes), it’s all backed by a great origin story in which its main protagonist, Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin, works to prove himself as the newest recruit of the Kingsman. Eggsy proves to be a very likable protagonist and is played excellently by Taron Egerton in what would end up being his breakout role. He’s backed by some great supporting players as well, including Colin Firth in an against-type role as Eggsy’s mentor Harry Hart, Matthew Vaughn regular Mark Strong as Kingsman tech guru Merlin, and Samuel L. Jackson as the charismatic and highly entertaining main antagonist Valentine. In short, while Kingsman may understandably prove to be a bit too much for some, it’s also an unapologetically wild tribute to the classic spy films of the 1960’s. And in an age where spy films tend to be a bit more serious nowadays (disclaimer: nothing wrong with that, for the record), this was a great new addition to the genre.