There's a level on which Kingsman: The Secret Service is the movie director Matthew Vaughn has always been destined to make. In fact, that is perhaps true of all of its levels, both the good ones and the bad. On the good side of the ledger, Kingsman is one of the most smartly-crafted action films of recent years, even as it fully subscribes to the heightened aesthetic that has done so much to make action films of recent years noisy, visually incoherent messes. On the bad side, it has some grim, grim thoughts about human beings and society, and it doesn't even seem to be aware of them. And this is intensified by how consciously the film raises political and moral questions that it proceeds to explore with absolutely no depth whatsoever.

But we'll get back to all of that. Adapted by Vaughn and his longtime writing partner Jane Goldman from a 2012 comic miniseries written by Mark Millar (very loosely, I gather; but I do not make a habit of reading Millar's work), Kingsman is the story of a secret intelligence agency operating out of London but without the oversight of any world government, run by the best and brightest of White Male England's upper classes. When one of them dies while attempting to rescue a kidnapped climate scientist, the organisation starts a hunt for his replacement, and its most forward-thinking member, "Galahad", the code name for one Harry Hart (Colin Firth), looks outside of the usual suspects from Oxbridge to nominate a young tough kid, Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton) from the grubbier places in the city. This is a bad habit of Harry's, we find; his last nominee when this happened 17 years ago was, in fact, Eggsy's dad, who died in the Middle East when Harry himself made a small but deadly blunder. Anyway, the quest to cull the nominees down to just one true Kingsman recruit is carried off with some intense urgency, for as this is all happening, American telecom genius Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is executing an unclear but obviously devious plot to use free cellphone SIM cards against the entire population of the world.

There is a generous and an ungenerous way of looking at this. The generous one, the one that the film literally plops into the mouths of its characters, is that this is all a parody of the James Bond franchise, turning the posh world of British spies with tony accents and impressive educations upside down by throwing a class-shaped wrench into all of it, and holding up the sexism and violence porn of standard-issue spy cinema up for ridicule. In practice, I frankly don't think any of that works, in no small part because Matthew Vaughn doesn't have a good sense of humor. He's able to do jokes, sure: there is an almost non-stop litany of quips and snarky asides and absurdities scattered throughout Kingsman, and some of them are even funny. But it's not sustained enough for this count as parody, and it's damn sure not smart enough for it to count as satire. So really, it's just a particularly self-aware and sarcastic version of the exact thing it set out to comment upon.

Besides which, it's pretty clear that whatever surface-level interest the film has in exploring class (it has infinitely less interest in exploring race or gender, which is probably why the only two people of color in the film to open their mouths are also its villains), that interest doesn't ever last for more than a scene or two. Its central conceit is more based on letting poor urban thugs earn their way into the upper class than it is about providing any kind of dignity to those who aren't upper class, and its politics throughout are absolutely inconsistent, waddling around and cherry-picking what it wants from conservatism (Reagan's Star Wars program is approved of), libertarianism (the heroes are outside the government, the villains are part of it - including, for the briefest of cameos, President Barack Obama), labor (a joke about how awful Margaret Thatcher was), and a particularly unsavory form of American progressivism (the film kills off a bunch of civilians and expects us to laugh through it because they were "just" Westboro Church-style religious bigots). One might go so far as to say that, in fact, the film has no kind of coherent political outlook whatsoever, that its nods towards class-consciousness and the patriarchal mustiness of Bondian superspies are just a pose, and that it's really just a pretext for doing the actioney stuff Vaughn actually cares about. And I would say that one would be totally correct in saying that.

Considering how insistently and repetitively Kingsman articulates its themes, it doesn't actually have any: it's a big action spectacle that tries to pretend like it has any kind of depth at all without doing the things that would give it depth. But the spectacle! -oh the spectacle! I hate to admit it, because it's all so intellectually dishonest, but Kingsman has some unbelievably terrific action, and viewed strictly at a mechanical level, the film is just about flawless. It builds its scenes with clear, one-at-a-time purposes, introducing the characters and the world through punchy, humorous scenes that crank out exposition with just enough flair and wit that it's more entertaining than painful - and it is impossible to undervalue how much Firth is the keystone to all of this, with his effortless line deliveries and self-effacing sense of stuffy English propriety, and his impeccable impatience with everything. When the film eventually commits to making Egerton its solitary lead, as it clearly plans to do from very early on, it loses a great deal of personality and deftness of touch that keep it striding through even the most muddle-headed representational problems.

And having made that structurally wonderful screenplay, the film then lards it up with several absolutely perfect action scenes, that find Vaughn perfecting the style of action preferred by himself and Zack Snyder, as well as their copycats. It's manic, full of quick changes in the film speed, full of zooms and swooshes; and it is beautifully coherent. I am nearly tempted to call it the Rosetta Stone for an entire generation of action cinema: the chaotic, hyper editing that usually results in visual slurries where nothing can be followed suddenly works instead to accentuate the narrative clarity of the fights; the fetishisation of slow-motion, instead of pornishly drawing our attention to pain and blood, serves to punctuate and redirect the action choreography, and call our attention to the shifts in the rhythm of the fighting that drive that redirection. The film's best action setpiece is also its morally ugliest, which doesn't feel like a coincidence at all; it would, in fact, hardly be so ugly if the way it was shot wasn't so tremendously exciting and involving that it makes it impossible to care about all the bodies it's leaving in its wake. Far less problematic is the climax, where unambiguous bad guys are executed in a giddy, openly comic fashion, while the action cross-cuts across three totally different registers of tension (fight the computer, time a perfect shot, evade the armies with guns), serving each of them equally. It's cross-cutting that recalls the climax of Return of the Jedi, and I am not inclined to make that comparison idly.

So the question stands: does Kingsman's excellence as a work of craftsmanship outweigh its illiteracy and amorality as a drama of humans living in the world? Reader, I do not know the answer. I walked into it expecting to hate it, and I walked out having had a good time over a surprisingly fleet 129 minutes. That's enough to swing a positive recommendation, but I can't bring myself to be too enthusiastic about it.