Colin Firth is as flabbergasted as you are to watch him punching bad guys, flipping deadly pint glasses at people, and using an umbrella for situations other than avoiding rain. 

Clad in a bespoke suit and brandishing blades in the business end of his Oxford shoes, Firth stars in Kingsman: The Secret Service as Harry Hart, a member of a secret super-spy organisation. His mission is to take on the world’s greatest threats, but he finds a new challenge in training an apprentice named Eggsy (Taron Egerton).

The role is an unexpected but wholly entertaining departure for the 54-year-old British actor, whose career has been dominated by historical dramas and romantic comedies. Among the highlights: playing haughty Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice and the Oscar-winning role of a stuttering monarch in The King’s Speech

Firth figures his James Bond fantasies ended around the age of 12. “I thought maybe someone might ask me to play a villain or something, but I never saw the role for myself – and certainly nobody on that end saw it for me either because I never got a call.”

Then Matthew Vaughn rang. The Kingsman director has a habit of taking an exploding pen to expectation – he cast tough guy Robert De Niro as a cross-dressing pirate in the 2007 fantasy Stardust. Vaughn saw the potential in surprising a film world severely lacking in manly heroes with Firth as an ultra-dangerous secret agent.

“I’m not a fighter either, but I wouldn’t be scared of some of the big iconic action stars out there in reality,” Vaughn says. “So all I cared about was that the audience’s jaws hit the ground seeing this David Niven-style, absolute dapper gentleman using his umbrella and his skills to beat the crap out of people.”

Vaughn put Firth through six months of training, and the stunt team came back to Vaughn saying that Firth was almost too flexible and supple to believe. Firth won them over and not just because he bounced back from a broken tooth, Vaughn says. “They’re a bunch of tough guys thinking ‘Who’s this pansy coming in?’ and by the end they absolutely adored him.”

Firth played Egerton’s mentor on screen and off – the 25-year-old actor calls Firth “just the most lovely man on the planet, as well as being the most brilliant actor”.

By the time they got into the dramatic work, Firth had completed the vast majority of his action scenes – notably a pub takedown of some ne’er-do-wells bullying Eggsy, and a violent church scene with a body count that has to be seen to be believed.

Firth already misses the rough-and-tumble. “I would never have seen that coming. I’ve spent 30 years as an adult writing this off as a possibility. I actually feel a slight regret that I didn’t discover this earlier.”

He admits that he’s probably not ready for real fisticuffs – he viewed his fight scenes more as choreographed dance numbers than violent throwdowns.

“I daresay the skills I picked up are completely useless,” Firth says with a laugh. “All I’d be able to do is break into dance in front of somebody, and if the other guy wasn’t cooperating, I’m the man who’d be on the floor.” – USA Today/Tribune News Service

NEXT PAGE: It's not unusual to base a movie on a comic book. It is unusual to launch a comic book and film at the same time.

■ “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is currently playing in cinemas.

It's not unusual to base a movie or TV show on a comic book. It is unusual to launch a comic book and feature film at the same time. That’s the case with the Matthew Vaughn directed Kingsman: The Secret Service, and the Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons comic book The Secret Service.

“Mark and I were lamenting about how spy movies have become so serious. They just don’t have the style and pacing of the spy movies we watched while growing up,” Vaughn says. They decided to do something about the void since 007 forgot he has a license to chill.

Although there are some differences between the movie and the comic, both take the approach of being centred on a very prim and proper British spy (played by Colin Firth) and then surrounding him with odd characters, huge action scenes and a colourful villain (Samuel L. Jackson).

One major change Vaughn – who wrote the Kingsman script with Jane Goldman – made from the comic was making the story less of a tale of family members who spy together and making his film more of a Pygmalion tale.

Super-spy Galahad (Firth) becomes a mentor to Gary (Taron Egerton), a young man with plenty of street smarts who has a lower-class upbringing. They must join forces to save the world while Gary learns to be a proper gentleman.

“I didn’t want this film to be taken too seriously,” Vaughn says. “I wanted the film to be entertaining and fun. I didn’t want it to pertain to anything in the real world. People just want two hours of escape.”

The casting of Oscar-winning Firth was the key. “A movie is only as good as your cast. It doesn’t matter how good the script is if you have miscast the film. There’s no way to hide it when the wrong actor is picked.”

Vaughn stresses that a good spy movie is only as good as its villain. The actor must be able to create the feeling of a serious threat or conflict. So Vaughn turned to one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, Samuel L. Jackson, for the Kingsman villain. He plays a billionaire with a plan to wipe out the majority of the world’s population.

“I wanted someone who can make these speeches believable but still have fun. I wanted the audience to think he is psychotic and weird,” Vaughn says.

Kingsman is filled with large gun battles, car chases and bar fights. The biggest is a scene that takes place in a small Kentucky church. It took Vaughn and his team months to choreograph the scene and seven days to film it. The idea is the scene will come across as being as big and fun as similar sequences in the spy movies he loved when he was growing up.  – The Fresno Bee/Tribune News Service