Kingsman: The Secret Service

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A tongue-in-cheek fantasy spy thriller. We don't get enough of those.

Mr. Darcy himself, Colin Firth, plays Harry Hart, an agent for "Kingsman", a super-secret private espionage organization. In a strained allegory, the agency is run by "Arthur" (Michael Caine); there's a technical wizard "Merlin" (Mark Strong); Harry's code name is "Galahad". You get the idea.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Long ago, Harry's life was saved by the noble sacrifice of a fellow agent. He tracks down the agent's son, "Eggsy", who's living a lower-class life with his slutty mom, hanging out with street thugs. Harry recruits Eggsy into a grueling Kingsman "boot camp", where he competes to be the "last man standing" in increasingly dangerous tests of perilous adventure.

Just in time, too. Because a nefarious plot is in progress, masterminded by "Valentine" (Samuel L. Jackon) and his deadly-but-gorgeous assistant "Gazelle" (Sofia Boutella). It involves massive worldwide casualties in service of (here's a twist) eco-nuttiness.

And also: hey, that's Mark Hamill.

While Drowning in the Desert

[Amazon Link]

The fifth and (so far) final book in Don Winslow's "Neal Carey" series, originally published in 1996. This is significantly more light-hearted than the first four.

My take on the previous entries in the series: here, here, here, and here. Although seemingly out of print, they're available and inexpensive for Kindle.

Neal is enjoying semi-retirement in a remote Nevada town with his fiancée Karen. Two problems: Karen decides she wants a baby. Like, right now. And his "dad", Graham, calls with an assignment: Neal needs to escort the aging vaudeville comic Natty Silver from Las Vegas back to his home in the California desert.

Natty is a motormouthed jokester, delivering his patter and shaggy-dog stories to any willing listener. (And also to Neal, who's unwilling.) But there's more going on than Neal is aware of. Specifically, Natty is the target of a desperate Nazi arsonist who wants him dead.

Things eventually work out.

I don't know if Don Winslow has any plans for writing more about Neal. I, for one, would like to know how his life turned out, here nearly twenty years later. Did he and Karen have those babies? Did he ever get his English Literature doctorate? Is he out there teaching bored undergrads about his beloved Tobias Smollett? C'mon, Mr. Winslow, I bet there's a lot of people who want to know what happened next!

By the People

[Amazon Link]

Subtitle: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.

I am something of a Charles Murray fan. I think his 1988 book In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government remains the best introduction to libertarian philosophy I've seen. He's been a consistent advocate of the values I most appreciate: personal responsibility, humane individualism, mutual respect, and so on. I buy his books automatically.

By the People is a diagnosis and possible remedy of major flaws in modern American society and our government, combining history, sociology, and legal analysis. Murray considers the "Madisonian" vision of the founding fathers, and shows how that vision has been trashed over the past 8 decades or so. (Not that flaws didn't appear earlier with Wilsonian "progressivism".) Our legal system is a thick morass of vague rules that a sufficiently zealous prosecutor can use to make his chosen targets miserable. Ditto for essentially unregulated regulatory agencies. Our politics are systematically corrupt with both parties more than willing to play the "public choice" game, doing big favors for well-connected constituents, spreading the costs out to the unaware masses.

What to do? Murray suggests strategic civil disobedience, fueled by the (so far) imaginary "Madison Fund", designed to defend the flouters of unjust laws and stupid regulations. The theory: make it expensive for Big Government to force its pet policies down the throats of the citizenry. Essentially, he hopes, the most outrageous legal bullying will become totally impractical.

Murray describes why he thinks this might be a winning strategy, in his usual accessible prose. I hope he's correct about that.