Kingsman: The Golden Circle
(SPOILERS) Matthew Vaughn may have talked a good game when highlighting those successful follow-ups, and their winning ingredients, he aspired to for his first home-grown sequel, but unfortunately he falls prey to the worst excesses of typical bigger, baggier, more bloated studio fare. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is more Die Hard 2 or Iron Man 2 than John Wick Chapter 2 or The Empire Strikes Back. Not that I think trying for the latter kind of model works on this kind of movie anyway. Kingsman hews closer to the Austin Powers side of Bond than the Bourne, so pasting the beats of an earnest one over an essentially frivolous enterprise leads to, well, indulgence and excess.
Vaughn commented “I realise the sequels that worked are the ones that are a continuation of the story where you’re seeing new things, where there’s a little bit of the old stuff, what I call the familiar hug, but you have to expand the characters’ journey and learn about them. Sequels that work do so because you love the characters, and want to see more of them. It’s the characters that make your franchise unique. It isn’t the explosions and all that stuff. The kids are bored of CG”. Says the man who makes a pair entirely un-verisimilitudinous robot dogs central to The Golden Circle’s climax.
The director went on to cite a holy quartet (The Godfather Part II, Empire, Aliens and T2 – I think you could leave out the last one, although I can see why he included it), which is all very well, but Kingsman just isn’t their type of movie. Striving to progress character and theme is likely to be stopped rudely short when you lay claim to an ethos of unreconstituted laddishness (and proud of it). Both he and Guy Ritchie have an unerring eye for crowd-pleasing spectacle, but a negative affinity for subtlety and nuance. Neither knows when to stop, to the extent that Kingsman wears its provocateur aspect as a badge of honour; this is the guy who announces, proud as punch “I make movies for adults that haven’t grown up. That’s who I am and what a lot of my friends are”. Poor Claudia Schiffer.
You might have hoped regular writing cohort Jane Goldman would temper his most juvenile excesses, but she is, after all, married to Wossy, so there’s no chance there. I suppose we can be grateful Vaughn’s resists going the full Mark Millar, instead making the latter’s work less objectionable than they otherwise would be. Still, though. This is a movie that continues, as any thoroughbred lad will, to treat its female characters dismally, with the exception of Julian Moore’s Poppy (but she’s the villain so has dispensation by virtue of being a villain first).
One might suggest Vaughn has atoned with the treatment of Hanna Alström’s Princess Tilde here, whose presence in the first movie was predicated on a poor taste anal sex gag, by giving her a stable relationship with Eggsy, but it’s rather the case that she entirely lacks any autonomy and has to wait around while he saves her (again).
Poppy Delevingne plays Clara, the girlfriend of henchman Charlie (Edward Holcroft, like Colin Firth an apparently unlikely returnee but presumably justified in Vaughn’s mind by revisiting loved characters, even the hissable ones – expect Mark Strong to be resurrected in Part 3, if this makes enough dough. Anyway, Holcroft’s very good, more than warranting the decision). Clara, similarly to Tilde in the first, is there purely to be subjected to a crude fingering gag, the kind of thing feverishly thought up by the mind of an acne-stricken fourteen-year-old (or Kevin Smith). Once the joke’s done with, she’s dispensable, such that she says yes to drugs (most of the female characters here do, aside from the bookish Halle Berry) – her weakness marked out for all to see, and is then blown up by her boyfriend.
Most egregious, though, is the fate of Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who for the first two acts of The Secret Service was Eggsy’s equal, before being relegated to a peripheral plot thread come the climax. Here, she’s given little more than a cameo before being incinerated. Even if Vaughn and Goldman intend to have her survive somehow, they’ve pretty much laid out their marker that this is only a movie about the lads doing lads’ stuff, and women are strictly disposable. This isn’t anything new to the genre, but Kingsman revelling unapologetically in Vaughn’s penchant for bad boy behaviour places it in the starkest, least-flattering light.
Vaughn is also evidently paying lip service to the importance of character when he has Eggsy inform Harry “I owe you everything”; not so much that the latter’s motto “Manners maketh the man” hasn’t rubbed off at all, it seems. Eggsy’s still swearing every effing fifteen seconds, and uses the system of etiquette as a smart aleck would, rather than seeing it as something to genuinely be embraced for its merits. Which isn’t to say the original’s Eliza Doolittle stance wasn’t essentially suspect anyway (posh boy Vaughn, like Ritchie, loves to play act the working-class mucker routine, translating to material like this as a degree of have it both ways snobbery/patronisation), but you’d be forgiven for thinking Eggsy had learnt nothing at all (this even plays in reverse, when Harry must admit that Eggsy’s rule breaking exposes his own lack of emotional fulfilment).
Essentially, then, Vaugh is very lucky to have a lead as personable as Taron Egerton, because an already iffy enterprise would probably crash and burn without him. Strangely, by the time Colin Firth shows up, I’d become used to the movie without his presence; I’m the first to admit that I didn’t think any kind of Kingsman continuation could succeed without him, so indelible to the mismatched class clash of The Secret Service was he, and as such the announcement that they’d cheated and were bringing him back elicited a cheer on my part at least (it is, after all, one of the few roles where I’ve had much opinion about the actor at all, as generally he’s passed unnoticed or elicited confusion with other Colins or Firths).
Apart from the problem of the picture stopping in its tracks to reintroduced Harry and his pre-Kingsman fascination with Lepidoptera (again, this can work for a straight character drama, but the here the picture quickly loses all momentum and sense of direction), his arc in The Golden Circle is one of the few areas that elicits any degree of tension; will he be able to regain his former prowess with just one eye, will he keep seeing butterflies, and has his judgement become so impaired that he’s shot and killed a (transatlantic) colleague for no good reason?
But if his retconning return works, mostly, the expansion of the mission boundaries – that bigger, more, hurdle – mostly doesn’t. The Statesmen are in the main a bust. Jeff Bridges (Champagne), now permanently afflicted with mumble-mouth, is hardly there, Berry (Ginger) is nominally given a Merlin role, but then a full agent status without showing why at all (making the decision seem arbitrary and as misjudged as the more obviously objectified other female characters), while the greatest amount of Statesmen time is devoted to Pedro Pascal’s Whiskey, including the mistaken assumption that we care remotely about repeatedly witnessing his lassoing prowess.
This is where Vaughn most shows off his lack of understanding of the sequel formula he claims to have studied. There’s a repeat of the originals’ pub fight set piece, but where that was stylish and exhilarating, this looks plain silly (those lasso antics) and is in the service of someone we have zero investment in winning through; we don’t care about Whiskey. That he’s teamed up with Harry and Eggsy may make sense for the eventual plot twist, but if the objective was to strike sparks between the characters, side-lining the much more entertaining Channing Tatum (Tequila) was a fatal mistake. There’s a whiff of cynicism here too, no doubt assuming the promise of more Tequila (and Ginger) in the second sequel will attract further Stateside success. This tends to be the reasoning of idiots, who fail to realise that the undiluted Englishness of the movie was what made it so appealing in the first place.
One of the criticisms of The Golden Circle is that there isn’t a set piece to rival the church massacre in its predecessor, but it would be more accurate to say that there isn’t even one to rival the pub fight, or the underwater intelligence test. There’s a reasonable car chase opening battle between Eggsy and Charlie, but there’s insufficient tangibility to make it truly enthralling (this is Vaughn and his no-CGI boast coming home to roost). Likewise, the cable car set piece; it may use more proficient technology than Moonraker, but it’s too overblown to care about.
The OTT villain finds a commendable successor to Sam Jackson in Moore, but there’s also a sense that Poppy is too much of a direct swap; for all the distinctive loopiness, her crackpot scheme runs on much the same lines as Jackson’s crackpot scheme, again involving the infection of swathes of the populace and a last-ditch attempt to save them (or as many as possible) from a gruesome/absurd death.
Bruce Greenwood’s scheming US President is at least refreshingly calculated in his realisation that failing to pay the ransom and having the drug-using element of the country wiped out (most of them, surely?) just like that (that Poppy seems to have her finger in every drug supply route beggars belief, but then so does the movie, so I’ll let that pass) will enable to him to claim victory in the war on drugs. It’s quite neat, although it’s as facile an embrace of a buzz topic (overpopulation there, legalisation here) as the first movie’s plot motivator. And, lest there was any doubt as to where Vaughn’s sympathies lie, well, he has the picture stop off for an entirely indulgent visit to Glastonbury. Because, like, cool, man.
Talking of which, if we’re to follow the original’s line of Vaughn featuring cartoonish visions of conspiracy theories, here we have both the idea that human meat (Keith Allen’s no less) is purposely fed into the food chain (albeit in very localised fashion via Poppy’s mincer) and the establishment of ready-to-use FEMA camps (albeit with single occupant cages) to house the victims of Poppy’s virus. None of this plays especially coherently, but if there’s much in the plotline Vaughn doesn’t pull off – those CGI robot dogs most glaringly – Moore’s entirely formidable.
Also formidable is one Elton John, the latest example of a celeb cameo that has its cake and eats it but succeeds despite itself. John playing up his spoilt rich pop star status and combustible reputation is hilarious, particularly being forced to play to order, and his ability to sit there, disconsolate, like an overgrown child sent to the naughty seat, evidencing that he has a certain performance ability even if you’d never call him an actor. Like most of these celeb pals jokes, though, it goes a bit far; when it comes to Elton suddenly enabled as a kick-ass, and offering Harry a, ahem, backstage pass, you’re simply indulging the icon you were earlier mocking.
As with earlier Vaughn joints, this one is partial to the pop tune-accompanied set piece, but to less sustained effect. I commented that Atomic Blonde’s devotion to strategically chart-topper-designed action sequences was sometimes distracting, but they never felt uninspired the way they do here, be it Word Up or Rocket Man. Just dropping in a catchy song and hoping it will do the heavy lifting is a sure sign of creative lethargy, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle tends to make exactly what was fresh and original about the first picture seem tired and formulaic on repeat. Still, Mark Strong belting out Take Me Home, Country Roads is a definite highlight, even if his sacrifice comes from the rule book of “This is what you do to give a sequel stakes”, rather than counting for anything in and of itself.
I’d like to think we’d get the equivalent of Iron Man Three in any third Kingsman, provided this one nets enough to get a greenlight, but I’m beginning to suspect Vaughn may be one of those directors who needs a something or someone reining in his baser impulses. That would be why First Class is still his best movie, and why at some point he really needs to outgrow his penchant for Mark Millar-based juvenilia.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.