Kingsman: The Golden Circle and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Kingsman kind of came out of nowhere and surprised everyone with just how big of a hit it became, but then again that’s kind of the most notable thing about Matthew Vaugh’s career so far. Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsman were all movies that no one really expected to become huge hits, but he managed to turn all three into huge money makers and even garnered quite a bit of critical praise in the process! Now he’s attempting the one thing that so few directors have been able to pull off which is to make a successful sequel to one of his own films; something that even the best directors aren’t always able to pull off (*cough* The Lost World *cough*)! Will this be yet another unexpected hit from a director who’s known for making those, or is this a challenge that will prove insurmountable even for someone as talented as Matthew Vaughn!? Let’s find out!!
The movie picks up some time after the ending of the first film where The Kingsman Organization is thriving under new leadership and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is living the super awesome secret agent life while also dating Princess Tildae (Hanna Alström) who was the princess he saved in his last adventure. Now obviously things can’t stay this way for long (lest this be a rather uneventful movie), as Eggsy’s past comes back to haunt him with the sudden reappearance of Kingsman dropout Charles (Edward Holcroft) who somehow survived the events of the last film and proceeds to set off a chain reaction of events that completely decimates the Kingsman Organization; even managing to kill agent Lancelot in the process (Sophie Cookson). With nothing left and the world facing an imminent threat from an organization known only as The Golden Circle, led up by Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), the remaining Kingsman members (pretty much just Eggsy and Merlin played by Mark Strong) must turn to their American Counterparts known as The Statesmen in order to fight against whatever nefarious schemes Poppy and Charles have planned. Can Eggsy save the world yet again despite having lost so much already? Can the Statesmen be trusted to work with the remaining Kingsman members, or do they have a secret agenda of their own? Seriously, how the hell do they write themselves out of a bullet to the head in order to bring back Collin Firth!?
I think I ended up liking this one as much as the first one which in and of itself is an achievement as sequels can rarely live up to their predecessor, but my praise here is tempered by the fact that while Kingsman was a GOOD movie, it had plenty of problems and certainly wasn’t one of my favorite films the year it came out. This one suffers from a lot of the same problems that other sequels usually do (reverence to the original, repeating some of the set pieces, trying to raise the stakes while maintaining the status quo) but then it also fixed a few of the problems that kept me from truly loving the original. Not ALL of the problems as I’ll get into soon enough, but I found this movie much more fun to sit through than the first one even though it’s a bit more shoddily put together. Okay, WAY more shoddily put together, but my point stands!!
So I guess that begs the question, what were my problems with the first film? Well I wouldn’t say that it all goes back to the director as I have enjoyed some of his movies, but when he teams up with Mark Millar (notably in this franchise and in Kick-Ass), eh… things start to become obnoxious in the way that I find a lot of David Fincher films to be, but with a bit more fun and exuberance that SOMEWHAT compensates for that fact. I haven’t read A LOT of Mark Millar’s stuff, but I did read both Kick-Ass and Wanted; the latter being one of the worst comics I’ve ever read in my life (basically working on the same wavelength as Fight Club) and the former being rather unpleasant romp that was improved greatly by the film adaptation. I find Mark Millar’s writing, coupled with Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of said writing, to be overtly cynical in a way that doesn’t really belie any sort of intelligence or deeper understanding; rather it projects a worldview that is comfortable for angry young boys to indulge in (I KNEW the world was shit and that everyone is a phony!) while doing little to speak to anyone who ACTUALLY has adversity in their life and knows the failing of humanity first hand. Now to be sure, Matthew Vaugh does temper that quite a bit which is why I think Kick-Ass THE MOVIE is better than Kick-Ass THE BOOK, but there’s still too much exaggerated cruelty masking as a sense of righteous machismo for me to really come around to either Kick-Ass or the first Kingsman movie. The Kingsman Organization itself lacks transparency, accountability, or even a sense of empathy for those they’re supposedly there to protect and would honestly come off as a bunch of imperialistic assholes (not too far off form The Brotherhood of Steel) if the world didn’t CONVENIENTLY give them threats to fight off that ONLY THEY CAN STOP which justifies their continued existence. Okay, on SOME level, any sort of spy or even superhero organization is innately fascist, but at least most of them aren’t the ones CASUALLY deciding to murder thousands of people. When Watchmen did it, it was with reverence and moral ambiguity while Kingsman capped that decision off with a head exploding montage. Then again, I guess when said group of people is as darkly portrayed as they are in the film, including a President who worked for decades as a community organizer deciding OUT OF THE BLUE to kill all those communities, we might as well celebrate the culling of such a detestable group of people. Sure. Why not. I’m not saying that income inequality isn’t a HUGE problem and that the people upholding it aren’t awful, but that war isn’t gonna be won by a bunch of waspy white ninjas killing the one percent on behalf of the poor.
So if my big problem with the first film is its half assed FUCK THE RICH PEOPLE message that was then being presented to us by the people least likely to be fucked BY said rich people (and are often the ones doing the fucking), how does this one improve on that? I found that in this one, while the plots are VERY similar (to a fault in fact), the film DID take the time to at least provide motivation for people’s actions and it comes at it from a somewhat different direction. While the last movie had a fake Obama stand in just spout ONE line to justify the US government’s complicity in the evil scheme, there are at least two extended sequences of the president in THIS film (not an ACTUAL president this time around) justifying and explaining his reasoning for making a similar decision. It’s heartless and barbaric, but it’s also not too far off from opinions that are ACTUALLY shared in the real world which gives the incredibly dark subject matter (the murder of millions of people) at least some dramatic weight and in-universe believability which is more than what we got in the last film. I still feel like the movie is a bit too picky and choosey about what it deems to be worthy of subversion (showing real consequences of spy work that other films shy away from) and can be a bit TOO easy to pass down judgement on characters that make shitty choices rooted in a sense of deep suffering (knocking someone out would take less effort than elaborately killing them and would allow them the right to face of jury of their peers rather than… you know; being executed by an extrajudicial task force), but I appreciate where this movie took noticeable strides in the right direction, at least in the ways that I feel would improve the franchise.
So ASIDE from my own personal hang-ups about Matthew Vaugh and Mark Millar’s dim view of humanity, how did the rest of the movie pan out? Good Enough are probably gonna be the kindest words this movie receives because unfortunately it just doesn’t have enough going for it to feel like its own movie rather than a retread of the original. Even the BIG new idea they have which is to blow up The Kingsman and introduce The Statesmen turns out to be woefully underused as the new organization barely serves as more than a new base for them to get their equipment from. Hell, they manage to underutilize CHANNING FREAKING TATUM who gets ONE scene in the movie before being put on ice until the very end! That’s right! He’s gone by the half hour mark to be replaced by Pedro Pascal who is fine in the role but certainly feels like an afterthought; especially when you compare his fifteen second introduction to Channing Tatum’s which is one of the best moments in the whole film. Sadly this leaves us with little more than a retread of the original film, but I will argue that in doing so they might have made a SLIGHTLY better film. It’s less a sequel than it is akin to a video game REMASTER where they didn’t really add a whole lot, but the tweaks and polishes are nice additions to something that already functioned. It certainly doesn’t always work as the nadir of the film has to be the ham handedly forced in recreation of the bar fight from the first movie, but I thought the stuff with the villain (while very much a retread) was interesting and had a bit more depth to it. Okay, the actual villain herself played by Julianne Moore is OBSCENELY over the top in this, but she has an interesting and rather thoroughly explored base of operations that pays off GREATLY in the climax and there are scenes dedicated to how she recruits people which is always nice to see in a story with such an obviously EVIL mastermind.
The action scenes as well suffer from the repetitive nature of this sequel, but they do still hold up VERY well and while nothing is QUITE as good as the church scene from the first one, we’ve got like three or four scenes that are ALMOST as good. There’s a fluidity of motion with the camera that allows the absurd action and intricate choreography to play out in clear detail without the need of copious edits and shaky cam to sell the intensity of each moment. It’s been a pretty solid year for action all things considered with Atomic Blonde still at the top, but this is certainly another great example of how recent films seem to be turning away from that style of filming action and I hope it’s a trend that sticks around. I also do like how they tried to mitigate the off-putting and sexist Bond Girl trope in the last film by turning a character that would have normally been a one film conquest into an actual person that Eggsy has a relationship with, but the film couldn’t help itself from diving into the same well again as the female characters here are an afterthought at best. Lancelot is killed right away, Princess Tilde is out of the movie for a good portion until they bring her back at the end to be a hostage, and they even threw in a NEW sexual conquest character for Eggsy to seduce who is even MORE disposable than the princess was in the last film! The only two who come off okay are Halley Berry as Ginger Ale (the Statesmen equivalent to Merlin) and the villain Poppy, but the former barely has anything to do considering Mark Strong is still on hand to handle most her work and the latter is too cartoonish in her villainy to take seriously on any level; not to mention that she’s given zero backstory to possibly explain how she ended up in the middle of Cambodia with a crappy recreation of fifties nostalgia to live in. Her base of operations is INTERESTING as I mentioned earlier (as is her evil scheme in the broad strokes), but she ends up being the least interesting part OF it.
The more I think about this, the more the flaws are apparent in this retread of the first film, but then I do genuinely feel that it improved in a lot of really important ways which shouldn’t be discounted; especially for those like me who really wanted to like the first film but felt it was keeping them at arm’s length. If you liked the first film, you’ll PROBABLY come out rather mixed on it, but it still might be worth checking out just for the really great action scenes and solid performances across the board. Supposedly there’s a four hour cut of this film that Matthew Vaughn put together, but unless that extra hour and a half is of Channing Tatum killing dudes and dancing shirtless, I can’t see a movie this just barely over the edge of Pretty Good being improved by there being more of it; especially when it’s currently at a rather exhausting two and a half hours. I liked the movie just fine, but I didn’t like it THAT much!