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Josh Reviews Kingsman: The Golden Circle

October 9th, 2017
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I loved Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons comic-book mini-series The Secret Service, a delicious send-up of classic sixties-era James Bond spy capers.  I was a little less taken with Matthew Vaughn’s film adaptation, Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Mr. Vaughn is a terrific director (I love Layer Cake despite my dislike of its ending, and X-Men: First Class is one of the better X-Men films), and he had already made a movie adapting a Mark Millar comic-book series that was as good as, if not better than, the original.  (That would be Kick-Ass, a great comic and a great movie.)  But I thought Mr. Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service film muddled some of the original comic’s best jokes and ideas, and I found the anal sex joke in the final minute to be very distasteful.  But, I really like Matthew Vaughn and I like the idea of this series — taking the fun of those Classic Bond gadgets-and-babes adventures and bringing them into the modern era — so I was curious to see Mr. Vaughn’s second whack at this property.  (I must admit, I never expected to see a sequel, so I was intrigued to see what Mr. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman had cooked up.)

At the very start of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the Kingsman agency is mostly wiped out by a new enemy.  The surviving Kingsmen agents — young Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the Q-like “Merlin” (Mark Strong), and the miraculously resurrected after getting shot in the head in the first movie “Galahad” (Colin Firth) are forced to turn to their fellow spy agency, the U.S.-based Statesmen, for help.  The dapper British gentlemen spies and their cowboy-esque American counterparts together attempt to outwit the drug-lord Poppy (Julianne Moore) and her plan to unleash a deadly virus across the United States.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a fun time in the movie theatre though, like the first film, I once again feel Mr. Vaughn and his team have somewhat missed the mark.  The film’s strength and its weakness is that every single element feels dialed up to eleven.  The film is packed to overflowing with one crazy, outlandish sequence after another, and few characters are elevated above caricature.  (Seriously, is this the way Matthew Vaughn sees Americans???)  Some of these crazy sequences are fun, but it all gets to be a bit too much after a while.  (Like the first film, I think this sequel is about ten-twenty minutes too long.)

The cast comes to play, and the reason the film works as well as it does is this terrific cast.  Taron Egerton is very solid as the young super-spy Eggsy.  He steps effortlessly into the lead role here.  I like this character, and I like Mr. Egerton’s performance.  I wish the film allowed us to get a little deeper into what Eggsy is actually thinking and feeling.  (Eggsy’s feeling a little sad when his girlfriend is upset that he needs to sleep with another woman as part of his effort to save the world doesn’t really count as character development.)  Mr. Egerton is a great talent and I hope he succeeds in other roles beyond this franchise.  Bringing back the dead Galahad is ridiculous, but Colin Firth is once again an absolute delight as the dapper British secret agent.  Also returning from the first film, the great Mark Strong once again kills in his every scene as the unflappable Merlin.  His final scene in the film is terrific, one of the few times that Kingsman: The Golden Circle actually achieves some depth of emotion.  (Seriously, his going for the high note in that final moment is perfect and so human.  I loved it.)

Julianne Moore digs into the role of the chipper, nostalgia-obsessed, robot-loving drug-dealer Poppy.  The different elements of her character don’t really make much sense, but Ms. Moore is such a hoot it all works.

As for the Statesmen agents… again, wow, is this really the way Brits see all Americans?  Every one is a ridiculous caricature.  But they’re all so fun and played by such great actors that I didn’t mind.  Channing Tatum is perfectly cast as “Tequila.”  My only question is, why is he in so little of the movie?  His character is pushed to the side about halfway through, and replaced by another Statesman agent, “Whiskey,” played by Pedro Pascale (Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones).  Why is that second character necessary?  It feels to me like what should have clearly been one role was split in two.  Was there an issue with Channing Tatum’s availability, that required another actor to sub in for the rest of the film?  It’s weird.  Anyways, moving on, Jeff Bridges is great giving another super-weird Jeff Bridges performance as “Champ,” the head of the Statesmen.

Halle Berry is fun as “Ginger Ale,” the American counterpart to Merlin, but the film doesn’t give her much to do.  (After her mid-movie comment about always wanting to be in the field, I was surprised she was hardly involved in the third-act climax.)  Michael Gambon is in the movie for about two seconds, so that was a bit of a bummer.  Also a bummer: the film writes off Roxy (Sophie Cookson), Eggsy’s young fellow agent, very early on.  I liked Roxy in the first film, and wished she’d had more to do.  I was hoping she would have a larger role in this sequel, but instead the opposite happened.  I wish these female characters had been given more to do in this film!  (Also unfortunate — we lose any emotion over Roxy’s death because of the way it’s staged — she runs off-camera right before the explosion, so we never actually see her die, so I assumed she was alive.  It was only when the film ended that I realized that, oh, I guess she really was dead!  So the film doesn’t even succeed in wringing some emotion out of eliminating this character.  Oops!  Maybe they wanted to leave it open-ended if they make another sequel and want to bring her back, but in the context of this film it was a big missed opportunity in my mind — either to have allowed her to be more important to the story, or for her death to have some meaning.)  While the first film had Mark Hamill as a fun celebrity in an important role, this film has Elton John, and pretty much every scene he’s in is terrific — especially when he gets to kick some ass at the end.

There’s a lot of action in the film, and I applaud Mr. Vaughn and his team for their inventiveness in crafting one over-the-top action sequence after another.  The whole ski-slope adventure and Eggsy’s fight with the mechanical-armed henchman were two highlights.  I wish the action was shot a little clearer — there’s a jerkiness to some of the editing combined with a penchant for extreme close-ups in the fights that made many of the sequences a little hard to follow.

Like the first film, this Kingsman sequel often feels like it embodies a very teenaged sensibility.  This manifests in both the outlandish action sequences (which feel like Mr. Vaughn and his team saying “wouldn’t it be cool if we did this??” and “wouldn’t it be cool if we did that??”) as well as its sense of humor.  The film displays a juvenile thrill at breaking boundaries.  Sometimes this works, and sometimes it really doesn’t.  Probably the most divisive sequence in the film comes when Eggsy is tasked with inserting a tracking device up a woman’s you-know-what.  The film goes there in a way that had my jaw on the floor.  I give Mr. Vaughn points for fearlessness, even as I readily admit that this just isn’t what I am looking for in a fun action/adventure movie.

The primary example of this sort of thing in the first film was that anal sex joke at the end, which really turned my stomach.  (A young woman who fears for her life offering her body to someone who can offer her salvation is gross on a whole lot of levels.)  I must admit that I was glad to see this sequel try to recontextualize that scene by showing Eggsy and that princess now in a serious relationship.  (That Eggsy didn’t use and discard this girl, but actually cares about her and has remained with her in a serious relationship, makes that original scene slightly more palatable.  But only slightly.)  I also liked the idea of the film’s diverging from standard Bond-movie tropes by showing the lead character and super-spy in a relationship with a woman who he actually loves.  There is a spark of originality in that idea that I enjoyed, even though the film doesn’t explore this all that deeply.

I still feel there is the potential for a better movie from this material and this cast.  As it is, I had fun watching Kingsman: The Golden Circle, but I doubt this is a film I will watch again any time soon.

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