I like Mark Millar. I do. Even if it is quite possible he doesn't like me. Or you. Or his readers, for that matter. But that's not what this is about. Not at all. His contributions to the comics industry and to storytelling in general have been tremendous. His work on The Authority is lauded, he launched Ultimate X-Men to great acclaim, he shepherded the Ultimates to renown alongside Bryan Hitch for the Marvel imprint, which has had a widespread and lasting impact on both the monthly titles and the shared Cinematic Universe, and he gave us Superman: Red Son, an essential and inspired read reminiscent of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. In short, his comic game is tight. His film adaptations, on the other hand, have occasionally left me wanting.
Kick-Ass didn't really work for me, and Kick-Ass 2: Kick Harder did even less to turn the beat around. And while Wanted was a box office success and much beloved by many, I found it cynical, glib, and indicative of many of Hollywood's worst summertime fetishes: toxic masculinity run amok, wanton disregard for human life, a troubling desensitization where the depiction of violence is concerned, and the rampant over-sexualization of women.
Kingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn's (Layer Cake, X-Men: First Class) 2015 cannonball from the high board into Millar's world of super suave super spies was essentially a checklist of the aforementioned, but this time around, I don't know, I was in a better place to receive it or something. Barring a couple truly cringe-inducing instances (more on that later), I found it immensely entertaining. The action sequences were not even a little bit unspectacular, and the Kingsman organization itself was quite cool even if we'd seen fragments of it all before somewhere along the line. Much like the Jason Bourne film series before it, Kingsman attempted to propel the classic, some (not me) would say stuffy, spy genre basically built from the ground up by James Bond out of the Cold War and into the now, and they've been largely successful. For evidence of this, just look to the present crop of Bond films, which bear a greater resemblance to the kinetic, fast-paced, headfirst style of the Bourne entries than anything Sean Connery rolled out in his heyday.
So when I went into Kingsman: The Golden Circle last night, I wasn't entirely sure how excited I was. I knew I was kinda psyched to see Statesman, Kingsman's country-western cousin, in action, even if that too was just another idea I'd already seen a dozen times before. I mean, who hasn't used this trope yet? G.I. Joe had the Red October Guard. There's a S.W.O.R.D. to Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D. Hell, even the Impossible Missions Force recently ran afoul of the Syndicate, an agency made up of evil IMF agents in the latest Mission: Impossible outing. This idea is old. But it's also fun, so we rightly and unashamedly get giddy whenever it comes around.
If you don't know or you haven't yet heard, the plot (such as it is) of The Golden Circle is that a global drug cartel led by Julianne Moore, in a bizarrely over-the-top yet not at all threatening performance, has targeted Kingsman for annihilation. This fatal first strike has left them licking their wounds and without sufficient manpower to confront her, hence the need to reach out to their clandestine American sibling. There is great fun to be had, for certain, but I was struck by how decidedly goofy this one gets. I mean, it really swings for the fences with some of the ideas. Like, Julianne Moore's headquarters would be straight out of You Only Live Twice if not for her self-professed adoration for 50's nostalgia that has all but transformed her villain's lair into the set of American Graffiti. She lives in a diner and surrounds herself with CGI robot dogs. She keeps Elton John as a pet and forces him to perform for her. She feeds people through meat grinders. She's like the psychotic, ginger offspring of Sweeney Todd and June Cleaver. And there's so much dancing. It's bigger, I guess. It's louder for sure. And at a hulking and laborious 141 minutes that you really start to feel in the last act, it's certainly longer. But I wouldn't call it better than its predecessor. It is just... goofy. And perhaps not in a way that does it any favors.
That said, there's heart, too. Mostly where Colin Firth's Galahad and Taron "Eggsy" Egerton's surrogate father/adopted son relationship is concerned, and those scenes are fairly effective. The action sequences are, again, thrilling despite the music selection that plays over them treading into schizophrenic waters. Why anyone thought making John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" such an integral part of the soundtrack when every character is either English or from Kentucky was a good idea, I'll never know. Especially after how well and how recently it was used in Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky.
But I digress. The action sequences, as earlier stated, are still the main draw. Vaughn always knows where to put the camera, giving you a kind of road map through the hits and misses even as the chaos crescendos, and it is great fun to watch him work. They're fast, frenetic, and edge-of-your-seat even if they never quite manage to capture the beautifully-choreographed mayhem exhibited by the church brawl in the previous film. There's also quite a bit more CGI being utilized this time around, particularly in places where practical effects might have been the smarter choice. When everything in your action set piece is green-screened, it can inadvertently strip the scene of its tension and, I dare say, its drama.
There are some downright peculiar choices made in Golden Circle. Why are there robot dogs? Why is Channing Tatum only in the movie for 9 minutes? What is Elton John doing there? That last one actually leads to one of the few jokes in the movie that sticks the landing, so I'm letting it slide. All told, for all the fun it is, this one is simply not as much fun as Secret Service. It poses a bleaker worldview than I think it deserved, and there's an underlying cynicism running throughout that is difficult to ignore. I'm not saying the events depicted in the film couldn't happen, that no one is as morally bankrupt as certain characters prove themselves to be in one of the film's larger reveals, but as a species we like to at least believe we're better than this. Which I guess makes me the naive one.
I need to get back to something I said earlier regarding cringe-inducing moments. As I stated before, I thoroughly enjoyed the first Kingsman. I was completely invested in the characters and the world. That is, of course, until the anal sex "joke." You know the one. You've all seen it. It was tasteless and it was awful. It was crass, low-hanging fruit, and to anyone who continues to praise it for being subversive, brush your teeth and go to bed, please! This single moment very nearly vaporized all the good will the movie spent the last 120-odd minutes earning, and as it stirred such a universal backlash following the film's release, it was my hope that Vaughn would know better this time around.
I regret to inform you that not only did he not know better, he actually doubled down on the gag. Now, I applaud Golden Circle for making Princess Tilde a positive fixture in protagonist Eggsy Unwin's life this time instead of discarding her entirely as spy movies are so often wont to do, but that show of good faith is quickly squandered when our hero, in a largely unimportant scene at that, is forced to plant a tracking device on an unsuspecting woman by secretly inserting it here:
Which begs the question, who is this for?
The auditorium I viewed Golden Circle in was more than half full (because I'm an optimist), and I distinctly heard three people laugh. Three. Out of what, seventy-five? Eighty? Now, I have no trouble remembering what it was like being thirteen years old. Real talk. It was a pre-Internet society where Playboy and Penthouse magazines were guarded covetously by the gatekeepers at every 7-Eleven and Circle K, and the oceans between late-night Cinemax movies were vast and, when you have older siblings as I did, oftentimes unnavigable. I completely get sneaking into an R-rated movie. That makes all the sense in the world to me when you're a pubescent, near-atomic bag of hormones, which is who I imagine the target audience for Kingsman is. But it's 2017 now. It's the future! And this kind of content, for lack of a better term, is only as far away as your iPhone. So I'll ask again. Who is this scene for?
This kind of gag, while never funny and always tasteless, at least served some purpose in the 80's and early 90's, but doesn't the invention of the DSL finally put us past this point in our evolution? It's that stupid moment of Alice Eve in her underwear from Star Trek Into Darkness all over again. It's Megan Fox unnecessarily sprawled across a motorcycle in Transformers. Why do scenes like this still exist? Because some directors are immature boys unaware of or, worse, unconcerned with how the women in their films look to actual women in the audience, women who've paid good, hard-earned money to support their projects? Can we really not admit to ourselves as human beings that this era is over?
Like the anal sex misfire in Secret Service, this scene damages my overall feelings on Golden Circle. What could have been a better movie-going experience is marred by its callous inclusion. It burns the good will already amassed, and that is a poor way to treat an audience. I feel like we keep giving Matthew Vaughn chances, and he keeps making us regret our choice to forgive him. And really, how long is he going to do that? My guess is until we stop showing up.
My Rating: 3 out of 5