With Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn has finally made a boring movie.
The following review does contain SPOILERS, but nothing that wasn’t already given away by the trailers.
Sometimes, I like to go and browse the comment threads about Kingsman: The Secret Service, and watch a whole load of people desperately lose their minds in frustrated anger at trying to parse out exactly what that film’s politics are, so that they can get even more angry about them. I find it all most amusing since, well, I’m assuming you’ve seen the first Kingsman, yeah? Trying to work out the politics of that thing is nothing but a recipe for an industrial strength migraine. Fact is that Kingsman is such a semi-intentional mess of contradictions that it almost actively resists coherent reading, unless you deliberately twist the film in your own mind to fit whichever alignment you personally have decided it settles on; whether that be ragingly, hatefully conservative, or slyly, subversively liberal.
See, Matthew Vaughn and his screenwriting partner Jane Goldman – who has co-written every single one of his films excepting Layer Cake, so I effectively see the two as an inseparable package deal – played Kingsman in much the same way that they did their previous Mark Millar adaptation, Kick-Ass. Millar’s aim with both his Kick-Ass and The Secret Service graphic novels was to brutally deconstruct superhero comics and James Bond movies (respectively) in as juvenile and deliberately provocative a way as possible. Of course, as anyone who has suffered through Millar’s just-plain abysmal writing will let you know, his endgame to this deconstruction is nothing more than hateful, pithy, juvenile nihilism, that takes great gratitude in going “too far” at all times and eventually becoming simply unpleasant to experience.
What Vaughn and Goldman have chosen to do with their film adaptations is follow Millar’s text as it is convenient for them, before jettisoning it almost entirely by the halfway mark in order to create loving reconstructions of the things they were otherwise crassly deconstructing beforehand. They go right up to the point where Millar’s bad taste turns full-on ugly and then pull back into relatively nice, cheery, crowdpleasing fare, albeit whilst still indulging in the occasional crass display for light-hearted provocation’s sake. Their changes to certain key story elements in the original Kick-Ass – for example, Big Daddy’s back story being true instead of the lie of a deranged lunatic, Katie reciprocating Dave’s crush instead of kicking his ass and throwing him out, among other things – fundamentally alter the text’s message into something far less unpleasant to watch, far more fun, but ultimately far more obfuscated thematically.
Some could very much understandably argue that this fundamental dishonesty and erstwhile refusal to make a coherent film is far worse than Millar’s open celebration of homophobic, misogynistic, smug nihilism, and, whilst I won’t exactly disagree with that assessment, I would point out that the Vaughn & Goldman-less Kick-Ass 2 is prime evidence that being honest about Millar’s odious spirit does not make for a pleasant filmgoing experience. Instead, the pair try to have their cake and eat it too, with the results managing to be politically, thematically, and ideologically-loaded yet ultimately completely meaningless. The contradictions too vast and multitudinous, the tones too wildly schizophrenic, the intentions layered in such a thick combination of situational irony and sincerity as to be near-indecipherable. Whatever their actual politics may be – Vaughn’s a Tory, for the record – their films have largely worked very hard to avoid saying anything at all besides “Eugenics are bad.”
No, Vaughn and Goldman want to make fun crowdpleasers and thinking too hard about what everything actually means as a coherent thesis statement on anything is to completely miss the point. And whilst such “turn off your brain” nonsense is often nothing more than a cop out for empty bland-fests and sneaking in insidiously hateful ideology, their films have always gotten away with it for me by being genuine fun. The first Kingsman is heavily flawed – structurally creaky, awkwardly paced, stuck in the shadow of Kick-Ass by largely being the exact same film as Kick-Ass, and, yes, thematically incoherent – but the act of watching it works. It’s a fun, dumb spy movie; its coming-of-age through-line provides the heart that keeps things ticking; it’s perfectly cast; Vaughn cemented himself as one of our best action filmmakers working today; and its cheeky irreverent (and also inconsistent) tone never curdled into something hateful or nasty.
It’s also a film that really did not need a sequel, least of all because its audacious “Pomp and Circumstance” sequence is the act of a film betting everything on Red and then immediately walking away from the table regardless of the outcome. Even if it never quite went all the way in the same sense as Millar’s source materials do (and THANK CHRIST FOR THAT), much of Kingsman itself still felt transgressive and risky. There was a tangible spark of originality and invention, of creativity. By contrast, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a band performing a Greatest Hits tour after issuing exactly one album. For the large part, this is exactly the same film as the first go-around, just bigger and messier and much, much longer – heaven forbid Vaughn’s vaunted 3 hours 40 minutes cut ever see the light of day, cos this thing is already far too long at 2 hours 21. It simultaneously has too many new ideas and nowhere near enough to sustain itself, particularly when most of those new ideas literally spend half the film on-ice so we can do-over the hits from the last film.
If anything, The Golden Circle makes a great counter-example to 2017’s best sequels. This has actually been a largely strong year for sequels with T2: Trainspotting, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Logan (technically), and (best of all) War for the Planet of the Apes all matching or surpassing their predecessors by, crucially, choosing to avoid the usual sequel pitfalls. These were sequels that went smaller, insular, more personal. They traded spectacle for character work, found new avenues and evolutions to go down, and when they did reference their previous entries they did so in either new contexts or to make a larger point. These are streamlined, focussed films, star examples of what sequel making should be.
Rather than any of those things, however, The Golden Circle aims to go BIG and the result ends up hollow and, in certain narrative choices, even blemishing the original that it’s so desperately trying to outdo. It’s a film of excess – where every joke, whether it’s new or returning from the first film, is beaten relentlessly into the ground, where every action scene (though still technically strong if a little too self-consciously weightless) goes on for much too long, where every additional subplot or diversion just feels far too unnecessary. All designed to bombard you with ever so much Muchness that you won’t notice how little has changed from the original, and ultimately the film just ends up boring, which is a foreign feeling to find myself experiencing during a Matthew Vaughn film. In a way, it’s befitting the series’ affectionate relationship to pre-Daniel Craig James Bond movies, but in its attempts to aim for late-period Roger Moore (which itself is not really the best of targets to aim for), The Golden Circle instead overshoots and lands at Die Another Day-level Pierce Brosnan.
The plot ostensibly is based around the titular Golden Circle. A secretive monopolistic drug cartel run from a kitschy 80’s-nostalgia-for-50’s-nostalgia-designed base deep in the Cambodian jungle by Julianne Moore’s Poppy Adams, who have been intentionally poisoning their own products in order to blackmail the United States government into legalising all drugs so that she can receive due credit for her business savvy. And it’s up to Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong), the last remaining Kingsman after Poppy simultaneously blows up all the others, to team up with their American counterparts, Statesman, to bring her down. Except that the film isn’t really about that at all, at least for large stretches of its runtime, since The Golden Circle knicks The Secret Service’s structure but doesn’t have anything substantial enough to fill out the non-finale parts of it. When The Secret Service largely marginalised Valentine’s world domination plot for its first half, that’s because it was happening in the background to Eggsy’s training as a Kingsman agent. When The Golden Circle ignores Poppy for at least a full hour of its runtime, that’s because we’re instead being distracted by endless subplots.
Fact is that there is no through-line to The Golden Circle like there was in The Secret Service. Points are gained for not forcing Eggsy to redo his arc all over again, but his status as a static protagonist only shines more of a light on there not being a beating heart or driving force at the film’s centre. The Golden Circle does seem to realise this to a point, and starts throwing all manner of subplots at the wall and hoping that one of them will stick. There’s the Statesman themselves; Eggsy’s rival from The Secret Service, Charlie (Edward Holcroft), returns with cybernetic enhancements, working with Poppy, and looking for revenge; Eggsy’s attempts to remain in a committed relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) from the ending of the last one; Elton John shows up as himself, held captive by Poppy and forced to perform for her amusement; and, most damagingly of all, Harry (Colin Firth) turning out to be alive and semi-well despite his death by headshot, held in Statesman’s research facility and suffering from amnesia. But nothing truly does. Maybe if the film focussed on just one of these angles, preferably the better ones, they could have, but nothing ever gets fleshed out enough to stand up as anything other than a distraction.
Damningly, by the time that the second act finally comes to an end, The Golden Circle dumps almost everything outside of our returning trio of Eggsy, Merlin, and Harry (through plot machinations more contrived than single-player fighting game stories) to stage a finale solely based around them. I can’t help but wonder if this Kingsman would have been better served by not having any Kingsman in it. Not so much because the Statesman are compelling, well-rounded characters – I was not being facetious or hyperbolic with my earlier “on-ice” comment, there’s a reason you’re not seeing much of anybody not played by Pedro Pascal in those trailers – but because this insistence on dragging these three along ultimately makes so much of the film pointless busywork. Bringing Harry back is not just damaging to the emotional stakes of both Kingsman films, it’s emblematic of Kingsman’s disinterest in consequences altogether. Outside of two scenes (one of which is played for laughs), the fact that everybody involved in the Kingsman, including Eggsy’s best work friend Roxy and his beloved dog J.B. and a random other best friend of his who exists solely to get blown up (another two exist solely to be affected by Poppy’s plan for artificial drama in the climax), is now dead never gets dwelled upon. Instead, we’re on the next flight to Kentucky and away to the next fun distraction of meaningless value.
If anything, this may be the closest that Vaughn and Goldman have come into falling into Millar’s pit of nihilistic shock, where nothing truly matters and everything exists for little more than the immediacy of the shock. Of course, that’s arguably been the underlying strain of both Kick-Ass and the first Kingsman anyway, but both of those films had a heart and secret softness that was able to offset the virus of Millar. Without a core, and with a deliberate undercutting and minimisation of emotional sincerity throughout, The Golden Circle can’t help but bring that strain to the forefront, as all of this More causes the worst elements of The Secret Service to leak unrestrained into the bowl and almost poison the whole product, like somebody accidentally smashed a glass of hydrochloric acid over a Banana Ice Cream Sundae. This most manifests in a more pronounced Boy’s Club atmosphere than the already Boy’s Club-y original, particularly in a twist on the “seduce a villain’s girlfriend for information” cliché that comes off like Vaughn, incensed over the reaction to the anal gag that closed the original, decided to counteract those complaints with a joke nobody could find funny but everybody would find ultra-skeevy.
All this said, I would not go so far as to call The Golden Circle outright bad. Egerton, Pascal, and Moore (clearly having a blast as a 50s Sitcom housewife moonlighting as a Bond villain) are all great as ever, and all deserve a more focussed script than what they’ve gotten. Although the film’s complete lack of discipline means that they eventually just become tiring to sit through, Vaughn is still one of our best technical action directors, with style, grace, and coherence to spare – I look forward to watching one particular faux-one-take fight sequence online in a few months’ time, divorced from its status as the seventh and final Final Fight, cos it’s pretty damn excellent otherwise – and he’s still got an eye for striking imagery and iconography, even if little of it means anything. Meanwhile, if you think you’ve spotted one massive glaring flaw in Poppy’s evil plan, then you’ll be glad to know that Vaughn and Goldman noticed it right there with you, and mine it for the film’s most loaded satire…
…except that the film ends up shockingly pulling its punch. You might recall that The Secret Service was willing to include sitting-President-at-the-time Barack Obama on its list of people willing to sign up to Valentine’s plan to murder all the lower-classes, and that he was rewarded for this act by joining in on the “Pomp and Circumstance” parade in its climax along, with so many of the film’s other villains. In The Golden Circle, our President, recipient of the closest thing to an actual sincere political point that Vaughn and Goldman have put in their films to date, is… a nameless random White man played, admittedly effectively, by Bruce Greenwood. You could play this off for narrative reasons – in-film, it’s only been a year since the events of The Secret Service, which took place in late-2014, so Trump wouldn’t have been anywhere near the White House yet. You could play it off as everybody involved seriously thinking he would have been removed from office by now and consequently didn’t want to date it. You could play it off as not wanting to add to the oxygen wasted on that dick-pic of a human being. But what you can’t play off is how toothless it leaves the film feeling.
It feels like a punch pulled, a risk steadfastly avoided, whether intended to invoke that reading or not, and I focus on it only because it kind of perfectly represents The Golden Circle as a whole. It’s a film that remains resolute in its safe-zone, content to bash out the hits and take no chances. What few new ideas it has are bashed into the ground regardless of how much juice they contain, whilst any potentially fresh avenues are quickly discarded in favour of rehashing the spectacle of the original but louder and longer, hoping that doing so can effectively mask the absence of any lasting heart or consequences. But it can’t. The hollowness eventually overtakes everything, and I found myself largely bored, sat wanting the whole thing to just end already. The Golden Circle is the kind of sequel that plays it so safe that it ends up taking the shine off of its predecessor as a result.
Vaughn and Goldman may have seen returning to Kingsman as a risk, but walking away from the table after that first successful bet on red is arguably the bigger risk. Shame they couldn’t resist.
Callie Petch’s old man is drunker than a barrel full of monkeys.