Niall McGrade, Arts and Entertainment’s Co-Editor.
I arrived late to the “Kingsman” party, only catching the 2014 action-movie pastiche on Netflix, rather than seeing it on the big screen. I went in with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised at what I found: a loving pastiche of 60’s and 70’s spy movies, with undeniable aesthetic charm and an extremely strong sense of style. To put it plainly: if you didn’t think too hard, it was a romp. I had misgivings about some of the humour, the gratuity of the violence, and the politics of the film, but it seemed as though “Kingsman” was potentially parodying these tropes rather than reinforcing them. “The humour is an unfortunate concession to laddishness,” I told myself, the ultraviolence “Tarantino-esque.” I even gave them the benefit of the doubt for their heroes and villains, the former of whom (Taron Egerton as Eggsy, Colin Firth as Harry) are white and primarily male, while the villains are alternately black (Samuel L Jackson) or disabled (Sofia Boutella.) I (rather generously) chalked this up to a parody of the genre’s unfortunate tropes. However, with the release of “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” (dir. Matthew Vaughn) I think I’m forced to admit that my faith was misplaced.
“The Golden Circle,” finds the British tailors-slash-super-spies all but wiped out, forced to visit the good ol’ U.S. of A. and join forces with their American equivalent, “Statesman.” Where Kingsman are suits and spectacles, Statesman prefer denim and cowboy hats. There, they discover that Kingsman was eliminated by the titular Golden Circle, which operates out of a fifties-style town isolated in some far-flung jungle. Julianne Moore’s drug queenpin Poppy oversees said town, and also apparently oversees the vast majority of the world’s drug trade. Disdainful of The War on Drugs, Poppy has infected her supply with a deadly virus, and is now effectively holding the world to ransom, demanding the legalisation of all her products in a ham-fisted commentary. Not the most complicated plot, but nobody’s really here for the plot anyway, are they?
Therein lies the problem: “The Golden Circle” has too much plot. There’s just too much of everything, really. The film clocks in at a hefty two hours twenty, and could easily lose twenty of those precious minutes. For a “Kingsman” film, you want just enough story to string set pieces together, and not one iota more. Sadly, “The Golden Circle” weighs itself down with exposition and too many characters, and, as a result, plods along at a pace that’s equally plodding and frenetic. The plot does, admittedly, string together plenty of set pieces: the movie remains action-packed, but, again, it’s all a little too much.
If you’ve seen the first film, you are familiar with the scene. You know the one. A four-minute fight scene featuring Colin Firth against dozens of combatants, choreographed to Lynrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” It was ridiculous, and entertaining because of its ridiculousness. There is no real moment like this in “The Golden Circle,” no central scene at which to go “wow.” Instead, we’re given a plethora of smaller scenes operating at about 70% of the intensity of the scene. Somehow, less is more, even when the “less” leads to the deaths of dozens of people. I also can’t help but feel as though “The Golden Circle” relies too much on CGI, the obviousness of the animation really getting in the way of enjoyment. Where Firth incapacitates a church using his gun and a selection of found objects, one of the characters in “The Golden Circle” wields a bizarre electrified whip that calls to mind a lightsaber. I’m not going to complain about immersion in “Kingsman,” because that would be absurd, but the CGI makes the film seem somehow sterile.
“The Golden Circle” is not without positives: the style remains, and one scene involving Mark Strong’s Merlin took me pleasantly by surprise. If the first film was your favourite film ever, if you had no issues with the politics, and if you just want more of the same, stop reading here. “The Golden Circle” delivers exactly that: more of the same, for better or for worse. Like Kick-Ass 2, also directed by Vaughn, it retains the sensibilities of its prequel film and regurgitates them, losing something along the way but appealing to diehard fans nonetheless. If you’re willing and able to shut your brain off for two-and-a-half-hours, it’ll do the job just fine.
Now, with that out of the way, I feel the need to move on to the film’s most egregious misstep: a scene that is not funny, not interesting, and which is, frankly, deeply misogynistic. An ill-placed anal sex gag spoiled the ending of “Kingsman” for me, but, as I mentioned earlier, I put it down to a misstep, a problematic gag that didn’t land, from which the filmmakers would surely learn their lesson. I was wrong. This film’s gag, if indeed it can be called a gag, involves Eggsy heading to Glastonbury and surreptitiously depositing a tracker on a villain-adjacent character by means of a sex act. We are somehow supposed to sympathise with his reluctance to do so, because he asks his girlfriend’s permission before engaging in said act. The scene is overlong, quite upsetting, and ends on a gratuitous close-up shot of a character’s underwear. It is out of place and has no business being included in the film, and even less business being treated as a joke. It is, frankly, completely inexcusable.
I enjoyed the first film despite its flaws because it was overblown, campy, and fun. Sadly, “The Golden Circle” loses all sense of direction. The strengths of “Kingsman” return in a diluted form, while the flaws are amplified. I saw this in theatres, and, as the credits rolled, I found myself going “Ooh, I quite enjoyed that!” (excising the Glastonbury scene from my assessment like it should have been excised from the film.) However, by the time I arrived home, it had already dropped several rating points. After even the slightest bit of critical scrutiny, the film collapses like a house of cards, and you realise that you’ve been sleight-of-handed into thinking something was good when it just… wasn’t.