Why Would a Democracy Need a King?

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Even with the note that I personally did not care for Kingsman: The Secret Service, the role of Colin Firth’s star character Kingsman Agent Harry Hart and the way they Dougie Jones’d* him (which would probably function as a spoiler if the marketing wasn’t so happy to reveal his return) in the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle plays a metaphor for itself: an attempt to get right back to business with the stylistic things that made it charming in the moment, only for it having trouble finding its footing even when it’s just trying to repeat the same beats as the first verse.

To be fair to The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn’s sequel to his 2015 spy movie homage adapted from Mark Millar’s The Secret Service comic book about the independent intelligence organization, it feels less nasty and reprehensible than its predecessor (I might daresay it feels so by a large amount depending on how generous I am given the day). And it gets to feel so by having nearly every awful element amount it contained in one massively misconceived scene that easily would lose a point by me if I were a rating man. Make no mistake, the stuff that occurs in the scene centered around a mission at Glastonbury Festival is pretty damn bad. Narrative-wise, it’s a horrible introduction to the capabilities of Statesman Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) as well as providing a sudden conflict of assumed infidelity between our Kingsman Agent Galahad aka Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and his committed Swedish Princess girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) that never truly gets resolved so much as just dropped. Content-wise, it has a painfully out-of-touch portrayal of 2010s youth that is the closest thing anything in the franchise came to functioning as parody and the parody is frankly unfunny. On top of which, the mission in particular requires two men to double team on seducing a young woman and place a tracker in her in a manner that outdoes the anal sex joke in the first movie in tastelessness, especially in consideration of the now-year-old Donald Trump/Billy Bush recording tapes, especially considering the juvenile manner of the camera zooming further on the tracker as it sinks into Eggsy’s target.

If I can remove that scene from my mind, it’ll be a bless up.

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Beyond that, the movie still makes a mess out of its attempt at political themes** by trying to argue that villainess drug mogul Poppy’s (Julianne Moore) attempts to kill every person who uses drugs – illegal or medicinal or whatever – in the world is bad but also makes third-act shift being anti-War-on-Drugs to turning its resolution into something akin to a “Drugs are bad” PSA with everything back to normal including the criminalization of the drug trade and addicts. And that’s only the thematic clunkiness of Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s screenplay, the narrative pacing is kind of up and down all throughout. It all feels like a first draft assemblage of moments: Eggsy being introduced to Tilde’s parents, Poppy’s sudden destruction of all the Kingsman agents and headquarters G.I. Joe Retaliation-style (leaving Eggsy and Mark Strong’s intel man Merlin as the lone survivors), the Kingsman’s contingency protocol to rendezvous with their American co-organization Statesman, and their subsequent investigation as to what Poppy is up to in her 50s themed Cambodian hideout. That’s my attempt to streamline the main plot into some sort of summary and it ignores how momentum-halting the sudden return of Firth’s Hart from the grave becomes as they discover him suffering from amnesia, the domestic issue between Eggsy and Tilde, the president’s (Bruce Greenwood) apathy to the matter despite having no true stake in the denouement in the film (which also makes it the source of most of the film’s muddled politics), or the way Channing Tatum’s charming Agent Tequila is somewhat sidelined. That last one largely hurts because of what a Tatum fan I am and how very much best-in-show he is from the moment he shows up, turning it into more of a cartoon from his wild card guntoting Texan caricature.

Tatum is not the only worthwhile performance, though. Among the stand-outs in a mostly great cast: Egerton has only gotten stronger as a screen presence from his impressive breakout in the first movie, Pascal provides a great rugged Burt Reynolds imitation, Jeff Bridges only has 5 minutes tops of screentime but can play that sort of Southern Gentleman personality in his sleep, Moore is a wonderful demented home-maker of a villain, and Elton John tore the house down in a foul-mouthed extended cameo. In fact, the only real disappointment is Firth and part of that is just that the movie can’t let him go back to his full charms until late in the game at which point it’s underwhelming and too little too late.

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Meanwhile, the main action setpieces feel like one great big repetition over and over. While they’re all digitally-cut swinging long takes that get right in on the fight to a fun ole’ needledrop without much distinction between them when you get down to it. The ones that bookend the film are certainly a lot of fun – with a cramped car-bound fistfight opening the film and a great big environment manipulating gun battle as the second to last action scene – and the film is very quick to get down and dirty in an action when it looks like one’s coming, but that only goes so far to avoided feeling diluted in style when the movie can’t be as varied in its action movie tones as the original did so well. In fact, the original did that so well, it almost tricked me into liking it. The Golden Circle doesn’t get that far.

So, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a less objectionable than its predecessor, but I’m entirely convinced it’s better. It feels sapped of personality unlike the original, it feels paint-by-numbers. In lowering its weakneses, it also ended up lowering most of its charms and strengths and while I’m not sure this is a bad thing, this movie feels like the most grudgingly obligatory of Matthew Vaughn’s works since X-Men: First Class. He’s feeding us a burger of soiled meat and telling us it’s a Big Mac.

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*Even acknowledging that Twin Peaks: The Return is not at all the source of that kind of development in bringing back a character, I hope that term becomes a thing.
**And for all the Kingsman apologists try to claim it’s the sort of movie you should shut your mind off about, there’s no way to do that with the first’s pointed attempts at class commentary and the second’s War on Drugs plot points. If the Kingsman films fail to provide any political commentary that isn’t muddled, I find that to be a consequence of execution, not intent.

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Fools

I need to let off a bit of steam before I type a single word of this review. A bit of a warning towards whatever bias somebody might understandably accuse me of having.

I fucking hate Mark Millar.

Which is not to say he lacks any decent comic book work I’ve ever read. I do enjoy Superman: Red Son and I loved The Ultimates. But that’s about it as far as having read anything by him that doesn’t nauseate me with its absolutely tasteless content or which reads extremely amateurishly constructed and edited to the point that it feels like an illustrated movie treatment instead of a fully fleshed comic book story…

The Kick-Ass trilogy (+ Hit Girl), WantedThe Secret ServiceNemesis, Ultimate Fantastic FourCivil War (and I know a lot of people – Marvel fanboys and comic book readers alike – really love Civil War, but it’s maybe one of the most inconsistent and betraying disregards to character development and arc that I’ve ever read in the Marvel Universe) and so many other works of his that I’ve read kept having me put it down disappointed at the depletion of any true substance and ugly nihilism only to be able to read the author names and realize “Oh… that’s fucking why.”

Actually, nihilism is a very generous way of putting his work. It reads instead like he honestly is a little kid who just found out he’s allowed to be edgy and just wants to put as much affrontive material as possible, except it really offends almost no one (instead arousing the very wrong people) and comes off as trying too hard at the cost of dignity.

But, to now segue into the true subject of this post, one of the biggest things to sort of make me want to punch the shit out of Millar is how, constantly popping its head in his work, happens to be some hefty throwaway misogyny. Like, it’s hard to believe the dude who uses rape solely as a shock tactic with absolutely no regard or interest in its real-life impact is a self-proclaimed devout Catholic who refrains from swearing.

Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know, I’m not that into religion.

Anyway, for this reason it was a very joyous and pleasant shock when director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman (both of whom had also collaborated on a previous Millar adaptation Kick-Ass, which I also grew away from being a fan of – in general, Vaughn is a filmmaker I’m also not a fan of but more into that in a minute) were able to astoundingly refrain in Kingsman: The Secret Service from having any actual sexism, full-on contempt for its audience, or even any overt attempts to make controversy for controversy’s sake like Kick-Ass did well at (well, there is one very obvious jab to a certainly world-famous political figure, but hell, it was one of the few moments that actually made me laugh, even as a liberal-leaning lover of America). The movie did not have as dismissive an attitude towards women as expendable meat to be either fucked or killed like one would expect in a Millar work – as I discovered watching the movie how loosely the graphic novel The Secret Service was actually adhered to – and even took care to feature two… not well-dimensioned (since I don’t think any character is well-dimensioned in the film)… but role-breaking characters on either side of the central conflict without at all calling attention to the idea that “HEY THEY’S R GYALS!!!” portrayed by Sophie Cookson and Sofia Boutella (side-fact nobody will probably give a shit about, but Boutella, who is primarily a dancer – explaining just why she fit into her role in the film – is not only Algerian like *ahem* yours truly, but she’s also from the same neighborhood as my Dad, Bab el Oued).

Of course, this pleasantness ends the moment it throws out all of that dismissal of sexual commentary to add a really dumb and unfortunately popular sex joke right as the movie is about to conclude, presenting a literal princess character as a sex prize for the hero.

It was the moment I definitely decided I don’t like the damn film after being on the fence for so long.

But how about the movie that led up to that moment? Kingsman: The Secret Service tells that there is a London-based intelligence agency that dedicates itself to protecting the world all over while somehow being self-governed by its upper-class English men (sort of reminds me of how we tend to claim a particular nation continuously acts as world police). As we are introduced to them, we witness two of their ranks die in separate incidents seventeen years apart, the latter taking place in the present time and instigating an agency wide search for the next young man to take the deceased’s place. Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who was responsible for recruiting the first dead agent, ends up risking making the same mistake twice when he sees potential in the agent’s very own son, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), an intelligent and fit yet troubled lower class youth. In the meantime, while Eggsy undergoes training and testing to become “Lancelot” (the agents are given codenames based on Arthur’s knights), Hart is journeying about to investigate the second death – that of the previous “Lancelot” (a stupendously sleek cameo by Jack Davenport) – and finding its connections to telecommunications billionaire celebrity Richmond Valentine (an irritating caricature by Samuel L. Jackson).

If you could tell the movie was intended to be a comedy, you’re one ahead of me while I was actually watching the film. The popular consensus is that Vaughn and company were attempting to make a parody of the James Bond film series and having all these regular franchise moments subverted outright (such as how that final beat that I mentioned ended up swaying my opinion towards the film), but there’s some kind of doubt I have with it. Partly because Vaughn’s comedy doesn’t make me laugh at all. Yet humor is subjective, so that’s not going to cut why I don’t think the movie works as a parody of James Bond. Let me delve deeper:

Vaughn’s past films, particularly Layer Cake (which I actually really like) and X-Men: First Class (which I actually really hate) but in general of his pictures, act on a sort of suaveness that they feel they’ve already earned and tries to build on that. Cake gets away off of Craig’s brilliant performance and even Stardust has its ass covered in the knowing wit of Neil Gaiman’s writing, but X-Men: First Class fails on really supporting its attempts at coming off as a 1960s Espionage Flick (coming off instead as a particularly annoying episode of Skins) and Kick-Ass kind of immediately draws contempt out towards the comic book fans it ideally wants to attract as an audience. In the meantime, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a concept where the ingredients of the film actually give Vaughn all of that license to be suave, to be sleek – the characters are all hip in their own manner (unless you are Valentine) with defining attributes to each of them that are a bit more unique than “this guy is stern. this other guy isn’t.”, the costumes are poppy or reservedly sophisticated suit work, etc.

And Vaughn, like having been given the keys to this new fucking cool looking car, just relishes in this all the way through. Making moments like the “we can do it in the asshole” line seem a lot more dried of any humor. It feels like little room for actual satirical levity is given both by the fact that it seems to be the picture Vaughn has always wanted to make and from the fact that… well, any satire Vaughn would have wanted to say would be hurt by how the film isn’t that intelligent towards the themes it tries to talk about…

And oh does Kingsman: The Secret Service think it has something to talk about. It comes from the Kanye West school of attitudes towards classism but, even worse, it comes off as somewhat confused about its stance on classism to begin with. The focus of the film is that the upper class it exclusively represents as the main intellectual hub of the world is not entirely fit for the power it has and that the world should make way for a new type of gentleman based on merit rather than privilege. That is sort of undercut from the moment Eggsy uses his get-out-of-jail free card to make his way into Kingsman and even moreso when all of his opportunities are, perhaps deliberately, handed to him on a silver platter as chance, making him no differently privileged than Firth’s or Michael Caine’s characters. And then it gets a bit more worse when characters we are meant to know and love savagely massacre an entire building full of innocents – even in spite of making them an obvious parody of the Westboro Baptist Church, despicable and repugnant as they are – and expecting us to hoot and holler in joy alongside how energetic and exciting said battle scene is shot and cut. And then moving on to a climax implying most of the laymen are just savages waiting to be triggered into murdering each other, with an honestly way too sobering image of peril towards an infant who is probably a bit more lucky than a majority of infants in the world during that same moment who don’t have a door standing between them and their bloodthirsty assailants.

Yeah, it’s just not good at its preaching basically and ideally just wants to get on to the next frenetic action scene.

I do believe there is some things of worth to find within the film. We’ve got a pretty great co-lead performance by Colin Firth for the most part, who also seems to be relishing in his role but somehow mixing his excitement with impeccable impatience and just all-around obvious British-ness that stands as the poster child of taste. And then, there’s the fact that action scenes (even regrettably the Church massacre I mentioned – which has instantly lived-on along with the terrible sex joke as the most famous moments of the film) are not entirely bad in themselves. I was not impressed, but I have to say its climactic finale makes both enormous economic use of its conceptual complexity (involving hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, exploding heads, time-counting, etc.) and using cross-cutting effectively to keep track of its stake-heavy objectives and where our hero stands between his enemies and shaking us right into the fray of his battles. It’s a pretty fantastic multi-setpiece moment that becomes the only moment the film becomes a huge amount of fun for me with having Firth around to hem-hem.

But I stand by what I originally claimed when I hinted at this review a few days ago – I can understand if you think the movie is overall great for those action setpieces and its lead performances and even maybe how its structured as a story, but if you really think its substance as a plot or its themes are laudable you are possibly a shitty person. Sorry. It doesn’t seem Gentleman-ly to me to be a fan of muddled politics, sudden sexism, and guys who are obviously supposed to be making fun of Spike Lee with a lisp. And since being a Gentleman is all that this movie is about, it is a shame enough for me after watching it that it doesn’t succeed in practicing the ideals it attempts to preach.

But it is the closest Millar has gotten in a long while to being tolerable. Vaughn and Goldman should disregard him more often.