Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle is demonstrably worse than Kingsman: The Secret Service, but there’s no single reason why. It does almost everything a little bit worse than the original, a problem multiplied by an already creeping sense of sequelitis rusting the shiny charm off the original. By pulling some tricks the first one did (e.g. unceremoniously killing central characters) they all feel cheaper and less memorable. And there’s no capstone scene to leave you buzzing like the church fight scene in The Secret Service.

There’s a flip side to this, though; a silver lining. Maybe it’s just the bottom-of-the-barrel expectations from friends and review scores. I was genuinely expecting a catastrophe. Instead, it’s… well, a catastrophe, but a wacky one whose flaws border on fascinating. It takes some swings and has an astringent aftertaste that feels, somehow, more flavorful than the slick original. And I’ll go further: This slightly-baffling and off-putting second chapter, in fact, does a couple things better than the original.

Let’s start with one of those improvements: I really did not like Samuel L. Jackson as a lisping Steve Jobs supervillain in The Secret Service, but I am totally smitten with Julianne Moore’s acerbic turn as a charming drug lord here. She is menacing and funny, and she has a phenomenal lair in her death trap American Graffiti cafe. Moore being a better pseudo-Bond villain than Jackson is unintuitive, but really makes sense once you see it.

The Kingsman series is very proud about being very English, and if there’s a thematic thread you can tie between these first two in the series, it comes from glorifying England and dumping on the US: They essentially argue that England’s stiff-lip nobility may butt heads with pub-crawling working class, but it still forms a pleasant and stable cultural equilibrium. On the other hand, American hospitality and geniality is a front for the toxic and capitalistic greed ruining this world and changing too fast. The progressive zealots — like a duplicitous agent of the competing American spy agency “Statesmen” — cause more trouble than they’re worth.

Alas, the plotting on this film is kind of wacko, so it doesn’t quite click. (And a few of the images are really wacko. Did we really need a CGI rendering of a gadget implanting inside a vagina?) The film picks up a year after the first movie, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) now a well-established Kingsman agent and in a serious relationship with the Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom). Poppy Adams (Moore) is spreading a super-drug she created in the hopes of creating ultimate demand for an antidote she can charge any amount for.

We’re less than a third into the movie with a plot twist that wipes out a significant portion of the secondary characters, including Eggsy’s co-agent Roxy (Sophie Cookson), with whom he had some chemistry and I had been anticipating a love triangle. Ironically, these abrupt deaths are a crowbar to the shins of the movie’s sense of stakes — though it sounds tense and exciting that anyone can die at any moment in the series, it ultimately works the opposite. So many side characters have died by the end of this movie that it prevents attachment to any one of them. They drop like flies and get replaced with new characters too quickly. Here, we get an injection into the ensemble from a Kingsmen-parallel American spy agency called Statesmen including Pedro Pascal, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, and Jeff Bridges.

The conflict is driven around the super-drug Poppy is spreading, and the symptoms of it causes are compellingly visual (as opposed to the usual “makes you cough, get pale, and lie down” that we usually see as sickness symptoms in movies). This super-drug gives you creepy-ass blue veins, then you get stuck rigid like a statue, then you eventually die.

The film takes a circuitous path to its conclusion, twisting all sorts of ways with brutal pacing. This is the most backbreaking flaw of the entire film: The Secret Service felt generously padded at 129 minutes, but not gratuitously so, because the training story framework allowed it to flow pretty quickly, and both climactic sequences had great payoffs. The Golden Circle, though, is a punishing 141 minutes, as gross a failure of Nate’s Casablanca Test as I can remember watching in months.

Making the runtime bloat even worse is that the story isn’t even that substantial. Most of the memorable stuff comes from unhinged details on the fringes: the human flesh burger that Poppy cooks in her diner lair, Mark Strong singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver as he sacrifices himself to a land mine, Pedro Pascal with a goofy southern accent, Elton John smashing henchmen in his piano while dressed like a peacock, Collin Firth’s single-lens sunglasses, etc.

But in spite of it’s movie-ruining flaws, I like The Golden Circle a lot more than I anticipated. It’s got an unrefined kookiness to it, as if we’re finally getting the loose, weird, unfiltered impulses of Matthew Vaughn. It’s not a good film (I’m likely overrating this by at least one point) but it offers some perverse satisfaction of a blockbuster gone off the rails. It’s the same sensation as when I compulsively poke a bruise or pick a scab. In other words, it’s weird in a way blockbusters like this usually aren’t, and I appreciate that. If Matthew Vaughn had cut out a half hour, hell, I might have even recommend it.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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2 replies on “Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)”

It’s still kind of dizzying, to me, because I liked Kingsman, how much worse this came off, but it shows how metastable Kingsman is, just right on the edge of being awful itself, and somehow keeping itself from falling into the abyss must’ve been one the reasons I was so impressed with it. But The Golden Circle does practically exactly the same things, just without that poise: it’s like if Steven Spielberg did a sequel to E.T. and it was still Mac and Me.

Your warning is at least a little bit responsible for me not hating this, because I went in expecting a dogshit bad time and instead found some stuff perversely fun. (Meanwhile, most people I know call the first Kingsman peak Vaughn, which probably tempered my reaction a little. I need to go in blinder on these things.) Kingsman movies are definitely a delicate juggling act, so when most things are a little off, it makes a huge difference. And then there’s The King’s Man, where everything is a lot off…

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