KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017)
Review by Dan Keohane
Let me start off by saying I was not a huge fan of the first film in this series, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014, based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons). Likely, I’d gone into that one with the wrong expectations. From what I’d seen in the trailers, I’d assumed the first KINGSMAN was a serious alternative to the always-popular spy thriller. It was, to a point, but was also rather goofy and took itself less seriously than one might expect in such a film. Three years later, with a trailer that seems to set better expectations, I sat down with buddies Dave and Scott to watch KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017), with a more leveled set of expectations. The movie would be full of action, and humor, and not take itself all that seriously.
That last point is key. This second entry in the KINGSMAN series doesn’t take much of anything in the spy genre seriously, from the technology, to the threat against the world from its newest evil-doer, to the action itself. Instead, director Matthew Vaughan (XMEN: FIRST CLASS, 2011), who also helmed the first KINGSMAN film, and co-writer Jane Goldman, set out again to have fun playing in the spy thriller sandbox, while entertaining the audience as much as possible.
And they succeeded. Seriously, watching KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE was the most fun I’ve had watching an action movie in a long time—barring, perhaps, the last two GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films, (2014, 2017). In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that KINGSMAN is to spy movies what GUARDIANS has been to its Marvel cousins. Funny, different, and a highly enjoyable ride.
Unlike James Bond or MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films, which use mostly live stunts, KINGSMAN is heavy on CGI—not that it looked like computer-generated action, but rather what happened most of the time was simply beyond the laws of earthly physics. That doesn’t matter. The opening scene’s car chase through London was so much fun, with its stunning over-the-top action, you simply don’t care.
A lot of the action is like this. I have never laughed so much, throughout a film, during these types of scenes, be they car chases or ridiculously-impossible fight sequences. I wasn’t laughing out of derision. On the contrary, I enjoyed them so much I simply had to laugh out loud. It was either that or pee myself.
Scott leaned over midway through and whispered something which I think encapsulates what KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE is all about. He said, “This is kind of an Austin Powers moment.” If the filmmakers had a mission statement for this movie, it might have been: “Mix crazy spy gadgets and larger-than-life bad guys from early Bond films, with the action of Jason Bourne and the absurdity of Austin Powers, into a meat grinder. Whatever oozes out of the other end will be our movie.” It’s a risk, to be sure, alternately mocking and celebrating its own genre. But in this case it worked.
So what’s this movie about? Well, bad guy Charlie (Edward Holcroft, VAMPIRE ACADEMY, 2014) from KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE has survived mostly-intact and now works for a new boss. He taps into the Kingsman computers and discovers all of their secret locations. Before the movie timer has hit 15 minutes, most of the original cast of the first film is dead, and all of its original sets destroyed in a dozen CGI fireballs. (Don’t get me wrong, the CGI when used, is very good, more often than not). Our hero, Eggsy (Taron Egerton, SING, 2016, EDDIE THE EAGLE, 2016) is the only surviving member, aside from his trusty tech man Merlin, played with quiet sincerity again by Mark Strong (THE IMITATION GAME, 2014). The duo discover the existence of an American counterpart to the Kingsmen, so they travel across the pond for help.
Whereas the Kingsman’s front company is a tailor of fine garments, the Yanks own one of the largest Bourbon producers in the country, Statesman Bourbon. Kingsman codenames all mirror King Arthur’s knights. The Statesmen use drink names. Led by Champagne (“Champ” for short, played with an eye-twinkle by everyone’s favorite gruff Midwesterner Jeff Bridges, playing his man clean-shaven for the first time since the 2009’s A DOG YEAR), agents Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) team up with Eggsy and Merlin and a suddenly-alive Harry Hart (Colin Firth – THE KING’S SPEECH, 2011, MAMMA MIA!, 2008). I’m not really giving anything away revealing this, since Harry is not only in every scene in the trailer, he’s on the poster, too! Seems the Statesmen saved Harry’s life off-screen using their own impossible technology after he was shot in the head at the end of the first film, though he now suffers from regressive amnesia.
Merlin’s American counterpart is a nerdy Halle Berry (CLOUD ATLAS, 2002, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, 2014), codenamed Ginger Ale, and the two become the pair behind the scenes keeping things running for our spies.
Pedro Pascal (GAME OF THRONES TV series) truly shines as Whiskey, the lasso-wielding cowboy who channels Burt Reynolds in his old SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) days for the entire movie. He smiles and whips his lasso and is a perfect American counterpart (not sure if the actor is American, but he certainly had a great time playing one) to his proper British cousins.
Another star in this already-blinding cast is the evil Poppy. Played by Julianne Moore (THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, 2014/2015), she eats up the screen as a homicidal kingpin of the worldwide drug cartel The Golden Circle, living in isolation in the Asian jungles. She has tainted most of the illegal drugs circulating in the world with a virus designed to kill the user in four stages. First, blue veins spreading across the infected’s skin. They soon become crazy and dance around. In the third stage the victim becomes paralyzed, eventually dying in a very bloody way. When millions of people around the world are infected, she tries to blackmail the US President (played with vile self-love by the wonderful Bruce Greenwood of STAR TREK, 2009) into legalizing all drugs in order the get the antidote. His response is brilliant (as a plot twist) and sets the stage for one of the most unique latter halves of an action film.
Poppy also has as a permanent captive in her jungle hideout: Elton John (played by Sir Elton John, who is utterly enjoying his role as, well, himself). John is forced to perform his hits for her over and over again. Though they wisely gave the famous singer only a few lines, he is not a minor character, and adds a major level of fun absurdity to the movie.
I won’t say much more about the plot. It twists and turns through various exotic locales, like all great international spy thrillers do. The action is almost non-stop, though Vaughan and Goldman give you enough breaks to eats a few handfuls of popcorn.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t a huge fan of the first film. One of my gripes was the way they used super-slow-motion at the peak of many action scenes, highlighting the actor twisting away from a punch or jumping over a speeding car. They do it constantly here, as well, though it didn’t bother me as much. Maybe I’ve come to expect it, but more likely I appreciated what they were doing more than last time around. It still can be annoying, and when it happens it breaks the illusion of the stunt (at that speed, it becomes obvious it’s an effect versus a stunt, which is a third-wall breech for the viewer).
KINGSMAN is an R-rated film, mostly for language (the F-word is used as often as “and” in this movie) and violence (as cartoony as it is most of the time). And they had to have an R rating to keep the squirm-inducing scene with Eggsy hiding a tracking bug inside someone’s naughty bits. Mind you—and this leads us to one more point—the latter scene is only squirm-inducing because of a side story involving Eggsy’s growing relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom, REAL HUMANS TV series), who’d given him an interesting incentive in the first film for saving the world. She is now his girlfriend, and is introducing him to her parents, the King and Queen of Sweden, when all hell breaks loose early in the film. It’s a good storyline throughout, and becomes an inadvertent incentive for him to save the world one more time.
This is something which impressed me with the writing. So often, when a girlfriend or love interest is attached to a hero, he/she eventually gets captured by the bad guy and used as bait to draw said hero into action (how many times ad nauseum did the SPIDER-MAN franchise do this?). Every time I thought KINGSMAN would fall into one of these tropes, it surprised me by veering off in an unexpected direction.
Like any sequel, it helps to be familiar with the first film to understand who some of the players are early on. I haven’t seen THE SECRET SERVICE in years, so I struggled to remember who some of them were in the opening scenes of THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (buddy Dave wisely watched it on Hulu before meeting us at the theater). Once things got going, however, it didn’t matter. They reset the rules for the Kingsman universe fairly quickly, introducing a whole new set of characters. I wondered if perhaps they were setting up for more sequels centered around the Statesmen. Maybe they are. We’ll see in a couple of years when the inevitable sequel to this sequel comes out.
So there we are. KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE was a very pleasant surprise. An action-packed, funny (at times very funny), no-holds-barred homage/satire to its own universe. If you go in knowing this, that it does not take itself seriously except around its own entertainment value, then you will have a fun night out at the movies.
I give it three knives.
© Copyright 2017 by Daniel G. Keohane
Dan Keohane gives KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE ~three knives.