Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the third film Matthew Vaughn has adapted from a comic-book series written by Mark Millar, following Kick-Ass in 2010 and Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2014. And they all have a similar modus operandi. The idea is that they take an established pulp genre – superheroes in the case of Kick-Ass, super-spies in the case of the Kingsman films – and then expose it for the sadistic, adolescent fantasy it is by throwing in lots of swearing, lots more gore, and a general air of anything-goes, over-the-top B-movie trashiness. It’s not a bad idea: there are moments in each film when the irreverence and nastiness make you spit out your popcorn.
It’s a depressing depiction of British feebleness
But how often can we be shocked by the same shock tactics? The zany, colourful, over-long sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service has Vaughn’s usual limb-lopping and F-word dropping, his patented hyper-stylised fight scenes and his typically smirking attitude towards sex. But none of these elements is surprising any more. Instead of making us think, “Wow, that’s a change from the last Batman/James Bond film,” they make us think, “Wow, that isn’t a change from the last Kingsman film.” It’s not that The Golden Circle isn’t fun, in its self-satisfied and juvenile way. It’s just that it isn’t doing anything new. And without that thrilling sense that Vaughn is breaking all the rules, it becomes a lot harder to overlook the production’s fundamental amateurishness.
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Like most sequels to blockbuster hits, The Golden Circle is effectively a rehash of its predecessor, but with bigger guest stars and more exotic locations. In the first film, a dead-end council-estate kid called Eggsy (likeable Taron Egerton) was recruited by a top-secret, high-tech espionage organisation, Kingsman. (It always annoyed me that they weren’t called “Kingsmen”, plural, but that’s another matter.) This time, the team is wiped out in the opening minutes, so Eggsy and his Q-like colleague Merlin (Mark Strong) have to beg for help from their wealthier, better equipped American counterparts, Statesman, who operate from beneath a Kentucky whiskey distillery.
It’s a depressing depiction of British feebleness, considering that Vaughn himself is British, but maybe the transatlantic grovelling was necessary to lure in such an impressive American cast. Vaughn has persuaded such A-listers as Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum and Halle Berry to play Statesman’s agents, even though none of them is given anything worthwhile to do. Pedro Pascal – as a rootin’ tootin’, lasso-throwing cowboy spy – has more screen-time than all three of them put together, despite being absent from the posters. And he is soon pushed aside to make room for Colin Firth’s senior Kingsman, Harry, who was killed in the last film, and whose revival takes up far too many scenes in the sequel.
Meanwhile, another arch-villain has another masterplan with an interesting undercurrent of political commentary. In The Secret Service, Samuel L Jackson’s IT-boffin wanted to kill off most of the human race in order to combat climate change. And now, in The Golden Circle, Julianne Moore’s smiley drug dealer, Poppy, threatens to poison millions of people worldwide if the US Government doesn’t legalise all narcotics. Incidentally, she is so obsessed by shiny 1950s Americana that she has built a Grease-inspired town, deep in the Cambodian rainforest, complete with bowling alley, beauty parlour and burger bar: disobedient flunkies are her quarter-pounders’ main ingredient.
It’s a nicely incongruous piece of retro design, but the aforementioned amateurishness is all too apparent. For one thing, the CGI is so shoddy that Poppy’s headquarters could have been in a video game 10 years ago. For another thing, her love of the 1950s is wholly irrelevant to her nefarious scheme. And for another, Vaughn and his co-writer, Jane Goldman, sometimes forget about the 1950s theme altogether. It’s all very well for Poppy to have kidnapped Elton John (a self-parodying cameo), for instance, but why does she dress him in 1970s stage costumes, and instruct him to play songs by Gershwin, who died in 1937? Wouldn’t some Jerry Lee Lewis numbers have been more appropriate?
I assume that Vaughn and Goldman would laugh off such nit-picking. The Golden Circle is proudly cartoonish, after all. Given that its villain has a pair of robot attack dogs, while one of its heroes recovers from being shot in the eye at point-blank range, it’s probably a mistake to take any of it seriously. But the fact is that the sloppiness – the cheapo visual effects, the preposterous stunts, the under-developed concepts and the under-used characters – would only really be forgivable if the film was flouting conventions, whereas The Golden Circle is the first of Vaughn and Goldman’s collaborations to do exactly what you expect it to.
Kingsman fans will still enjoy its foul-mouthed humour and splashy gore, of course, but they’ll have to admit that it is a betrayal of the Kingsman concept. Instead of trying to be different from other spy movies, The Golden Circle is trying – and trying very hard – to be like the one Vaughn made three years ago. It’s going round in circles.
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