I’m “biast” (con): hated the first film
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Here’s a phrase I do not recall from Kingsman: The Secret Service: “independent intelligence agency.” This is uttered in Kingsman: The Golden Circle in connection with the American counterpart to Kingsman: Statesman, to which we are introduced here. But what does that mean, precisely? It means they’re mercenary spies, doesn’t it? I have a vague recollection of Secret Service mentioning something about Kingsman being funded by the crown heads of Europe, which at least offers a veneer of governmental authority and fealty to law and order — though of course there are deeply problematic aspects to that as well; justice and order do not always sit side by side, and maintaining a status quo that the rich and aristocratic want is rife with… issues. But who funds Statesman? Secret Service suggests that the organization is backed up solely by sales of the Statesman-brand Kentucky bourbon that is the organization’s front in the same way that the Kingsman tailors is the British org’s front (though a nonfinancial one). But here’s a good basis for comparison: The most recent reported annual income for Jack Daniels, the clear inspiration for Statesman bourbon, was $121 million. Even if this represented profit, not revenue, it is nowhere near enough to fund a spy outfit with international operations.
So: Where is the money coming from, and why? Who benefits from having globetrotting spies at their beck and call? What the actual hell is going on here, and how are Kingsman and Statesman any different from the international drug cartel they join forces to go up against in Golden Circle, private money wielding its power in whatever the hell way it pleases?
I wish I could say that there is the slightest hint here that returning screenwriter and director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) appreciates that he is on the edge of making a satire about profoundly entrenched global interests all acting as one enormous self-reinforcing cabal. But this would not be true. (Vaughn again teams up with coscreenwriter Jane Goldman [The Limehouse Golem, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children], and again they are working from the graphic novel by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. But since that was limited to six issues, all of which were used up by the first movie, this one is wholly invented by Vaughn and Goldman. The atrocity of this one is all on them.) Vaughn seems to think that he is making a spoof of James Bond-type spy flicks, but he’s not doing that either. He is, instead, with full awareness, doubling down on Bond. The Bond franchise has been a full-on carnival of toxic masculinity — narcissism, sociopathy, misogyny, violence — but an unaware one, or unaware, at least, that its idea of masculinity was toxic rather than cool… until Daniel Craig took over the tux in 2006, and the character, and the series, got a lot more woke, and stepped back from the toxicity. If it wasn’t already patently clear with Secret Service, Golden Circle confirms it: Kingsman is aware of the hugely awful overtones of Bond (and the traditional spy genre in general) and has no interest in anything other than celebrating them. (This is a big problem in modern big-budget filmmaking: Male filmmakers — always men — think that they can condemn misogyny or narrow gender expectations or extreme violence or all of the above merely by engaging in over-the-top versions of them. They cannot.)
Let’s get this out of the way: Kingsman: The Golden Circle is bad, lazy, cheap storytelling entirely apart from its horrific overtones. It’s full of juvenile grossouts — a swim through a shit-drenched sewer; a cannibalistic burger — even as it pretends that it’s about gentlemanliness. Its action sequences are literally cartoonish, all CGI’ed mayhem in which it’s impossible to tell what’s going on, entirely devoid of the athleticism and robust grace that a really well choreographed and photographed punch-up or car chase can have. (There is kineticism here, but nothing actually thrilling.) It requires that its hero behave in the most stupidly unreasonable ways possible in order to keep the plot going. (On a secret mission to steal a desperately needed vial of macguffin serum, the protagonist takes only one when he could just as easily have grabbed a handful, and you can guess what happens next.)
There’s plenty more badness. The soundtrack is full of seemingly random pop and rock songs that are either shamefully on the nose or (much more often) horrendously unsuited to what is actually going on, including the least meaningful use of a John Denver tune in a year full of his music onscreen. The movie embarrasses some big names in supporting roles: Julianne Moore (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Freeheld) as the villain and Bruce Greenwood (Gold, Fathers & Daughters) as the US president are performing pantomime, not creating plausible characters. (Even over-the-top characters in a comic-book movie still have to work within their own stories.) Emily Watson (Everest, A Royal Night Out) as an advisor to the president and Elton John (The Road to El Dorado) as himself are terribly abused by Vaughn. Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water, Seventh Son) as the head of Statesman appears to have shown up on set for one day of shooting to phone in a couple of quick scenes that exist entirely apart from the rest of the story. And any Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky, The Lego Batman Movie) fans who turn out to see him as a Statesman agent are going to be very frustrated: he barely appears in the movie at all. (The only newcomers here who fare passably well are Pedro Pascal [The Great Wall (2017), Game of Thrones] as a Statesman operative and Halle Berry [X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Call] as Statesman’s Q, though the latter, being a girl, obviously doesn’t have much to do.)
But the truly offensive aspects of Golden Circle are the ones that knowingly embrace toxic masculinity as if it were the only possibility. As if gentlemanliness is itself a joke, a fantasy that doesn’t exist in the real world. As if any masculinity that isn’t toxic isn’t real. It’s a joke that, half the time, is pulled on its own hero, Kingsman agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton [Sing, Eddie the Eagle], an intriguing young actor who is not well used by this franchise). It plays for laughs the notion that Eggsy could be well educated and knowledgeable in a wide range of sophisticated subjects, such as classical art and global economics, and then “admits” that the only way that could be true is if Eggsy is cheating, getting information fed to him through a communication device. It scoffs at his grief over the death of his mentor, Harry (Colin Firth: Bridget Jones’s Baby, Before I Go to Sleep), who was shot point-blank in the head in Secret Service, by having him return from seeming death. (Harry was rescued by Statesman, which conveniently has technology that allows people to survive being shot point-blank in the head.) The film scoffs at Harry, who is suffering from amnesia and has reverted to his university-aged self, when he studied butterflies, snorting at this unmanly display of interest in pretty insects, so inappropriate in a virile secret agent.
Golden Circle is a veritable stew of revolting attitudes about men, women, the narrow expectations we are held to, and the (presumed) futility of ever escaping them. Vaughn holds up for ridicule Eggsy’s own tender feelings for Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström): he is now living with her in London after saving her (and the rest of the world) at the end of Secret Service. Recall: she’s the one who offered him, then a complete stranger, anal sex as a reward for saving the world (he accepted). This sequel turns that vile attempt at humor into a throwaway here: it appears that her standard good-bye these days as he goes off to his world-saving work is to remind him what he’ll receive as a prize when he gets home. But all of that is mere ugly prelude to Vaughn and Goldman’s nasty new misogynist contrivance: Eggsy is required to plant a tracking device on a woman (Poppy Delevingne: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Pirate Radio) in order to follow her to the location of her bad-guy boyfriend. The tracking device must be planted in her vagina. (I want to barf just typing this.) So not only does this scenario involve a kind of rape, as clearly the woman cannot be asked for her consent to insert this device into her body, but it also involves tormenting Eggsy, because he really does not want to engage in the sexual activity that this task demands, such is his devotion to Tilde. Vaughn has made it plain that the primary purpose and the primary “humor” behind his tortured concoction of this scene is Eggsy’s discomfort, not the violation of this woman, who is literally reduced to a vagina: we get a full-on gynecological perspective as Eggsy does the deed. (But don’t worry! Tilde is mollified over Eggsy’s cheating by a proposal of marriage. Because what else could a woman want from a man?)
Vaughn thinks he’s being edgy and unconventional, but absolutely everything he vomits onto the screen here — including the idea that a man’s feelings about being a rapist are more important than the woman he has raped — is tediously mainstream, if louder and more obnoxious than usual. Please, someone save us from male artists who think they are dangerously, uniquely innovative. We’ve had quite enough of them.