Friday, October 13, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Kingsman: The Golden Circle was written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. It was directed by Matthew Vaughn. 

Goldman and Vaughn previously wrote Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First ClassThe Debt (along with Peter Straughan) and of course 2015's Kingsman: The Secret Service.. 

Goldman wrote The Woman In Black, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children and The Limehouse Golem solo.

Vaughn co-wrote X-Men: Days Of Future Past. He previously directed Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and Kingsman: The Secret Service. Whew! Got all that?

The Kingsman films are very loosely based on the The Secret Service comic by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Millar was the writer of the Wanted and Kick-Ass comics, both of which became feature films. Gibbons was co-writer and artist of the Watchmen graphic novel, which also got the movie treatment.

The film has a fairly comic book-y cast as well. Jeff Bridges previously starred in Iron Man and R.I.P.D., while Halle Berry was in the various X-Men films as well as Catwoman (!). Mark Strong previously starred in Kick-Ass and Green Lantern. I suppose at this point in our world it's tough to find an actor who hasn't been in a comic book movie.

Did you enjoy the plot of Kingsman: The Secret Service? Then you're in luck, because virtually every element and story beat from the first film is duplicated in The Golden CircleMain character Eggsy's is once again introduced to a whole new world of spies and high tech equipment (in America this time). There're more outlandish fight scenes and ridiculous action setpieces. There's another evil henchmen with a deadly prosthetic limb. And we get yet another campy comic book villain with a plan to take over the entire world by killing everyone in it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, I guess.

Kingsman: The Secret Service paid homage to early James Bond films and their various tropes, subverting them without resorting to outright mocking. Kingsman: The Golden Circle does the same thing, but naturally it can't quite capture the surprises and original tone of the first film.

As these are male-fantasy spy spoofs, it's a given that women need not apply (or at least must stand discreetly in the back, behind the men). Kingsman Agent Roxie is callously obliterated in the opening seconds of the film, while Statesman Agent Ginger Ale is relegated to her lab, never allowed to venture out on field missions. And to top it all off, Eggsy's girlfriend is a literal princess (!), who's given nothing to do but wring her hands and fret about her man, going so far as to turn to drugs to alleviate her stress! 

The only other female character of note is villain Poppy Adams, who wouldn't be out of place on the 1966 Batman TV show. C'mon, writers! I'm by no means a feminist, but even I thought the film's treatment of women as inconsequential props was a bit much.

The first film satirized British culture, skewering both the upper and lower classes. This one sets its sights squarely on the U.S., as Matthew Vaughn offers a warped take on Americans. The Statesmen are all exaggerated, macho cowboy types, and even villain Poppy Adams is a parody of the perfect 1950s TV housewife. I'm sure there must be a message there somewhere, even though I'm not quite sure what it is.

I still think it's odd that Eggsy is the ostensible star of these films, but actor Taron Egerton only gets third billing on the poster. I guess that's better than the NO billing he got on the previous film's poster, despite the fact that it prominently featured his face. Time for a new agent, stat!

The film clocks in at a whopping 141 minutes, but honestly it didn't feel that long. That said, it could stand a bit of trimming, especially the pointless and downright icky Glastonbury scenes.

For some reason the film's struggling here in the States, which surprises me, since the first film was a surprise box office hit. So far it's grossed just $81 million against its $104 million budget. Why the hell it cost that much, I have no idea, as the film didn't look any more spectacular than the first. Maybe Elton John demanded a huge paycheck to show up? It's done much better overseas, where it's made $173 million, for a worldwide total of $255 million. That officially makes it a moderate hit, insuring we'll see Part Three in a couple years.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
A year after the events of Kingsman: The Secret Service, Eggsy Unwin (played by Taron Egerton) is still working as a secret agent for the Kingsmen. He's now known as Galahad, the title formerly used by the late Harry Hart, his mentor who was killed in the first film. Eggsy's also living with Princess Tilde of Sweden, who he also met at the end of the previous movie.

As Eggsy leaves the Kingsman Tailor Shop (which of course is a front for the secret spy organization), he's ambushed by Charlie Hesketh and his henchmen. Charlie's a failed Kingsman recruit, who lost his arm and vocal chords during the first film. He now has a powerful bionic arm and an electronic voice box. There's a big, outlandish Bond-style car chase, as Eggsy and Charlie battle one another while speeding through the center of London. 

During the chase, Eggsy tears off Charlie's bionic arm (which must not have been attached very well!) and throws him from the car, where he lands in the street. The arm plops unnoticed into the back seat of Eggsy's car. He manages to elude the police and drives into a lake, where there's a secret underwater entrance to a Kingsman base.

Eggsy then rushes to Sweden, where he has an awkward dinner with Tilde and her parents, the King and Queen. While he's out of the country, Charlie's forgotten bionic arm springs to life, hacking into the Kingsman's database and locating all its secret bases. The arm launches a missile strike, destroying every Kingsman base and every agent in England, including Arthur (head of the organization) and Roxy Morton, who trained with Eggsy.

Eggsy returns to London and stands staring at the ruins of the shop, feeling survivor's guilt. He's approached by Merlin (played by Mark Strong), the only other surviving agent. Merlin activates the Doomsday Protocol, which is only to be used in cased of extreme emergency. The Protocol turns out to be a simple bottle of Kentucky bourbon. From this they figure out they need to travel to America.

Eggsy and Merline arrive at the Statesman Bourbon Distillery in Kentucky. After a tense encounter with security, they discover the Statesmen are the American version of the Kingsmen. They have their own massive secret base, funded solely by sales of their bourbon whiskey. 

The two meet with Champagne, aka "Champ" (played by Jeff Bridges) who introduces them to the rest of the crew: agents Tequila (played by Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (played by Pedro Pascal), along with tech whiz Ginger Ale (played by Halle Berry). Yeah, the Statesman agents all have beverage codenames, just like the way the Kingsmen were named after Arthurian characters.

Champ says he has a surprise for the two British agents, and Ginger takes them to a special room where they see Harry, aka Galahad (played by Colin Firth), is somehow still alive. Ginger says that after Richmond Valentine shot and killed Harry in the first film, she and Tequila were alerted to the disturbance and swooped down in a Statesman chopper within seconds. Ginger then administered a newly developed "Alpha Gel" head wound treatment. Amazingly it brought Harry back to life (!), minus his left eye and his memory. Ginger's hopeful Harry's memory will return in time, theorizing that a powerful recollection might jump start it.

Cut to Poppy Land, a bizarre little 1950s-themed community built in the heart of the Cambodian jungle. It's run by Poppy Adams (played by Julianne Moore), head of a nefarious international drug cartel. Poppy seems like a sickeningly sweet Martha Stewart type, but can instantly turn cold, ruthless or psychotic (So she's a normal woman then. IT'S A JOKE, PEOPLE!!!). She calls her organization the Golden Circle (Houston, we have a title!). Her compound houses hundreds of disposable grunts, a pair of deadly robotic dogs, and for some reason, Sir Elton John, who she forces to perform for her.

Back in Kentucky, Eggsy tries to trigger Harry's memories, but fails. Champ tells Eggsy they've been hunting the Golden Circle for years, but can't seem to find Poppy's HQ. He assigns Tequila as his partner, and orders them to find the hidden base. Just then Tequila's covered by a bizarre blue rash and rushed to a stasis pod in the Statesman med bay, where he spends the rest of the film. Champ then assigns Whiskey as Eggsy's new partner.

They learn that Charlie's ex-girlfriend Clara Von Gluckfberg (!) is attending the Glastonbury Festival in England. They fly there and Eggsy flirts with Clara, planting a tracking device in her... um, vagina. No, really! For some reason Eggsy calls Princess Tilde and tells her what he did, swearing it was all in the line of duty. Naturally this upsets her greatly, and she turns to drugs to relieve her pain (um... this is a member of a royal family, we're talking about, right?).

Poppy then takes over the airwaves and broadcasts a message, stating she's laced all her recreational drugs with a deadly toxin. Anyone taking her drugs will develop a blue rash (just like Tequila), followed by paranoia, paralysis and finally death. She claims she has the only antidote, and demonstrates it on Sir Elton John. She delivers an ultimatum to the President of the United States (thankfully played by Bruce Greenwood)— stop the War On Drugs, give her and her cartel full immunity to do whatever they want, and she'll send out a fleet of drones that will spray the antidote over the population.

The President sees this as a golden opportunity to rid America of its drug users. He pretends to go along with Poppy's demands, while secretly rounding up everyone infected with the toxin, intending to just let them die. Problem solved!

Eggsy comes up with a drastic plan to restore Harry's memories. As part of the Kingsman training process, every recruit is given a puppy and later required to shoot it (actually their guns are filled with blanks, to test their resolve). Eggsy brings in a dog that looks like Harry's beloved Mr. Pickle (who died of old age) and threatens to shoot it. The plan works, as Harry's traumatized by the dog and finally remembers who he is. 

The Statesmen use Clara's tracker to locate a factory in Italy that's manufacturing Poppy's antidote. Eggsy, Harry and Whiskey fly there, infiltrate the factory and steal a sample of the antidote. Charlie's inside the factory, and sends an army of Golden Circle henchmen after the agents. Eggsy and the others hide out in a mountain cabin, where they're soon surrounded. During the shootout, the antidote is destroyed. 

While they're pinned down, Harry secretly tells Eggsy he suspects Whiskey's a double agent. Eggsy doesn't believe him, assuming Harry's not quite his old self yet. Harry then brutally shoots Whiskey in the head, killing him. A horrified Eggsy says, "What the hell, man!" and uses the Alpha Gel treatment on Whiskey to bring him back to life. He realizes Harry's still not all there and can't be trusted. To make things even worse, Eggsy gets a call from Tilde, who's now infected with Poppy's toxin. And to top it all off, Charlie blows up the Italian factory, meaning they can't steal any more of the antidote.

Eggsy, Harry and Merlin then secretly follow Charlie to Poppy Land to steal more of the antidote for synthesis. As they're trudging through the jungle, Eggsy steps on a landmine surrounding the compound. Merlin freezes it, then shoves Eggsy off it and stands on it himself. He then creates a diversion by singing a touching rendition of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads, giving Eggsy and Harry a chance to sneak in. Once they're inside the compound, Merlin sets off the landmine, killing himself and dozens of Poppy's goons.

Inside Poppy Land, Eggsy encounters Charlie and they have an epic battle. Eggsy eventually kills Charlie (until he gets better and comes back in the third film). Harry's attacked by Poppy's robotic dogs, but is saved by the timely intervention of Elton John. 

Eggsy and Harry capture Poppy, along with the briefcase that controls the antidote drones. They demand she hand over the drone access code, but she refuses. Eggsy injects her with the toxin and asks again. She gives them the code and promptly dies, as Eggsy mistakenly gave her too high a dose. Welp, so much for the movie's villain, I guess!

Just as they're about to enter the code, Whiskey somehow shows up and stops them, proving Harry was right about him all along. He reveals he's not working with Poppy as they thought. Instead he's avenging the death of his wife and unborn son, who were killed by drug addicts. The three agents have another big setpiece battle, which ends when Eggsy and Harry throw Whiskey into Poppy's meat grinder. They enter the code and the drones release the toxin, saving millions of lives all over the world, including Tequila and Tilde.

The President is then impeached (oh, if only) for attempting to murder the world's drug "victims." Champ announces he's opening a new distillery in Scotland, which will double as the new Kingsman HQ. He offers Eggsy a job with the Statesmen, telling him he can become the new Whiskey. He politely declines, and Champ gives the title to Ginger Ale. Eggsy marries Princess Tilde, and Tequila moves to London to work for the new Kingsmen.

Thoughts:
• After Eggsy manages to lose Charlie, he's desperate to make it to the Kingsman's secret HQ before the cops catch him. Why's he so worried about the cops? Aren't they all on the same side? If he was stopped by them, couldn't he just show 'em his secret agent I.D. card? Are the Kingsman so top secret that not even the government knows they exist, and they want to keep it that way?

• I hated seeing the all the Kingsman agents and HQ blown up at the beginning of the movie, but I get why they did it. Eggy's Pygmalion storyline played itself out in the first film, so there was really nowhere else to go. The only real solution was to blow up everything and start over.

That said, I am royally pissed by the way The Golden Circle brutally and callously kills off Agent Roxy Morton, without a second thought. She was a big part of the first film, and I liked her character a lot. She deserved a better fate.

• As a test of loyalty, Poppy orders a new recruit named Angel to kill an older henchman and stuff his body into her diner's meat grinder. Angel reluctantly does so, and Poppy activates the machine. Pounds of fresh, ground meat then pours from the end of the grinder— but ONLY meat. There're no shreds of clothing or chunks of shoe leather. 

Apparently Poppy's machine has a special feature that somehow removes clothing before grinding up a body.

• Poppy has two robot guard dogs she calls "Bennie" and "Jet." Obviously this is in honor of her captive Elton John, who famously sang Bennie And The Jets.

• In Kingsman: The Secret Service, Harry has an epically awesome shootout inside a bigot-filled Kentucky church. In this film, the Statesmen's secret base is also located in Kentucky, and the agents all act like exaggerated, cartoonish Southerners.

Gosh, do you think director Matthew Vaughn (who was born in London) is trying to say something about Americans in these movies? Does he really believe we're all ignorant, drawling, gun-toting fundamentalists?

• The Golden Circle marks the third time Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore have worked together. They previously starred in The Big Lebowski and Seventh Son.

• Are you a fan of Channing Tatum? Are you looking forward to watching him in The Golden Circle? Eh, not so fast there! For some reason he appears for a few minutes early on, literally sits out the bulk of the movie, and shows up for a few seconds again at the end. His appearance amounts to little more than a cameo. 

The same goes for Jeff Bridges, whose appearance is also a glorified cameo.

• This film marks the third time that Bruce Greenwood has played President. He previously played JFK in Thirteen Days and another fictitious prez in National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Ironically, Greenwood is Canadian, so he can never be President in real life.


• Who knew Elton John was an action hero? He stole the show as he beat up a gang of henchmen while clad in an outlandish feathered outfit!

• In Kingsman: The Secret Service, Richmond Valentine shot Harry in the eye at point blank range. He got better thanks to the Statesmen, but he's still missing his left eye.

Does that seem odd? If the Statesmen have the technology to heal a bullet wound to the head (!), how hard could it be to whip up a bionic eye?

• Although I'm glad Harry's back as Galahad, his inevitable resurrection in this film completely undercuts his emotional exit in the first film. See, no one ever really dies in the Kingsman Universe, as they're always effortlessly brought back to life (except when the script says they can't be). 

When characters can be hand-wavingly resurrected with this much ease, then their temporary deaths have no meaning or emotional impact. Dying becomes just a minor inconvenience, no worse than a bad cold.

Fortunately the filmmakers had the good sense not to resurrect Merlin after his emotional death in this film. Hopefully he'll stay dead, and won't pop up somehow in the third film.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the third film in 2017 to feature John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads. The song popped up in Alien: Covenant and in Logan Lucky as well. In addition, the movie Free Fire prominently used Denver's You Fill Up My Senses

I dunno why, but for some reason, 2017 seems to be the year of John Denver!

• Poppy's master plan deserves some scrutiny. She resents the fact that the drugs she peddles are illegal, but cigarettes and alcohol aren't, which forces her to hide out in Cambodia. So she devises a scheme in which she'll lace all her drugs with a toxin that will kill anyone who uses them, unless the President grants her and her people full and permanent immunity.

I get the feeling Poppy hasn't thought this all the way through. What if the President says no to her ultimatum (as he secretly does in the movie)? She'd end up killing off her clientele. Who's gonna buy her illegal drugs when there are no more addicts? Doesn't seem like a very sound business model.

• This film has a VERY mixed message regarding America's War On Drugs and recreational drug use in general, and I'm still not clear on just what it's trying to say. On the one hand, it criticizes anyone (like the movie's President) who dares to speak ill of drug users. But then it turns around and says people shouldn't abuse drugs. 

So which is it, movie? Are drug users sinful and evil, or poor, innocent victims of circumstance?

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is, like many sequels, pretty much a remake of its predecessor, but with everything turned up to eleven. It callously kills off several old characters while unsurprisingly resurrecting a major one from the first film. It expands its world a bit, while handily setting up yet a third entry. I enjoyed the first film a lot (going so far as to see it twice in the theater!), but gave it a much too enthusiastic A-. I should have given it a at most. And that's what I'm giving this new one— a solid B.

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