Sunday, September 24, 2017

Spy-Fi Spectacle - Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Reviewed

Given the number of sequels that have been made, it's astonishing that the list of those that are equal or perhaps even better than their predecessor is still as short as it is. Off the top of my head, I would start the list with The Godfather Part II, followed by Wrath of Khan, Aliens, and The Dark Knight. There are others, certainly, but it is not a lengthy list.

Despite having most of the same players in place (director, writer, cast) and a novel enough premise, Kingsman: The Golden Circle does not make that illustrious list. It is, however, a tremendous action-adventure cut from much the same cloth as the first one; in fact, so much so, that may be what hinders it in becoming excellent.

The movie starts out with the independent intelligence organization Kingsman under attack, and effectively removed from the board early on. Their upending comes at the hand of Poppy, one of the most delightfully over-the-top supervillains ever to threaten the world, portrayed with unabashed joy by Julianne Moore.

From her secret lair deep in the jungle, which she has cleverly made out to look like a slice of 1950s Americana, (a la Fordlandia), she executes her plan for personal wealth and power by... well, you know what, it is hardly important, and more fun to discover yourself. Suffice to say that Moore's presence onscreen owes just as much to Martha Stewart as it does to Ernst Stavros Blofeld or Dr. No and is just tremendously fun.

Taron Egerton's Eggsy is on hand to save the day, obviously, and the filmmakers have followed through from the end of the first movie in some unexpected ways. Those of you, like me, who cheered the absence of a romantic subplot in Kingsman: The Secret Service should be prepared to see the new Galahad with someone in his life, but for the most part, this is handled pretty well. On the downside though, this doesn't have nearly as much storytelling heft as the the Pygmalion-like tutelage from the first film which transforms Eggsy from a near-hopeless, dole-seeking chav to a dapper gentleman spy.

This time around, the internal struggle is not class-based; instead, we are treated to a comparison between the methodology and styles of the preternaturally British Kingsmen and their American cousins, the Statesmen. Not tailors but liquor purveyors and not in bespoke suits but Stetsons, blue jeans and denim jackets (wait, isn't that actually a Canadian tuxedo?) , the louder, brasher, bolder Statesmen like Agents Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) stand out in sharp relief from their English counterparts, despite the shared affectations for all manner of spy gadgetry.

There is a more substantive conflict that arises out of Poppy's maniacal plot, which deals with our perception of those who use illegal drugs, which is not only how she accumulated her wealth and power, but also the lynchpin by which she intends to hold the world hostage. Not everyone is agreed on the correct course of action, which adds some internal tension and some grist for the debating mill, but is no substitute for Eggsy's trans-classist victory from the first film

Although it mightn't be as deep a film and the emotional notes not quite as sharp, The Golden Circle has a lot going for it. First of all, director Matthew Vaughn has lost none of his zeal for directing slam-bang action sequences, and now he has even more toys to play with: six-shooters, lassos and electro-bullwhips join the weaponized wristwatch and tactical umbrella from before. The admittedly ludicrous fights are a joy to behold, and despite the ceaseless camera movements and unconventional angles Vaughn adores, you always have a clear idea what is going on, even if what happens next transpires so quickly it has already happened by the time you perceive him setting it up. His imaginative framing continues to be one of the best elements of his movies.

I know Vaughn wanted to keep the return of Harry Hart (Colin Firth) a surprise, but the marketing fellows put paid to that despite his wishes, so let me just say that his appearance in this movie is handled appropriately, with a great deal of distance between the man he was then and the man he is in this film.

Is Hart's return, Poppy's plot, Eggsy's romance, any of it, really, at all plausible? Well, almost certainly yes, once you remember that The Golden Circle is a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book, which drew its inspiration from a legendarily popular series of spy films, which were in turn adapted from a series of far more seriously-minded novels from post-war England. All of these antecedents have played fairly fast and loose with their interpretation of reality, but none of them have leaned into the outlandishness of the gentleman spy genre and blended some of the best elements of both spy films and superhero films the way Kingsman has.

Abandoning verisimilitude for a far more entertaining larger-than-life ouvre, The Golden Circle continues to plow ahead through that same fertile ground that The Secret Service did, albeit perhaps not to the same depth. Vaughn and company have provided us with a fantastic bit of entertainment for the fall which tickles the same fancies as its predecessor, and knows exactly what kind of outlandish escapism it (mostly) is.

And while it doesn't really tread a lot of new ground and in completely unlikely to win over anyone who didn't like the precursor, fans of the first film are very likely to enjoy themselves almost as much as they did the last time they watched the world get saved.

Oh, and one of the best celebrity cameos ever, in my opinion.

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