First things first. Whatever you see critics saying, they could not be more wrong about the inventive yet wholly outlandish sequel that I just witnessed in glorious FTX. (It’s like IMAX, but not as costly and just as bombastic.)
See, earlier this week, as the first reviews trickled in for Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, I found myself snickering to myself. I love myself a good popcorn movie, especially when you can’t find a single ounce of fun at the box office and movie-goers demand a film to lift their spirits. Back in 2015, just in time for Valentine’s Day, Vaughn unleashed a loose adaptation of Mark Millar’s The Secret Service. And the film was the perfect sliver of gratifying action, with a tinge of humor, that jolted the box office awake. So, let’s go back to this past Tuesday as I saw the first review to cross my path. (To save that reviewer shame, I won’t name the publication but I was disappointed.) The gentleman actually approached The Golden Circle as a serious straight-forward movie without doing his due diligence and leaving his brain at the door. His isn’t the only review that I perused that belittled the anticipated sequel either.
Let me get two things off my chest right away before I go any further. Number one, if you read any review that grades The Golden Circle as a sensible work of cinematic art, click away and find something else to read. Really though, and number two, I would like to know why 20th Century Fox didn’t drop this gem in our laps in the summer months. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is not only worth the long wait we’ve all endured but would have been the shot needed to brighten up those dour summer months, a senseless and hip sequel that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but aims to deliver the delirium that Vaughn crafts with his bonkers directing style, creating visceral and refreshing action sequences.
Oh, number three, right right. Take note, boys and girls. Taron Egerton makes one hell of a case to become Bond once he’s bit more weathered.
I’ve always been an admirer of Matthew Vaughn’s work. My first exposure to the writer/director began back with 2005’s Layer Cake, his debut behind the lens and the very film that landed Daniel Craig the coveted role of James Bond. Then Vaughn wowed audiences adapting another of Mark Millar’s works of comic art in Kick-Ass, a movie tonally opposite your standard Marvel Cinematic Universe with breathless thrills, perfectly timed laughs to pause the action, and over-the-top performances from actors who needed their chance to shine. The Golden Circle marks Vaughn’s first sequel to any property he’s dipped his toes into (Vaughn produced Kick-Ass 2 – nothing more), which speaks volumes to his dedication to the franchise. Vaughn, through two films thus far, has managed to take the basics of Millar’s comic and veer into a totally different direction, breathing life into characters we’ve seen before but not with as much care for crafting personality. Vaughn, alongside companion Jane Goldman, knows how to breath life into the mundane, taking your most familiar of situations and tossing your bearings on their backside. The duo aren’t afraid to make fun of the tropes and archetypes of the action genre. They’re also not afraid to play for laughs and keep you you tickled, even in the midst of an expansive set piece where the editing is damn focused, the thrills enough to make you wince in anticipation.
Though Vaughn and Goldman know how to weave rousing genre films, both are aware you just need to sit back and just enjoy what you’re watching without trying to complete algebraic calculations to make sense of the nonsensical. After all, you cannot walk into this movie asking yourself just how certain characters come back to life whilst others seemingly disappear altogether. Some plot threads feel like they’re stretched as thin as a stray thread while others seem to come and go like 747’s zooming in the sky well above us. (Worry not – we most likely can expect a batshit crazy director’s cut for home video. And maybe a whole different cut too.) The Golden Circle doesn’t operate in a world that’s realistic. What, you thought a mechanical forearm can just whir back to life and begin operating a computer terminal? Sure, go on, compute the logic in that query. Or ask yourself how two men in a gondola spiraling out of country on an Italian ski slope can manage to survive with just an electrical lasso and a parachute? Yeah, not in this realm which we live and breathe, no way. Vaughn has ingrained a sense of pure unadulterated imagination into the sequel, like a child playing in a massive sandbox and allowing his mind to take him on a fantastic voyage. For a movie such as this, especially one where the villain lurks in a 1950’s-inspired theme park in a Cambodian jungle, you need to check your rationality at the door and just immerse yourself in the spectacle orchestrated to tingle your senses silly. Don’t take The Golden Circle seriously – after all, this ain’t a weighty entry in the spy genre – and you’ll walk out gleaming with glee and delight.
A film like this isn’t going to attempt to build new bridges or trump any modern marvel. Vaughn and Goldman are fully aware that every sequel has the same sort of formula. Hell, the two have no shame in not only playing Egerton’s Eggsy as a what-if-Bond-was-a-young-hothead but also winking at the older Bond installments too. After all, Eggsy feeling concern over diddling with another woman in the field? Yeah, that’s absolutely an alternative view on what Double-oh Seven would do when bedding a gal. Another moment feels inspired by a set piece in 1979’s Moonraker, Bond propelled wildly with the highest G-forces offering debilitating effects on our hero. Vaughn and Goldman know what worked well in Kingsman was what audiences wanted more of. Audiences wanted to be cracked up more in the seats, smiles so wide their cheeks would lock in place. Audiences wanted more of the tight thrills and fisticuffs, the taut editing as our heroes are fending for their lives. The duo take what worked best before and merely amplify some of the more preposterous yet eccentric bits, crafting a satisfying follow-up that beckons you for a return trip to theaters.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how Vaughn attempts to upstage the church scene in Kingsman: The Secret Service? You know, the frenetic jaw-dropping set piece with Lynard Skynard’s Free Bird blaring wildly in the background? Yeah. Vaughn I feel successfully trounces that with another gripping frantic set piece, though in a much larger setting and with bigger stakes. Oh, and a better song choice too. You need to see it to believe it.
Though I truly wish the trailers hadn’t ruined the fact Colin Firth returns as the dapper Harry Hart. (I guess there was no way avoiding it once the dirt sheets reported from spoiler spies staking out the shooting sets.) Firth, along with Mark Strong returning as the technological wizard Merlin, gets to steal some of the spotlight away from Taron Egerton, the three thesps vying for equal screen time to grow their individual characters. Eggsy is still very much a hooligan at heart but excels as a spy, easily swatting bald faceless hired guns without breaking a sweat, while trying to work on his relationship with Tilde. Yes, the imprisoned princess who offered herself to Eggsy if he saved the world before – indeed, they live together and they’re in the meet-the-parents stage. Merlin still desires to work in the field as an agent himself, rather than being the mastermind behind the keyboard, though he continues to mentor Eggsy to round out the youth’s rough edges. And Harry, well, Harry’s alive and well, and living with the Statesmen in Kentucky at their whiskey bourbon distillery. (Anyone feeling thirsty for Jack Daniels right now? No? Maybe just me then.) Harry’s been saved, though retro grade amnesia has the master spook thinking he’s never joined the Royal Army and chased his passion. Indeed, Harry’s a lepidopterist, or so he believes, but Eggsy and Merlin need to wake up his old self to rally the tattered remnants of the Kingsmen together.
While the sequel is most definitely about the three men, there are actually some additions that make the sequel stand out from the 2015 original. Firstly, and no offense to Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore makes for a more delectable foe as the homesick drug kingpin who’s fashioned her jungle paradise into a dose of classic television nostalgia, with a street block that feels more Pleasantville than The Wire. Poppy, plopped away in Poppyland, comes off as a bored Martha Stewart who just wants to enjoy herself and her money, the only omnipresent god she idolizes, her sing-song melodic voice more menacing than most female villains. Though Channing Tatum turns up as Tequila in more of a guest role than co-star (see you in the sequel?), really we can shine a light on Pedro Pascal. In the absence of Harry, Pascal’s Southern charmed Whiskey comes off as a laid back and cool cowboy, a Texan counterpart of Harry’s Briton, who’s just as handy with a lasso as Harry is with an umbrella, effortlessly dishing out justice via six-shooter in a serenade of gun twirls and acrobatics. Also welcomed to the show are Halle Berry as Ginger, the American opposite of Merlin who too lusts for action with the elder Statesmen, whilst Jeff Bridges oozes grit and gruff as Champ, who feels like he was plucked from the 19th century, spitting can for booze and all.
But – and this comes out of the cornstalks in left field too, as he lists high in the cast list – Elton John? He may easily become the best unsung hero on the big screen this year, playing a more bombastic and surly version of himself, with some of the more capricious lines that elicit some of the strongest laughs of The Golden Circle.
One aspect that actually elevates The Golden Circle above its predecessor could actually be its timing. By timing, I mean that Vaughn’s sequel crashes into theaters just as our country continues its fascination with our Twitter In Chief. Now, I’m not sure how Vaughn and Goldman could look into the future as they planned the script. A crystal ball? A magical portal hidden in a closet? I’ve the faintest idea. However, their plot focuses on the war on drugs, with one side (Poppy Montgomery) just looking for a fair stake on her worldwide grip on the illegal drug market. On the flip side we have a President, played totally over the top by Bruce Greenwood (a far departure from his Captain Christopher Pike), who sees an opportunity with Poppy’s threats. Why try to work with her when he can actually wipe out the scum of the country and win the war of drugs? His President gleefully concocts how this will boost his image to the people of the United States, smirking with insanity, eyeing any way to push his agenda forward just so people can like him and boost his popularity. Hell, this President is more nefarious than the virtuous POTUS we’re accustomed to seeing in film. Now, maybe I saw this portrayal totally wrong, but I felt like this President is a major mocking of another public figure. I just can’t think of who it’d be. (Trump? Ah, yes, you’re quite correct.)
Listen – if you’ve seen Kingsman: The Secret Service and you were entertained in any fashion, then there’s no reason why you can’t have fun with Kingsman: The Golden Circle. The stakes, budget, laughs, and thrills are higher. Matthew Vaughn’s direction is the sharpest and wildest of his young career. The script is rip roaring and leaves you not only in stitches but stirring about your chair in the theater. The showing I chose for my first watch was laughing as much as I was, and that there tells me that audiences want this type of movie. You check your brain at the door, enjoy the movie as screened before you, and wander home not just feeling satisfied but talking up what you observed. To this day, and almost twenty years since I started reviewing movies, I never understood why some critics can be so pretentious and unable to just have…FUN. The Golden Circle follows the kind of formula needed to let loose with a movie. In a year where audiences tend to side against the major movers and shakers of the entertainment journalism industry, this is the type of popcorn movie saturated with so much liquid cheese you won’t need to concern yourself about coherence. Sit back, grab your popcorn, and enjoy this last hurrah of the summer season.
Reber’s Rating: A-