I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.
Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.
With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.
The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.
There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.
The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.
There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.
The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.
With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.
Nate’s Grade: B-
In 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys went out late one night to ride their bikes. They were never seen alive again. The ensuing media circus that erupted lead to the conviction of three teenagers (The West Memphis Three) who many believed were innocent of these heinous crimes. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It was the basis of three stirring, powerful, galvanizing documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, two men credited with saving the West Memphis Three. Now after their release from prison, here comes Devil’s Knot, the first fictional film about the notorious case, Hollywood’s first crack at well-tread material. Is there anything new to be found?
Director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) and his screenwriters do a credible job of distilling the complicated case against the West Memphis Three to its basics, relying on a modulated tone that shies away from the sensationalism that dominated the case back in 1993. With the benefit of time and hindsight, it’s easy for the movie to point out the erroneous thinking of the prosecution, the jump to conclusions, and the Satanic panic engulfing the community of Arkansas. We’re told by a police officer that they knew this “Satanic cult stuff” would hit town; they’ve just been waiting for the day. To its credit, the movie does a fine job of calmly and objectively pointing out the deficiencies in the police and prosecution’s case against the West Memphis Three. We’re told that from the twelve hours of interrogation with Jessie Misskelley, only 40-some minutes was recorded. The obvious mistakes in his confession, as well as the police coaching and coaxing him to their desired response, is made readily apparent. There’s “witness” Vicki Hutchernson (Mireille Enos of the oft-canceled The Killing) who says she say chief suspect Damien in a Satanic ritual, but the film cuts back from the imaginary to Vicki watching a movie on TV, the real source of her descriptive flourishes. Egoyan’s direction has a calm, objective overview that is reverent and respectful of the dead and the bereaved. It’s rarely boring and the facts of this case are such that any retelling would be somewhat compelling.
So that brings me to the ultimate question: why even make a fictional movie about this subject? Four lengthy documentaries have covered the intricacies of the legal story, the breakdown in justice, and the personal toll on all sides of the crime. The only thing a fictional movie provides is: 1) the fun/distracting game of seeing relatively famous actors play the real-life people we’ve previously seen, and, 2) as an option for people who hate documentaries. If you’re one of those people who dislikes documentaries and doesn’t view them as “real movies,” then Devil’s Knot is for you, you dismissive filmgoer. Otherwise, literally everything was handled better in the Paradise Lost films. With the West Memphis Three thankfully out of prison, the omnipresent sense of urgency from the documentaries is now absent, replaced with a Monday morning quarterback sensibility pointing out all the obvious bias, judicial hypocrisy, and flaws of the case. And as anyone who has plowed through the powerful and addicting documentaries knows, there are plenty of flaws to point out for harsh scrutiny and incredulity. Movies have a long history of showing us an example of judicial injustice, and this is a prime example. However, Egoyan has put the emphasis of his movie on two outsiders rather than people in the center of this case. The West Memphis Three themselves are barely supporting actors in their own movie. I suppose the filmmakers may have wanted to present a different angle to the case since the Paradise Lost films showed the accused up close and personal. The construction of this plot just doesn’t work under the perspectives of Pam (Reese Witherspoon) and Ron (Colin Firth).
Ron serves as a pro-bono adviser to the defense, but that doesn’t mean he has the same access inside and outside the court. He can gather evidence on his own but really this guy is meant to be a fly-on-the-wall for the planning and frustration of all the legal roadblocks thrown at the defense. Is an added body in the room necessary? Could not one of the defense attorneys have provided the same purpose? Instead, he gets to grumble in the court and out about all the legal shenanigans going on to railroad innocent boys. He is essentially spelling it out to an audience. Pam has even less narrative purpose in the film. Her perspective makes sense early on as the mother of one of the murdered young children. Her panic, her worst nightmare come to life, it all makes for the stuff of major drama, which is why you’d imagine Witherspoon was drawn to the part. But once the case against the West Memphis Three gets going, Pam transforms into our Chief Reaction Shot Provider. Whenever a curious moment happens in court, we cut back to Pam and Witherspoon cocking her head in dawning curiosity and uncertainty. It’s as if she is meant to symbolically represent the entire community that was so fervent in their beliefs that these boys were guilty… until they heard the shaky case and the questionable experts put on the stand. So Pam and Ron end up becoming signals to the audience on how to feel and what to think. The movie doesn’t have enough faith in its audience to keep up with the minutia of the trail, or even the lawyers’ arguments, reducing a complex legal trial down to two nonessential characters nodding or shaking their heads.
I’ll admit that I had some interest watching the actors inhabit the roles, and there are scads of people involved in this story. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) does a valiant job showcasing the head-scratching decisions of the trail judge, David Burnett, and his slimy dismissive nature. Stephen Moyer (TV’s True Blood) is particularly infuriating as John Fogleman, chief prosecuting attorney. Seth Meriwether (Trouble with the Curve) looks eerily like his character, the young and accused Jason Baldwin, and he nails his moral convictions and gentle nature. Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) gets to do his troubled youth thing he does so well. Kevin Durand is an actor I normally enjoy but even he can’t do justice to John Mark Byers, step-father to one of the slain boys, and easily the most memorable figure in the Paradise Lost films; the man is so theatrical and larger-than-life, and yet Devil’s Knot treats him like a featured extra, with many of his speaking scenes off camera. There isn’t a bad actor in the extremely large cast, though Firth’s Southern accent isn’t the most refined. If the movie lacks much reason for existing, at least the bevy of good actors respectfully bringing new life to these people, good, bad, and many somewhere in between, is the one credible quality to this movie.
What to make of Devil’s Knot, an example of a decent, modulated, and well acted movie that ultimately has no reason to exist in the wake of three excellent documentaries (Paradise Lost) and one other pretty good one (West of Memphis). The ground has been covered. However, that doesn’t mean that a well-told story can’t be told again, with a different angle, with a different approach, but Devil’s Knot hinges on two characters serving as metaphorical barometers to teach the audience what to think and how to feel. Then there’s the matter that the trail covers the entire 114-minute running time. There’s so much more that happens after the initial trial, so much that the last two minutes of this movie are almost a nonstop barrage of text updating the audience on many of the post-trial developments, including the West Memphis Three being released from prison in 2011. The movie feels too limited; there is so much more depth here, to the details of the case, to the personalities and human drama, to the story after the trial. Egoyan and his cast and crew have made a respectful fictional version of these sensational events, but the problem is that they don’t do enough to justify their own film’s existence. Unless you have an irrational hatred for documentaries, just watch those instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The early frontiersmen lead difficult, backbreaking struggles as they migrated west to start anew. The pioneers had a perilous journey, and judging from Meek’s Cutoff, they had a hard time asking for directions. We follow a wagon train hopelessly lost in Eastern Oregon, blindly hoping they are getting ever closer to water. This awful movie feels about as adrift as the characters. Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) recreates pioneer life in obsequious detail, which means that for most of the interminably long 104 minutes we’re watching characters walk. And walk. And walk. Hey, now they’re doing something, nope back to walking. Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) has the most personality of this taciturn bunch, but I couldn’t have cared less about her lot. The movie is practically indignant about the narrative demands an audience has for its movies. This is not some arty examination on the treacherous nature of the human spirit, or some conceited claptrap like such. And in a growing trend of 2011 Sundance films, Meek’s Cutoff ends absurdly abrupt, just as the characters appeared at a crossroads and on the verge of mercifully doing something interesting. Instead, Reichardt ritualistically kills the movie on this spot, robbing the audience of any payoff after 104 minutes of fruitless and tiresome artistic masturbation. If I wanted to watch a recreation of frontier life without any regard to character or story, I’d watch the History Channel. This is an exasperating, maddening, crushingly boring movie that makes you feel trapped on that misbegotten wagon train.
Nate’s Grade: D