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-
Director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is my favorite James Bond movie. It’s everything you’d want in a spy thriller while charting its own edgy direction. It’s a combination of Bond and My Fair Lady, and I never knew how brilliant that combination could be until Vaughn got his hands on the graphic novel source material. Newcomer Taron Egerton lays on plenty of star-making charm as a spy-in-training under the guidance of a dapper gentleman brawler Colin Firth. The spy hijinks are fun and stylish but what Vaughn does just about better than any other big-budget filmmaker is pack his movie with payoffs small and large so that the end result is a dizzying rush of audience satisfaction. The action sequences are exhilarating, in particular a frenzied church massacre made to appear as a single take. I never would have thought of the tweedy Firth as an action hero, but he sure plays the part well. There’s also an awesome villainous henchwoman who has blades for legs, and the film makes fine use of this unique killing apparatus. Kingsman explodes with attitude, wit, dark surprises, and knowing nods to its genre forbearers. Vaughn is a filmmaker that has become a trusted brand. He has an innate ability to fully utilize the studio money at his disposal to create daringly entertaining movies that walk to their own stylish beat. This is a cocksure adrenaline shot of entertainment that left me begging for more.
Nate’s Grade: A
Marvel’s X-Men franchise had some serious damage it needed to undo. The once mighty superhero series had been harmed by that age-old foe – bad sequels. The collective stink from 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and the 2009 Wolverine debacle, the franchise had lost some serious luster. While the recovery was not nearly as deep and cataclysmic as what the Batman franchise had to deal with in the wake of 1997’s Batman and Robin, a film that flirted with salting the earth, the X-Men needed some kind of facelift. Enter director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust), the man who was going to save the series back in 2006 when original director Bryan Singer flew away to direct a different man in tights. Vaughn was originally tapped to direct Last Stand but he dropped out and was replaced by the hack Brett Ratner (Rush Hour). Thus began the slide toward mediocrity. Now Vaughn is back to tidy up unfinished business, taking the series back to its historical roots in the 1960s. It seems that a trip back in time was just what was needed to make the X-Men fresh.
Back in 1944, Erik Lehnsherr is a prisoner in a Polish concentration camp when Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) discovers the young boy’s great potential. When enraged, Erik can control anything metallic. In upstate New York at the same time, young Charles Xavier discovers a young shape shifter named Raven. She’s blue from head to toe and afraid. They’re delighted to find one another, fearing they were the only ones “different” in the world, children of the “atomic age.” All three of these people are headed for a collision course. In 1963, Charles (James McAvoy) has become an Oxford professor, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) has followed him to England, and Erik (Michael Fassbender) has been systematically hunting down the Nazis responsible for his pain and suffering. Dr. Schmidt has now become Sebastian Shaw, a younger-looking playboy with the intent to push the Soviets and Americans to nuclear war. Shaw has his own team of mutant henchmen, including telepath Emma Frost (January Jones, proving once again that she can really only ever be good as Betty Drapier) who walks around in white lingerie the whole movie. Together with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Charles and Erik assemble their own team of young mutants to thwart Shaw.
Similar to 2009’s Star Trek, this film provides the opportunity to reboot a franchise by going back in time. It transports the series back to the beginning of the friendship between Charles and Erik, and spends the next 130 minutes filling in the rationale for the “why” of their varying personal philosophies. By dialing back, we’re able to play around with 40 years of back-story and histories. While we know the end results, that these two giants will become enemies, that Charles will lose the ability to walk, and that Raven/Mystique will eventually side with Erik, that doesn’t mean there isn’t pleasure to be had in watching the journey. There are all sorts of self-aware in-jokes for fans and a few nifty cameos that left me howling with glee. The script, credited to Vaughn, his writing partner Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass), and four others, smartly moves the film forward; no scene seems at a waste. Even better, the film strikes a tone that manages to take its real-world implications seriously (nuclear brinksmanship, Holocaust, and fighting for equality and acceptance) without diminishing its popcorn thrills.
As a summer movie, X-Men: First Class has enough razzle-dazzle to compliment its intelligent social pontification. Vaughn and his screenwriters have composed action sequences that neatly incorporate the mutant abilities of its subjects while building the tension and smartly utilizing the contours of geography. I hate action sequences that don’t play to the potential of location and subject. An evil teleporter (Jason Flemyng) finds a fiendishly clever way to dispatch 20 CIA agents. Magneto efficiently takes out former Nazis residing in Argentina in one chilling sequence (“I’m Frankenstein’s monster,” he tells one man). Shaw makes for an actual formidable opponent for our fledgling heroes. The personal connection he has with Erik, on top of Bacon’s devilish glimmer of villainy, makes Shaw a strong antagonist that the audience can rally against. Vaughn has a splendid reveal with Shaw. Back when he was a Nazi doctor, he asks young Erik to move a coin with his abilities. The shots consist entirely from one side of his office, showcasing it to be a bookish study. Then when Shaw calls the Nazi guards to bring in Erik’s mother for a little more direct incentive, the camera flips position. We see the opposite side of the room, a medical station on the other side of large glass panels. Inside is a torturous display of medical cutlery. It’s a fantastic reveal that kicks up the tension while adding to the terrifying character of Shaw. The action highpoint, a mutant vs. mutant battle amidst the Soviet and American naval fleets, provides plenty of parallel action to follow that keeps the movie alive and kicking.
The film mixes a frothy, James Bond-esque spy thriller feel in production design and whatever-goes plot savvy, but then recomposes real life events as mutant enhanced. Alert the history textbooks, because the Nazi scientists experimented on mutant children and that mutants averted World War III. Some will chafe at the alternative history approach, but I find it to be more interesting, suspenseful, and a natural fit with the overall Cold War paranoia feel of the setting. Melding the X-Men into history makes for a more intellectually stimulating adventure, tipping its hat at various historical revisions that payoff as small rewards for a well-informed audience. I’m not saying that the movie is like Noam Chomsky’s take on X-Men by any means, but it’s certainly the most heady film in the series since the departure of Bryan Singer (he serves as producer on this flick). Indeed, this is a rather talky X-Men adventure with plenty of philosophical debates and speeches. But then it’s got naked women in blue too. But you see, it’s not just naked women in blue, it’s that a naked woman in blue can become a political statement – man!
And it’s on that note I’d like to say a few words. Mutants have always been a central metaphor for the oppressed, be they Jews, African-Americans, homosexuals, whatever minority group you’d like to slot in. That’s been one of the secrets to the continued success of Marvel’s flagship series – anybody can identify with the fear of being judged, feared, and despised because of who you are. That’s why the character of Raven/Mystique, short of Magneto, is the most fascinating character in the movie. Her true form, scaly and blue, is what keeps her feeling like an outcast. She doesn’t have an invisible power like her surrogate big brother, Charles. She constantly disguises herself in order to fit in, albeit her disguise is the alluring natural figure of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone). “Mutant and proud,” she says in disdain when she stares at her bluish reflection in the mirror. It is through Erik hat she begins to believe in this mantra, gaining pride that “blue is beautiful” and she need not even wear clothes to cover who she is up (millions of teen boys celebrate this decision and wish it had become more widespread in application). Raven/Mystique is the figure torn between the two philosophies argued by Charles and Erik. She is the central figure that has to struggle with reality vs. idealism. It’s also a little funny that a movie piggybacking the civil rights movement of the 60s (mutant rights!) also trades in the casual misogyny of the 1960s (women in lingerie as outfits, regularly practiced sexism). I suppose some of this is intentional. I guess the women’s movement will be saved for a sequel.
While the retro setting ties in nicely with the series’ core metaphor about being different/disenfranchised, the dichotomy of ideas presented by Charles and Erik are not given equal measure. That’s because, quite frankly, Erik is a much more powerfully interesting character and more sympathetic than a rich kid who can read people’s minds. Charles Xavier and Magneto have always represented a comic book version of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when it came to the ideas of integration, equality, and representation. Charles believes that mutants should assimilate and that humanity will accept in time; peaceful and hidden. Magneto, on the other hand, takes a more militant stance and feels that mutants need not hide who they are out of fear or shame, that they are the dominant species and should not be threatened by the weaker Homo sapiens. But where X-Men: First Class runs into some trouble is that the ideological deck is completely stacked in Magneto’s favor. He’s the one who suffered through concentration camps, Nazi experimentation; he’s seen the worst of what mankind of capable of. He’s a tormented man seeking vengeance, which is character motivation that is easy for an audience to fall behind. Then, even after the mutants save mankind’s bacon during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the first person who tells me this is a spoiler gets a history book thrown at them), they still get treated as the enemy. Almost everything that plays out onscreen aligns with Magneto’s ideology, which makes it hard not to be on Team Magneto as the movie draws to a close. I suppose the film utilizes our knowledge of future events to counterbalance Magneto’s pessimistic world philosophy.
The other issue that lends more credibility to Magneto than perhaps the filmmakers were hoping for is the fact that he’s the most interesting character in the movie, easily. The X-kids are a pretty bland bunch of boys and gals. This is the first class the filmmakers chose? Did they have recruiting violations at the school? Havok (Lucas Till), a goy who can shoot energy beams, Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), a guy who can scream loudly and fly, somehow, Angel (Zoe Kravitz), a gal with fairy wings and an acid tongue, and then Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a guy who… adapts? Darwin’s power is so obtuse to explain, it’s no wonder he doesn’t last long in service to his country (it’s a bit tacky that when one character says “slavery” the edits have to cut back to the one black mutant for a reaction shot). Each one of these teenagers has a different reaction to their powers. Some are ashamed, some are afraid, others proud or apathetic. But they are all singularly uninteresting. Once they establish their power, they become less a character and just another piece on a game board to be positioned. And Lenny Kravitz’s kid in fairy wings? Plus she spits little fireballs? I’m sorry but that should have been the first thing removed from rewrites. This crew makes it sure that we empathize even more with Magneto as he refines his powers to reach his personal vengeance, which is the film’s pre-designed payoff. We’re not really looking for the team to band together, which they inevitably do, but we’re awaiting that splash of vengeance. And when it does come, it’s satisfying, stylish, and dramatically fitting (“At the count of three, I’m going to move the coin.”). The fact that the movie still has like 15 minutes of material afterward is almost inconsequential.
Vaughn certainly delivers the spectacle, it’s the actors that produce the real fireworks. This is a vehicle for McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) and Fassbender (Ingloruious Basterds, Jane Eyre), and both men provide admirable gravitas. McAvoy’s role offers a more jocular performance, showing Charles to be a bit of a lady’s man in his younger years, harnessing his telepathic powers to bed him some beauties. Then again, as I’ve been told from my female friends, looking like McAvoy will certainly also help matters. But this is Fassbender’s show. He has a chilly intensity to him, rather than just being cold and indifferent like January Jones (she is really poor, I’m sorry). His performance captivates you from the start, and his slow-burning hatred consumes the man. It’s a dramatically rich performance given the material. After being discriminated against for being a Jew, than a mutant, he has to sell that his character, haunted and rage-filled, would ironically follow the same social Darwinism that his Nazi tormentors evoked. And Fassbender sells every bit of an iconic Marvel villain coming into his destiny. However, his Irish accent slips out in the film’s final reel, and I’m really curious why the studio couldn’t have shelled a few bucks to fix that with ADR. Rushed for time, or revealing that Magneto has unheard of Irish lineage?
Going back in time manages to open up all sorts of possibilities for the X-Men franchise. There could be a whole slew of sequels that play around with the rich, complex back stories of the X-Men without having to serve the aging stars of the original trilogy. Vaughn keeps the proceedings amazingly fluid, stylish without being overtaken by visual artifice, and the swinging 60s provides a groovy backdrop. The action delivers when needed, the smart script doesn’t downplay the clash of ideas to go along with the clash of fists, and the special effects are relatively up to snuff as summer escapism goes. The movie is not without its misses, including a cadre of lackluster junior mutants. But Vaughn has re-energized a flagging franchise and given hope for a future (past?). In the pantheon of X movies, I’d place X-Men: First Class as an equal to X2, the best in the series. It may not be at the head of the class, but this superhero flick earns is stripes with a solid effort and strong potential. Just get rid of January Jones when it comes time for the age of feminism.
Nate’s Grade: A