Matthew Vaughn’s Sophomore effort with the Kingsman franchise has some enormous shoes to fill, and before I even saw the movie I had a feeling that It would come up short. Such is a fact of life. Sequels either blow expectations out of the water because people expect a milquetoast repetition of the last film’s high points, or they turn out to be a milquetoast repetition of the last film’s high points. There is rarely any in-between. The Golden Circle does nothing to subvert or add anything new to the franchise (in terms of direction and storytelling) but the freshness of the original carries over to this one like a sort of contact high.
This film’s premise is one of apocalyptic proportions. Ambitious drug baroness Poppy (Julianne Moore) sends missiles out to kill the entire Kingsman organization, save for techie Merlin (Mark Strong) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who happened not to be at home. Their doomsday protocol is activated, and they join the Kentucky based Statesmen who operate out of a whiskey distillery. If the Kingsmen are stereotypically British, the Statesmen are stereotypically western american. They fight with six shooters, and whips; their hand grenades aren’t gold-plated lighters, they’re baseballs.
The problem with this catalytic narrative device (despite the fact that it means we don’t get to see Sophie Cookson anymore) is that it’s execution requires a certain grief and desire for revenge from Eggsy and Merlin. We don’t get that. Instead gearing up for a retaliation, they take shots of whiskey, before heading to the U.S. We see humorous demeanor, and heartfelt conversations between Eggsy and his girlfriend; not the anger or even distress that we should. As the final climax builds, everything feels surprisingly low-stakes. This is to be expected from a film of this genre, (or the genre it spins off of, depending on how you look at it) saving the world for Bond usually meant a few relaxing card games, more than a few vodka martinis, and at least one nocturnal conquest. This film however feels different. All of Eggsy’s closest friends are dead, and still he takes down an army of cartel henchman with the coolest of demeanors. Forget the world, one’s comrades are the most important stakes of all. This film seems to forget that.
What’s more, (again in terms of narrative) the film feels like it is a third installment, not the second. We barely know the Kingsmen, especially since most of them died in the last film, and suddenly they are all gone. How many avenues of storytelling have been erased by this? Vaughn’s and Jane Goldman’s writing assumes that the series mythos is built up to a point that a major plot move like this can happen, and be justified by the emotional response by the audience, but it doesn’t feel earned at all.
Another glaring issue is that this film was obviously a very political movie at one time. It’s normal for a blockbuster film such as this to undergo several tonal shifts in the writing process, but this isn’t so much a shift in tone as it is a tarp thrown over what seems to have once been a pretty flagrant political statement. Vaughn has admitted that he and Goldman had to “de-Trump” the plot regarding some jokes that were removed, and the movie’s production was delayed from June to three months later in september, ample time for some reshoots.
Think about it. A president character more concerned about his own image than the lives of millions, that makes a major decision that is in the worst interest of his people and eventually is impeached for it. You cannot tell me that this is not aimed at our current president. I’m not saying movies should be political; as a matter of fact I rather enjoy films that transcend governmental squabble, but if a story aims to take that leap, it must commit; this film falters at the edge of the cliff. It feels narratively castrated, and one gets a sense of wasted potential. Whatever statement would have been made would have been divisive, but films that ingratiate to the masses generally end up pleasing no one; this instance is no different.
As I mentioned before though, Matthew Vaughn is a fantastic director, and he continues to demonstrate this here. There are plenty of fairly satisfying action scenes with his signature cinematography that feature lassoes, six guns, and baseball bats. If there is anything missing, it is any kind of western style cinematography or fight sequencing. I really was hoping that we would get to see Matthew Vaughn’s take on a traditional cowboy standoff, but unfortunately the Statesmen pretty much just fight the same way as their British cousins.
There is some fantastic use of music in this film, lots of it involving Elton John (He has some hilariously profane cameos as well) and several uses of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. I wondered at first at the logic behind an establishing shot of a Kentucky whiskey plant as a song about West Virginia played, but the song grows in importance to the plot. We find out as the movie progresses that Merlin has a soft spot for western music, then that John Denver is his favorite artist, and then that “Country Roads” is his favorite song. When he must sacrifice his life for the sake of the mission, he goes out singing this song. As the score swells, and Mark Strong belts his chosen anthem at the top of his lungs. I can scarcely remember a time sitting in a theater, when I have felt so awestruck; so amazed at what this magnificent medium of image and sound can achieve. My jaw has not dropped like this since Darth Vader slashed through an army of rebels in last year’s Rogue One. In this moment, as I sat in the dark room with eyes glued to the screen, all the film’s transgressions were forgiven.