An Atomic Moo Movie Review by the Numbers
There was a moment in the espionage action comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service where the mission goes from bad to worse, and field agent Eggsy asks his mission handler whether or not he is taking the piss. I found myself wondering the same thing when watching the movie’s sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle. In my review of the first installment, I criticised the first flick for being tonally inconsistent, as it featured both dramatic character development and over-the-top action but was unable to transition between the two convincingly. The Golden Circle opts to do away with character development at all and only focus on the ridiculous, preventing it from being as strong as its predecessor on nearly as many levels.
Opening with a balls-to-the-windshield car chase/fist fight action scene, The Golden Circle establishes from the get-go the professional relationship (as well as good friendship) between dapper suit-wearing field agent Eggsy and tech guy/mission handler Merlin, both returning from the previous adventure. I was surprised how many characters returned from the previous adventure, to be honest. There’s even at least one flashback to The Secret Service, too. You can follow the story of the sequel if you haven’t seen the first one, even if some elements might not make sense (like Eggsy dating a literal Swedish princess).
Not returning from the first movie is the villain (flashback notwithstanding). This time, there is a new villain, albeit one who maintains the level of camp as Sam Jackson’s evil tech billionaire with a lisp. The every-lovely Julianne Moore stars as Ms. Poppy, the world’s wealthiest businesswoman who also happens to be the world’s most ruthless drug lord. Operating out of a secret jungle compound styled after Happy Days’ and American Graffiti’s 1950s golden-age America, Poppy launches an all-out attack on the Kingsmen, which you might have already seen in the marketing material.
Surviving Kingsmen Eggsy and Merlin follow what few leads they have and find themselves in the U.S.A., where they meet their American equivalents, the Statesmen, an outfit of cowboy-themed super spies lead by none other than the legendary Jeff Bridges, who’s always seen with a drink in hand, or a cigar, or both. Together, they embark on a globe-trotting adventure of finding clues and kicking ass. But can even the combined might of the Kingsmen and the Statesmen be enough to stop the dastardly Ms. Poppy, whose ultimatum to the U.S. president might doom the entire world? And does the American president even care enough about the well being of his own people to bother to save hundreds of millions of them in the first place?
Much like the first movie, there is plenty of action, and lots of good music (although there is a seriously missed opportunity to feature Kenny Loggins’ seminal Danger Zone), including a fight scene set to Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. Julianne Moore’s two guard dogs are even named Benny and Jet. Why all the Elton John? Well, Sir Elton stars as himself, and steals every scene he’s in.
Speaking of actors, there is a great cast in The Golden Circle… for the most part. Returning characters from the first movie continue to be as well-acted as they were last time, but the rest is uneven. Julianne Moore hams it up delectably, but her considerable acting talents don’t get showcased by the campy character – the same is true of the first movie’s villain, Valentine, played by Samuel L. MF Jackson.
Jeff Bridges gets less screen time than Elton John, and even though he is always seen with a drink, it’s never a White Russian. He never even shares a scene with Julianne Moore. How can you cast these two icons together in the same comedy and not make any The Big Lebowski references? Other than the fact that Julianne Moore’s compound has a bowling alley in it, I couldn’t find a single Lebowski reference. I think it’s a shame they missed the opportunity, but, well, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.
On the topic of the Statesman actors, none of them really stand out in a good way. It’s bad enough that the entire Statesman organization exists only as a cowboy-themed big-hat-wearing lever-action-rifle-brandishing revolver-slinging good-ol’-boy all-American parody of the Kingsmen, but even that’s not enough. The Statesman who gets the most screen time wields a retractable electric lasso and looks like Norm MacDonald’s Burt Reynolds character from back when Saturday Night Live used to be good.
The other Statesman field agent we get to see is unfortunately played by the punchable-faced Channing Tatum, a man born with a verb instead of a first name. He plays a generic, forgettable cowboy, much like he did in The Hateful Eight. He gets written out of The Golden Circle, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as it was in The Hateful Eight.
Mark Strong’s character, Merlin the Kingsman tech guy, has a Statesman equivalent, regrettably played by the always-awful Halle Berry, who somehow has made a return from obscurity, as if her appearances in those X-Men movies, that terrible Bond flick, and that Catwoman mistake were somehow not enough reasons to keep her away from a camera again. Her character, the Statesman tech known as Ginger,is nauseatingly generic, and Berry brings nothing to the character in the way that Mark Strong brings personality to Merlin. Ginger wants more than anything to be a Statesman field agent, but the audience has no reason to root for her. Is she even qualified for field agent work? Can she hold her own in ridiculous Saturday-morning-cartoon fights? Maybe, but it’s never shown that she can, and even if she could, she’s so forgettable a character that I don’t even care.
Much like in Equilibrium, Emily Watson’s character is the only voice of reason in a world gone mad. Even though she only has a bit role, her character is undoubtedly one of the greatest heroes of the entire movie, and exactly the kind of hero our real-life world so desperately needs. That being said, much like most of the Statesman cast, casting Watson feels like little more than stunt casting. Familiar faces regrettably do not do much in the movie. Jeff Bridges is painfully underused, and Michael Gambon only has a line or two. Very few of the characters feel important, even if they have grand titles, like Jeff Bridges, Commander-in-Chief of the Statesmen, who hardly has any screen time.
The first Kingsman movie actually had dramatic moments. The audience was made to care that Sam Jackson planned to kill a ton of innocent civilians. Through good writing, good acting, character development, and clever plot twists, the world of The Secret Service felt fleshed out, and the people who lived in it had weight to their lives. This is not the case for The Golden Circle. Almost every death is trivial in the entire movie. The audience is not made to care about anyone but a handful of characters. When hundreds of millions of lives are at stake, only one or two casualties feel like they matter at all. Most of the Kingsman agents are killed off in a spectacle of excessive CGI, at which point Merlin points out that the survivors have no time to grieve, and the issue of the organization being almost entirely murdered is largely forgotten for the rest of the movie, never to be satisfyingly addressed.
Even worse, The Golden Circle actively works to remove the gravity of one of the most important character deaths from the first movie. A specific death was so crucial to Eggsy’s character development in his previous adventure has been effortlessly undone with a convenient explanation that is so badly written, so poorly thought out, that it feels like something out of a Metal Gear game. It even involves an eye patch and nanomachines. The Golden Circle doesn’t care enough to respect its characters, and often feels like it does not respect its audience. Which might explain the overuse of CGI.
The Golden Circle’s CGI isn’t bad, exactly; it’s just not very good and makes itself very obvious. There’s no subtly to speak of. Combine the subpar CGI with overuse of simulated camera shake effects, excessively-fast cutting, and a terribly low framerate, and you have an action movie whose action is very hard to follow. The occasional moments of slow-motion feel forced, call too much attention to themselves, and would not have been necessary at all had the action scenes been better choreographed and shot better. In a post-John Wick world, there is no excuse for this.
I liked the first one, but the more I think about Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the less the sequel seems worthwhile. It discards the elements that made the first one great, focuses too much on flashy, showboaty fluff that makes for good trailers, lacks any impactful character development, and gives no reason to get invested in the characters or world unless you already are from the first movie and perhaps the comic that inspired it. Occasionally-sharp writing and often-sharp dressing can’t save this exercise in Hollywood excess.
This movie review is provided by Atomic Moo’s designated Canadian, Baron Hershel J. Septimus Percival Numbers, MCCCXXXVIIth Lord of Girthforshire, Esq., who is a distinguished gentleman in every conceivable way. His opinions are facts.