On The Golden Circle, drag-and-drop filmmaking, and the enduring relationship between cartoons and action movies
Kingsman: The Golden Circle 20th Century Fox
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic-book series Kingsman, by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons
Starring: Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Hanna Alström, Edward Holcroft, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood and Jeff Bridges
Rated R / 2 hours, 21 minutes / 2.39:1
September 22, 2017
(out of four)
If Kingsman: The Golden Circle had any courage, it would be a straight-up cartoon. Preferably hand-drawn. And 2D only.
Deep down, this is what it wants to be. It may even have a conscious inkling of it, but it's too committed to the disingenuous front of its own intended hipness to ever embrace the best version of itself.
By the time a presumed-dead foe showed up with a weaponized bionic arm, it had started to become clear that The Golden Circle was basically just a less intelligent, live-action version of Archer ... and then the remote-controlled robot guard dogs showed up (an exact plot point from the FX series' most recent season), making the comparison virtually unavoidable. The difference being that this movie is a version of Archer that takes its "cool" veneer all too seriously, instead of making fun of it. The tone of its masculinity is inseparable from its visual environment. Director Matthew Vaughn has replaced everything that used to be physically real (or at least credible) about action films - stuntwork, blood, choreography, editing - and replaced all of it with the most aggressively tacky CGI animation and compositing you'll find in modern filmmaking. If Vaughn could pull off what he's doing seamlessly, I suppose I couldn't really complain. But he makes it so obvious that his performers are being drag-and-dropped into place, composited together against waxy background effects. He makes it obvious that his "long takes" are stitched together by cheap-looking cuts (often by using push-ins, or by shooting his action too close in order to hide cuts whenever something or someone moves past the camera). At this point he's essentially a somewhat more competent version of McG. (Has anyone started calling him McV yet? Let us begin, then.)
The relationship between cartoons and action movies is implicit, and I don't mean to suggest that the flagrant unreality of Vaughn's Kingsman aesthetic is in and of itself the problem. I'm a huge champion, for example, of Stephen Chow's work, which embraces the visual elasticity of cartoon action, in some cases using direct Looney Tunes cues and references. Perhaps a better example would be Michael Davis' Shoot 'Em Up, which is so up-front about its cartoon logic that its main character chews on a carrot in the midst of all the gunfire (vegetable in one hand, pistol in the other) and deadpans, at one point, "What's up, doc?" Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - with its digitized fantasy landscapes, self-concious special effects, and clever use of the heightened reality of pixelated video-game imagery - memorably embraces, and celebrates, its various separations from the physical world.
But it seems those examples work because they successfully cross a line into live-action cartoon territory - or otherwise into territory so stylistically heightened that certain physical rules are irrelevant. (For example, I would cite something like Sin City, in which the boundaries between physical and digital were so extreme that they were explicitly part of the film's whole purpose.) The Golden Circle timidly splits the difference, always resisting its inner Chuck Jones. It's desperate to posture itself as some sort of above-it-all hotshot, begging for people to understand that it totally doesn't take itself too seriously and yet desperate to stake claim to its badass bonafides. Tonally, it is the Kevin Roberts of spy movies - "I'm Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and I'm the coolest bitch in town!" Aesthetically, it looks and behaves like Kung Fury, but without its chintzy amateurism being part of the joke. It severs the often thrilling action-movie relationship between real and impossible, delivering one moment of hideously fake "action" after another, lazily defaulting to CGI-manufactured choreography instead of trying to stage anything that might actually be physically impressive*. The Golden Circle fails, pitifully and completely, not just because it wants so badly to impress us but because it acts as though it is inherently impressive. This is a self-satisfied wink of a movie, preening like a teenage kid who just got to third base for the first time and suddenly thinks he's Wilt Chamberlain. This is Bill Paxton's True Lies character in movie form.
* Coming out the same month is Byung-gil Jung's The Villainess, which stages several complicated action sequences of elaborate choreography that, in terms of their physical impossibility, rival what The Golden Circle gives us. The difference is that the filmmakers behind The Villainess clearly did the work, intricately designing each sequence, including a long, "single-take" POV opening fight scene and this high-speed motorcycle sword fight. No doubt the film involved its own effects work and hidden cuts to pull its action off, but the difference between the two films is staggering. The Villainess' violence is borderline scary - its gravity real, its stuntwork sensational. It does in earnest what Kingsman only pretends to do.
If only it weren't so desperate to be cool. The cartoon that it subconsciously wants to be wouldn't worry about being cool. Attitude is a delicate thing. This all might come across as delirious slapstick silliness if it wiped off the jock-bro smirk. Its unwillingness to do so - its insistence on the cool-guy posturing - exposes the film as the toxic garbage that it is. The Golden Circle is 100 percent invested in its bullshit male fantasies, which is what makes its attempts at self-awareness so obnoxious. Like its predecessor, it seems to believe it's "sending up" globetrotting spy movies - but without ever actually commenting on them, or doing anything substantively different from them aside from cheapening the aesthetics. The first movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, underlined its muddled Bond farce by having the good guy and the bad guy break bread while discussing all the tricks and mechanics of good guys and bad guys in Bond movies (ho, ho). It was like Vaughn was trying to do Tarantino, while hoping his audience would be unfamiliar with Tarantino, and also while not having any real command of the genres he was ostensibly playing with. That scene made the audience aware that the movie was aware of its cinematic tradition ... except it had nothing to offer beyond a tongue-in-cheek grin. There's no wit to these movies whatsoever. McV certainly thinks there is, but there isn't. The lack of self-awareness about his films' very obvious absence of originality or audacity is probably the saddest thing about this movie. To watch The Golden Circle is to watch someone gleefully pat himself on the back for inventing ideas that have been around for decades. Ever met a guy who seems to believe that, whenever he has a thought or an opinion, it's the first time anyone's ever thought of it? Yeah, this is kinda like that.
The inexplicable popularity of the first movie apparently earned McV the right to go 141 minutes in his followup, which is full of irrelevant plot complications that don't hold up and bends over backwards to explain and justify every A-lister it wanted to get into the film - including Colin Firth, whose character died violently in the first film except wait no he didn't, here's a dumbass explanation for why he's somehow still alive, oh and also he has amnesia now. When Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) - a drug lord with a 1950s housewife persona living in a remote corner of the world in a self-created slice of mid-20th Century Americana - laces the world's recreational drugs with a slow-acting but lethal poison as a means of blackmailing the president into relaxing the drug laws, our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has to team up with Kingsman's American equivalent, Statesman - headlined by the likes of Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal, Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges - to find Poppy and put a stop to her devious plan.
As a character, Moore's secret weapon is her predilection for bad puns. She loves them. The highlight of the movie is the sheer delight she takes in delivering them. There's nothing more endearingly, willingly dorky than a self-consciously silly pun. And so it probably goes without saying that she is the clear standout - because she is exactly what the rest of the film is not.