“KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE”
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” caught many by surprise when it was released in 2014. On the surface it’s an updated, cheekier riff on Bond — the British gentleman spy agency gets an upgrade when a lower-class Cockney lad is recruited into the ranks, utilizing his street smarts and brute force. It was shockingly violent, soundtracked to classic pop hits, and the one-two punch of director Matthew Vaughn’s dizzying camera work and star Taron Egerton’s crinkly-eyed charm pummeled audiences into thinking it was all “fun.”
But the sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” really shows the bad seams on this franchise. In upping the ante we can see that this whole affair is just a truly cynical, painfully retrograde pastiche of meaningless pop nostalgia wrapped around a nonsensical plot, sprinkled with a dusting of repulsive sexism. Fun.
In “Golden Circle,” Kingsman agent Eggsy (Egerton) seemingly has it all together as a gentleman spy, cozied up with his Swedish princess girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), before it all falls apart at the hands of a kooky entrepreneur villain much as it did in the first film. This time our disruptor of industry is Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, stooping far below her standard), an intrepid drug lord camped out in a retro neon ’50s paradise deep in the Cambodian jungle. She decides to hold the world hostage by infecting drug users with a mysterious virus in order to push through legalization of all drugs.
Since the U.S. president (Bruce Greenwood) decides to play chicken with Poppy, only the private security force of the Kingsmen, with an assist from the Kentucky-based Statesmen, can bring Poppy’s evil plot down. Like the Kingsmen, the Statemen are total stereotypes of their nation, with Agents Tequila (Channing Tatum, criminally underused), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and Champagne (Jeff Bridges) sporting dude-ranch-fresh cowboy duds and swinging lassos.
“Kingsman” is based on the comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, while Vaughn and Jane Goldman wrote the screenplays for both “Secret Service” and “Golden Circle.” Yes, a female writer can have a hand in scripting a screenplay that dehumanizes women, who are merely helpers and sex objects here, subject to horrible degradation. Even Poppy, in her Stepford wife fantasy, lets men do the dirty work. One particularly egregious sequence takes the leering, invasive camera gaze to a whole new level, and just might feel like an actual violation for female-bodied audience members. To add insult to the affair, Halle Berry’s character, Ginger Ale, makes a supportive quip afterward.
Claiming fun fantasy and escapism doesn’t excuse the ugly behavior of “Kingsman.” Words matter. Images matter. When you take a step back from all the bombast, Vaughn and Goldman’s worldview as seen through the lens of “Kingsman” is so incredibly bleak. Their opinion of Americans is dismal: either aw-shucks cowboys or homophobic, hateful rednecks. The suave Brits are too cool to care about any death or carnage they leave in their wake, and so there are no meaningful stakes.
In this world nothing matters. This film is so flippant, it espouses a particularly potent strain of candy-colored nihilism, where every nostalgic cultural symbol becomes lethal. Is Vaughn making a point about death by nostalgia? Nah, this movie isn’t smart enough. It’s just a gas-guzzling combustion engine fueled by the shallowest of pop references, strung together in an incredibly stupid plot, peppered with adolescent body humor. It’s pointless pablum. Pass.