22 September 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle review

I'm a pretty big fan of director Matthew Vaughn, but one thing that has always frustrated me is his reluctance to make sequels to his films. Not because his films desperately need sequels, but because the sequels end up being made anyway and never live up to his original film - Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past manages to waste all the potential that Vaughn's X-Men: First Class left the franchise with, and the less said about the abortive Kick-Ass 2, the better. So when it was announced that Vaughn would be returning to the director's chair for the sequel to his brilliant Kingsman: The Secret Service, I was genuinely excited - even if the world doesn't strictly need a second Kingsman film, at least this sequel had a decent chance of being good.

Instead, Kingsman: The Golden Circle quite firmly answers the question of why Vaughn doesn't make sequels.

Following an attack from a powerful drug cartel that devastates the Kingsman organisation, Kingsman: The Golden Circle follows Eggsy and Merlin as they travel to America in order to team-up with their American counterparts, the Statesman. It turns out that the Statesman have been looking after a somehow still alive Harry Hart since he was shot in the previous film, but the retrograde amnesia he's suffering from means he remembers nothing from his life as a Kingsman. Around the same time, the leader of the aforementioned drug cartel, the Americana-obsessed Poppy Adams, announces to the world that she's been poisoning her product, and won't release the antidote to her hundreds of millions of users around the world until the President of the USA ends the War on Drugs once and for all.

There's a lot going on, and that's just one of the many problems that Kingsman: The Golden Circle suffers from. Matthew Vaughn has admitted in interviews that if he'd known Kingsman was going to become a franchise then he wouldn't have killed off Harry Hart in the first film, but undoing that decision ends up costing a lot more than it's actually worth. We spend a lot of time jumping through hoops in order to explain and attempt to add some dramatic weight to Harry's return, but when all is said and done his character has no purpose in the film beyond merely establishing that he's still alive and available for future movies. Likewise, the Statesman that received so much attention during Kingsman: The Golden Circle's marketing campaign are ultimately little more than extended cameos, again only intended to set up future films and spin-offs and lacking any real purpose of their own. Channing Tatum may have been a focal point in trailers and posters, but I'm not over-exaggerating when I say that he, much like Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges, has literally nothing to do here, no real purpose within the story - I'm being deadly serious when I say that Elton John has more screentime than most of the Statesman combined, as well as being far more vital to the story.

And maybe that would have been forgivable if that underlying plot had been an interesting one, but it isn't. Unlike Kingsman: The Secret Service, which slowly doles out information about Richmond Valentine's plan to the audience as the Kingsman investigate (which in effect positions much of that film as a mystery), we're told the full extent and intent of Poppy Adams' plan early on in the film, and spend the rest of the time waiting for Eggsy and Merlin to catch up as they get distracted by the Statesman and the return of Harry. It's a pretty fundamental mishandling of an otherwise perfectly acceptable (albeit uninspired) plot that robs it of any urgency or intrigue it might have had, meaning that by the time the finale actually rolls around it all feels totally perfunctory, as if it may as well not even bother happening. Hell, if not for their names in the credits, I'd struggle to believe that this was actually written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman - on top of the problems I've already mentioned with Kingsman: The Golden Circle's screenplay, there's an extended sequence set at Glastonbury that feels like exactly the kind of thing that they'd usually cut out of one of Mark Millar's comic books, not something they'd knowingly add in.

And these problems are only made all the more damaging by the simple fact that the film-making of Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn't a patch on that of Kingsman: The Secret Service. In the past I've praised Vaughn's kinetic and playful action cinematography, his camera moving with and against the movement of his stars for emphasis - here that's taken to the nth degree, making everything feel artificial and weightless, both physically and dramatically. There are a few action scenes here that could and should have been all-timers, but in constantly attempting to top the now infamous church scene from the first film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle can't help but come across as trying far too hard. This is particularly noticeable during the film's opening and closing action sequences - they're at times virtually incomprehensible thanks to just how much swooping and diving the camera is doing, rapidly cutting from extreme close-up to extreme close-up in a way that ends up feeling far more reminiscent of a sequence of live-action comic book panels than it does a well shot and edited action scene.

But by far the biggest problem with Kingsman: The Golden Circle is that it lacks the kind of spirit, heart and creative drive that the first film had in droves. It's easy to forget that "fun spy flick" was only one part of what made Kingsman: The Secret Service so enjoyable - Eggsy's journey through the British class system and his subsequent rejection of the upper class was the real story of the film, working in tandem with Vaughn's own commentary on the ruling elite to create a surprisingly smart and subversive piece of satire. Kingsman: The Golden Circle replaces all that with... well, nothing at all really, beyond more action scenes, bigger set pieces and a complete lack of restraint. Kingsman: The Secret Service may have been silly at a surface level, but it used that silliness to smuggle some quite daring ideas about society into cinemas - Kingsman: The Golden Circle is just silly.

To be perfectly fair, there are moments and ideas within Kingsman: The Golden Circle that I enjoyed, and most of it still at least vaguely entertaining in a pretty empty way, but it's simply not enough to push this deeply disappointing sequel onto the right side of mediocrity by the time it ends. Ultimately, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a film that simply lacks any real reason to exist from a creative or artistic perspective, and is instead content to be nothing more than a substandard spy movie with a few more swear words than most - and as far as I'm concerned, Kingsman: The Secret Service deserves a far better sequel than that.

2 stars

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