4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Thought everything was supposed to be bigger in America” — Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Kingsman: The Secret Service was a hit in 2015—against some fairly stiff competition all told, as that was the year of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Avengers: The Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7, Minions, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, Spectre, and tons more popular movies.

But it still stood out enough for a sequel to be greenlit.

From the beginning Matthew Vaughn said he wanted Colin Firth back for the sequel, even though his Harry Hart was shot in the head in The Secret Service. Several possibilities abounded, from his twin to copious use of flashbacks, but in the end we learn that Harry was saved by Statesman, the U.S. equivalent to Kingsman.

In addition to bringing back Firth, Vaughn brought back Taron Egerton in the lead role of Eggsy, Mark Strong as Merlin, Edward Holcroft as Charlie, Sophie Cookson as Roxy/Lancelot, and Hanna Alström as Princess Tilde.

Introduced in this film—and set up for a spinoff—are the men and women of Statesman, who are based in a distillery in Kentucky (obviously meant to stand in for Jim Beam). The leader is Champagne, played by Jeff Bridges, with Channing Tatum and Pedro Pascal as field agents Tequila and Whiskey, respectively, while Halle Berry plays Ginger Ale, who has the Merlin role of tech support.

The villain of the piece is Poppy Adams, played by Julianne Moore as the Stepford Drug Lord, her secret lair a tribute to 1950s kitsch. Keith Allen and Tom Benedict Knight play two of her ill-fated employees.

We also get Michael Gambon as the new Arthur, Björn Granath (in his final film role before his death in early 2017) and Lena Endre as the King and Queen of Sweden, Bruce Greenwood as the President of the United States, Emily Watson as his chief of staff, and Poppy Delevingne as Clara.

Most entertainingly, though, is Elton John, appearing as himself. In the world of Kingsman, John was believed killed during the Valentine incident, but that was a cover story by Poppy, who kidnapped him and forces him to perform concerts just for her and her staff. What’s especially amusing is that two years after this film, Egerton himself would play John in Rocketman (for which Vaughn was one of the producers).

 

“Intelligent, ambitious, ruthless, lacks empathy, superficial charm. All the elements of a great CEO. Or a psychopath.”

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Written by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Produced by Matthew Vaughn, David Reid, and Adam Bohling
Original release date: September 22, 2017

Screenshot: Twentieth Century Fox

Eggsy leaves the Kingsman Tailor Shop to take a car home, when he’s attacked by Charlie Hesketh, one of the failed candidates from The Secret Service. He’s now got a prosthetic arm, and he and Eggsy fight in the car, while also being chased by three cars with more thugs driving. The driver is killed in the melee, but Eggsy manages to rip Charlie’s prosthetic from his shoulder and eventually is given the okay to fire missiles on the chasing cars once they’re in Hyde Park away from civilians.

Eggsy drives the car into the water to a Kingsman base, then leaves via a sewer to go home. He and Princess Tilde—who are living in Galahad’s former flat—are going to a birthday party for Eggsy’s mate Brandon. They celebrate, and Eggsy expresses concern that he’s going to Sweden to have dinner with Tilde’s parents, who are also the King and Queen of Sweden. Brandon agrees to flat-sit and dog-sit for Eggsy while he’s out of the country.

Eggsy meets with Roxy—the new Lancelot—and the new Arthur, as well as Merlin. It turns out Charlie survived the Valentine incident because when Eggsy shocked him during their fight, it short-circuited his implant. His arm still blew off, but his head didn’t explode, so he was the only survivor among Valentine’s followers.

Also the three guys chasing him have been scrubbed from the world—no fingerprints, no DNA in the system, no recognizable faces. They also all have tattoos made of solid gold in the shape of a circle. This matches with rumors they’ve heard of a drug ring called the Golden Circle.

As it happens, the Golden Circle is run by Poppy Adams, who runs most of the world’s illegal drug trade. She thinks it’s absurd that she’s the most successful businessperson in the world, but has to hide in a forest in Cambodia because her business is technically illegal. She has made that forest over into a 1950s theme park, and in the diner she meets a new hire—Angel—and her first order to him is to kill the man who recruited him, who has committed a never-specified no-no. Angel puts his recruiter through the meat grinder, and Poppy immediately makes him into a cheeseburger and makes Angel eat it (right after he gets his tattoo and his prints scraped off).

Eggsy goes to dinner with Swedish royalty. He recalls his training on how to eat in posh company from Harry, and also is able to answer every question the king puts to him thanks to Roxy feeding him answers in his earpiece.

At Eggsy’s flat, Brandon accidentally enters the office and discovers the armory. He also activates a pair of glasses, so he’s in contact with Eggsy, who barely stops him from blowing the place up with a lighter.

But then missiles attack all the Kingsman locations: the mansion in the country, the tailor shop, Eggsy’s flat, and more. Only two Kingsmen survive: Merlin, whose address wasn’t in the database, and Eggsy, who was in Sweden. Apparently, Charlie’s prosthetic hacked the database and gave the locations of all Kingsman properties to the Golden Circle. (Merlin is bitterly amused that the tech support’s address wasn’t considered important enough to include.)

They engage the doomsday protocol, which involves going to a safe in a wall in a bunker, where they find a bottle of Statesman whiskey. They have no idea what that’s there for, so they drink a toast to Arthur, Roxy, and their other fallen comrades, as well as Brandon and J.B. the dog.

Once the bottle is almost empty, Eggsy notices text imprinted in the bottle where the K is the stylized logo of Kingsman. They decide to travel to the Statesman distillery in Kentucky, where they find that the barn where they store the barrels is locked with biometrics—which Merlin hacks. In short order, they’re captured by a cowboy-hat-wearing agent with nifty toys of his own, who calls himself Tequila. He assumes that the two of them are there to try to take “the lepidopterist,” who turns out to be Harry.

Screenshot: Twentieth Century Fox

Ginger Ale, the Statesman tech support, tells Tequila that Eggsy and Merlin check out, and they’re freed. They quickly learn that Statesman is the U.S. equivalent of Kingsman, only instead of investing money from families whose sons died in World War I, Statesman went into the liquor business. Where Kingsman codenames come from Arthurian legend, Statesman codenames are all booze. Their leader is Champagne, Champ for short, and they also meet Whiskey. Statesman’s doomsday protocol has an umbrella with a label where the S is the stylized logo of Statesman.

Tequila and Ginger rescued Harry, having found the church where Valentine tested his SIM card in The Secret Service, but not arriving until after the massacre was over and Valentine and Gazelle had left. They’re able to save Harry, but he has lost one eye and also his memory of life before he joined the Army, when he considered going into the study of butterflies. Nothing they’ve tried to get his memory back has worked.

Poppy wants drugs to be legal so she can make her business legit, so she puts a virus in all her drugs which has four stages: a blue rash, mania, paralysis, and finally death. If the President of the United States agrees to legalize all drugs the way alcohol and cigarettes are already legal (and therefore regulated and taxed, thus improving the economy and relieving a huge burden on law-enforcement), she will provide an antidote. Otherwise, all recreational drug users will die a horrible death.

Unfortunately, the new president is a sociopath, and he publicly agrees to Poppy’s terms, but privately figures all they’ll lose is drug users and all that’ll be left are law-abiding non-drug users. (And also drunks and smokers, of course.)

Statesman agrees to help Eggsy and Merlin stop the Golden Circle, but they’re already down an agent, as Tequila gets the blue rash. (Ginger sheepishly says he’s the bad boy of Statesman.)

The one lead Kingsman has is Charlie. His ex-girlfriend Clara is all over social media, and she’s off to the Glastonbury Music Festival. Whiskey and Eggsy go to the festival, and they each take their shot at seducing Clara. Eggsy is successful, though he calls Tilde before getting intimate with her to get her permission, which she doesn’t really give. A miserable Eggsy considers backing out, but then he sees that Clara has the Golden Circle tattoo on her back. She’s not just Charlie’s ex, she’s part of the group of bad guys who killed all his friends, so he goes for it, inserting a tracker into her bloodstream via fingering her.

However, Tilde is no longer speaking to Eggsy and he’s miserable. He looks through pictures on his phone, and finds a picture of him, Tilde, and J.B., and he gets a thought as to how to get Harry’s memory back. He gets his hand on a dog that’s the same breed as Mr. Pickles, the puppy he had in training and whom he was ordered to shoot. That does the trick, and Galahad is back in action.

Merlin, Whiskey, Eggsy, and Harry gather in a local bar to catch up on stuff. A redneck tries to cause trouble, and Harry tries to start a fight the same way he did in the pub in The Secret Service. Unfortunately, his aim is off, he’s not used to having a blind side, and he gets sucker-punched. It’s left to Whiskey to clean up the bar.

Clara’s tracker leads to a redoubt on Monte Bianco in Italy. Whiskey, Eggsy, and Harry (whom Champ is reluctant to send, but Eggsy insists) go to get their hands on the antidote. They manage it, after a considerable amount of violence. Whiskey knocks Eggsy down to save his life, breaking the vial of antidote, requiring them to get more. Harry shoots Whiskey in the head, thinking that he’s betraying them. Eggsy saves Whiskey’s life the same way Harry’s own life was saved, with Statesman’s aquagel, and thinks that Harry has gone back into the field too soon.

Their attempt to get more antidote is screwed by Charlie, who blows up the facility (with Clara inside, no less).

Eggsy was mistaken for a Singapore lawyer when he tried to get into the facility, and he asks Ginger and Merlin to trace the name of the person he was mistaken for. It turns out to be a lawyer who represents Poppy Adams, and they trace his calls to Cambodia and to Poppy’s compound. While they’re planning, Tilde calls Eggsy finally, but she’s manic and covered in a blue rash. She smoked a joint while wallowing over Eggsy, and now she’s in danger. So are lots of other people who’ve used recreational drugs, who are being rounded up in cages in stadiums. (Including the president’s chief of staff.)

Merlin, Eggsy, and Harry head to Cambodia in a Statesman jet. When they arrive at the compound, Eggsy steps on a landmine (despite having a minesweeper in his hands). Merlin freezes the mine temporarily, then steps on it himself, sacrificing himself for the mission (and taking out a half-dozen of Poppy’s thugs while doing so). Harry takes on Poppy’s robot dogs, Bennie and Jet, eventually stopping them—with help from Poppy’s prisoner, Elton John, whom the dogs are programmed to view as a friend. Poppy eliminates that bit of programming, but it’s too late by then. Meanwhile, Eggsy takes on Charlie, using his watch to hack his prosthetic and eventually killing him in revenge for all the death he caused.

Harry and Eggsy confront Poppy, injecting her with heroin, which Merlin had modified to make it more fast-acting. If Poppy doesn’t give them the password to her laptop that will release the antidote (since they know from a Statesman bug in the oval office that the president has no intention of acceding to Poppy’s demands), she’ll die.

She gives the password, but dies anyhow—Eggsy gave her too much heroin and she OD’d.

But then Whiskey shows up, having flown to Singapore in a fighter jet after Ginger revived him. Turns out Harry was right, he was working against them—but not on Statesman’s behalf. It’s personal for him: his high school sweetheart, who was pregnant with their son, was killed when two meth-heads shot each other. So he has no desire for Poppy’s antidote to get out.

He fights Eggsy and Harry, but they manage to run him through the meat grinder and then use the password to save everyone.

Statesman opens a distillery in the UK and will use it to fund Kingsman rebuilding. Tequila joins Kingsman (even wearing a suit and a bowler hat), with both Galahads now back in the fold. They open a new tailor shop and everything. Also Eggsy marries Tilde, so he’s now a prince. Elton John plays the music at the wedding.

 

“Save lives. Legalize.”

Screenshot: Twentieth Century Fox

I actually enjoyed this one more than the first one, but it has as many problems as The Secret Service, albeit completely different ones.

The biggest problem is that it doesn’t feel like it follows from The Secret Service at all, even though it very obviously does. By that, I mean that the previous movie ended with a major upending of the world’s status quo. Huge numbers of important, powerful people had their heads blown off, and huger numbers of people beat the shit out of each other for a significant period of time. Yet The Golden Circle starts as if the world is completely the same with no serious changes, and I’m just not sure I buy that.

But even if I do, there are other problems. While I admire that this is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies to actually kill a dog, fridging J.B., Brandon, and the rest of Kingsman (including Roxy, who deserved way better) is a bit extreme. So, for that matter, is killing Merlin in the end, though I love the way his sacrifice is played. Just the fact that this Scots tech guru is a John Denver fan is phenomenal, and hearing Mark Strong sing “Country Roads” in his Scottish accent before blowing himself and Poppy’s thugs up is epic.

Still, I find it hard to believe that Merlin didn’t have another way of getting out of the minefield safely up his sleeve, particularly since Kingsman was down to just the three of them at that point. Yes, the mission is important, but cutting your personnel by 33% is a bit extreme.

Just in general, the application of gadgets and technology was horribly inconsistent. The Kingsmen have watches that can “hack anything with a microchip.” Eggsy uses it to hack Charlie’s arm. So why didn’t he use it to hack the two robot dogs? Or, for that matter, Poppy’s laptop? If Merlin was able to adjust the virus so that it acted faster, he would have known enough about its chemical composition to synthesize his own antidote.

Those are far from the only plot holes. Why is there no response from the British government to multiple missile strikes on their soil? Why did Charlie blow up the facility that stores all the antidote? How did Poppy have enough of it when Charlie blew up the antidote? How was it daylight in both Kentucky and Cambodia at the same time? (They’re separated by twelve time zones.) What incentive do people have to be employed by Poppy when she routinely kills people and expects unquestioning loyalty? (I assume she pays well, but it’s not really clear.) Also if you put a live body through a meat grinder, there will be blood everywhere, plus the meat that come out the other side will be filled also with ground-up bone and muscle and, y’know, clothes and jewelry, not just red meat.

Luckily, these are mostly things you think about after watching it. While in the moment, The Golden Circle is tremendous fun.

Just as Kingsman plays on the stereotype of the British gentleman spy, Statesman plays on the stereotype of the American cowboy, beautifully embodied by Jeff Bridges in full Rooster Cogburn mode as Champ, Channing Tatum in full Brisco County Jr. mode as Tequila, and especially Pedro Pascal in full Burt Reynolds mode as Whiskey.

Egerton has a perfect mix of gentleman spy and working-class dude as Eggsy, effortlessly sliding from one mode to the other depending on the situation. In particular, he continues to show his skills, from his seduction of Clara to his quick-thinking deploying of Whiskey’s parachute to stop their out-of-control cable car from crashing into an old folks’ home. And it’s never not wonderful to see Colin Firth in action as a reduced, but still effective, Harry, ditto for Mark Strong. (The whole movie’s worth it for Merlin’s rant on alcohol to Tequila, which I quoted part of as the cut-tag for this article.) And, as I said last week, I like that they mitigated the awful of the ending to the previous movie by having Eggsy and Princess Tilde actually in a relationship with each other, with Eggsy caring enough about her to check in before his job-mandated seduction of Clara has to happen. (How Eggsy is supposed to continue as a secret agent while also a prince of Sweden is a challenge Vaughn and Jane Goldman have before them for the third film…)

Best of all, though, are Julianne Moore as the Stepford Drug Lord and Elton John as himself. Honestly, John pretty much steals the movie with his disaffected prisoner act, with his bitter “fuck yous” to various folks to his gleefully singing “Saturday Night’s All Right (For Fighting)” with the day changed to Wednesday when he’s rescued, followed by him kicking the asses of his guards. He gets the crowning moment of awesome in the movie, when he interpolates himself between Harry and the dogs so the latter will stop attacking, giving Harry time to respond.

And Moore is superb. What’s especially hilarious is that her evil scheme, while psychopathic, is also sensible. Legalizing drugs would enable them to be regulated and taxed, thus making more money for everyone, plus it would reduce the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, and relieve the burdens on police forces and prisons. Plus, it’s never made any sense that alcohol and cigarettes are legal and other recreational substances aren’t. (We’re seeing a sea-change with marijuana, at least.)

Like The Secret Service, The Golden Circle is a fun romp that has some issues, but is ultimately an enjoyable modern take on the spy thriller. It’s no more than that, but it’s no less than that, either.

 

Next week, we get another Jeff Bridges vehicle, as he stars with Ryan Reynolds in an adaptation of R.I.P.D.

Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s latest novel is Mermaid Precinct, the latest in his fantasy police procedural series, which is now available in trade paperback and eBook from eSpec Books. His Alien novel Isolation, based on both the classic movie series and the hit videogame, is available for preorder from Titan Books.

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