WARNING: SPOILERS FOR KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (AND KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE) FOLLOW.
In 2015, I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun I had watching Kingsman: The Secret Service (K:TSS), despite an awkward title (if it’s named for an organization of many people and is also subtitled as “The Secret Service” – another collective noun – then why aren’t they called the Kingsmen? Just call the damn movie Kingsmen!) and some notable flaws and foibles.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the subversive send-up of the spy film genre, its colorful characters, and its unabashed shoot-’em-up absurdity. K:TSS excelled in both spoofing the inherently flawed spy genre while also adding new, more modern ingredients to the formula. It was fun. Not perfect, but not glaringly imperfect. Just plain fun.
2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle (K:TGC) is a much darker, more cynical tale than its predecessor, despite being wrapped in the same bright and shiny bubble-gum aesthetic. At its best, it is a rip-roaring piece of pulpy action satire, brimming with winks to the camera and cringe-worthy one liners. At its worst, it’s a smug, overlong proponent of the worst aspects of the spy film genre from the last half century.
Perhaps my biggest problem with K:TGC is that it is impossible to tell whether it’s trying to satirize violent, sexist spy films, or if it’s paying tribute to them. It’s hard to tell if even it knows what it wants to say about the genre.
Moreover, the story is riddled with contradictions…
On the use and abuse of female characters:
The first film ends with a damsel-in-distress Princess being “rewarded” to the hero Eggsy as the credits roll. Bond-ish? Sure. A strong note to end an otherwise enjoyable film on? Obviously not. The ending made me think less of a protagonist who had just undergone an extensive journey from ruffian to “gentleman.”
So how do they remedy this off-putting finale in the next chapter? They make the Princess into a prominent character and source of inspiration for Eggsy as his romantic interest. Sure. Okay. Not the most exciting character, but better than being a one-note trophy for the male hero.
Buuuut then the film goes and has that same “hero” trick a girl into sexual interaction for the purpose of planting a tracking device to detect her every move.
“But the girl takes drugs and dates a bad guy!” Yeah… not a valid excuse. And as for the drug thing – we’ll get to that in a minute.
This cringe-worthy sexual trickery (a scene accompanied with the same bombastic score and bravado usually paired with a scene in which a villain is triumphantly defeated by the hero) comes less than an hour after the saga’s only multi-dimensional heroine is blown to smithereens with minimal fanfare – not to mention no regard for losing the presence of the magnetic Sophie Cookson, a bona fide highlight of the first film.
The Kingsman world is one in which every major decision is made by a white male, especially if it involves saving the world (But wait! Halle Berry is finally made an agent at the very end of the sequel! Sheesh…). This universe has so far included a black male and a white female as super villains, though pretty much all of the narratives’ key decisions are made by an ensemble of dutiful white males. It gets a bit stale after a while.
On drug use and the War on Drugs:
One of the film’s biggest setbacks is its tendency to touch on noteworthy themes and ideas without letting them bake. One such instance involves having seemingly good-natured characters fall victim to the villain’s virus through drug-use, pointing out that – for better or worse – people all around the world use illegal drugs for different reasons, and that not all of them are inherently bad people for doing so. A noble concept.
But, like so much of what the film has to say about the War on Drugs, it ends up lost in the weeds. So what snappy one-liner are we given nearing the film’s end as one of these heroes is awoken from his recreational drug-induced coma? “I think you should stick to booze!” Cue the laugh track.
Sooo moral of the story… drugs are all bad now? You’re eating your cake, Kingsman. Don’t eat the cake.
On the emotional connection of the characters:
There is a scene in the film’s third act in which a newly resurrected Harry Hart (reprised charmingly by the great Colin Firth) lectures his young protégé, Eggsy, on an agent’s need for emotional connection to stay humane, despite their work forbidding it. It’s a tender exchange by two (up-to-that-point) decently likable characters. THE VERY NEXT SCENE FEATURES HARRY TELLING EGGSY’S FEELINGS TO FUCK OFF AND LET SWEET, SWEET MERLIN DIE.
Come on now. I get the importance of Merlin’s sacrifice to save the mission and, subsequently, the world, but his death isn’t even necessary, right? Just let the freeze-spray deodorant jam the landmine, right? LET MERLIN LIVE!
But no. These heroes have to aspire to be hollow, emotionless, and devoid of human compassion. Do your job. Save the damsel. Go home happy. Blegh.
On being a gentleman:
One thing I enjoy about the first Kingsman is its charming dance around what it means to be a “gentleman” in a spy movie. For decades, the secret agents of the silver screen have sold themselves as noble knights, despite being partial to some rather grimy extracurriculars of moral indifference and sexual degradation. K:TSS did a fine job of spoofing this ridiculous contradiction and other similar genre tropes. But by the second go ‘round, you’d think the characters would start to drift from their 1960’s inspirations and be reinvented more to reflect the twenty-first century.
Which brings me to my next question. Should “gentlemen” kill as easily and as unflinchingly as the Kingsmen do?
In one of the film’s final scenes, Eggsy lectures former Kingsman applicant-turned-evil-henchman Charlie about what it means to be a gentleman, JUST BEFORE SNAPPING HIS NECK AND KILLING HIM. Without even a wink to the camera. I was shocked.
I thought for sure some long-forgotten hero (Roxy? Merlin? Whiskey? Champagne?) would swoop in and stop the murder from happening, educating Eggsy about how he doesn’t have to kill the all-but-defeated baddie. And how that’s not what a gentleman should do when the enemy submits. Then they’d knock Charlie out or tie him up or something – I don’t know. Either way… Have we learned nothing from Man of Steel? The movie’s hero straight-up executes a one-armed man in cold blood and we’re supposed to accept it in the name of his fallen comrades? Gross.
Here’s the thing. There were a lot of moments in K:TGC that I found to be quite fun. But in the end, it just left a bad taste in my mouth. Aside from being overlong, K:TGC just feels more mean-spirited than its campy predecessor and it quickly crosses over from spoofing spy flicks to championing their mercilessly violent and bluntly sexist hallmarks.
If this series is willing to go to such great lengths to poke fun at the many flaws of spy movies the first time around, shouldn’t it also practice what it preaches and show the right way of telling a fun and fair spy story?
Simply put, The Kingsman movies don’t have to try too hard for these movies to be good, mindless fun. But if Matthew Vaughn and the fine folks at Twentieth Century Fox want to make these characters memorable enough to warrant a third entry in the Kingsman saga, they (and their writers) have some serious work to do.