Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle": review

[NB: SPOILERS!]

Director Matthew Vaughn is at it again in 2017's "Kingsman: The Golden Circle," which stars Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Hanna Alström, Colin Firth (yes, Galahad is back), Julianne Moore and, bizarrely, Elton John. Guest stars include Michael Gambon, Sophie Cookson, and Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike in the JJ Abrams "Star Trek" movies).

The movie opens, hilariously, with a Scots bagpipe version of John Denver's "Country Roads"—a comic move that will, sadly, turn out to be a clever bit of foreshadowing in a movie that generally lacks clever moments. We meet Eggsy (Egerton) right away, and we see him conversing with Roxy (Cookson) and the new Arthur (Gambon) who now heads up Kingsman. Not long after that, a brace of missiles destroys all branches of Kingsman, killing Arthur, Roxy, and every Kingsman operative aside from Merlin (Strong). This event prompts Merlin to activate the Doomsday Protocol, which sends the two remaining British superspies to America, where they meet the cowboyish Statesmen—the Yankee counterpart to the Kingsmen. This doesn't go well at first: when they sneak into the Statesman compound in Kentucky, Merlin and Eggsy (who is using Galahad's handle since Colin Firth's Galahad is presumably dead) are handily defeated by Tequila (Tatum), who captures the Brits and reveals that the Statesmen have Harry Hart, the senior Galahad (Firth), who was saved from his gunshot to the head in the previous movie by alpha gel—a nanotech product designed to rescue victims of head shots. Alpha gel is injected into the gunshot wound, and nanobots enter the wound and immediately begin stabilizing the victim and repairing bone and tissue damage. But Hart/Galahad is far from whole: his brain damage has led to a deep-seated amnesia, and attempts to trigger his old memories have, up to now, failed.

Meanwhile, hiding out in the jungles of Cambodia, dainty, Fifties-nostalgia-loving Poppy Adams (Moore) has made herself into the ultimate drug kingpin, lacing all manner of recreational drugs with a pathogen that, if no antidote is given, will drive drug users mad and ultimately kill them. The goons who work for Poppy all have their fingerprints removed, their teeth smoothed down, and a circle of gold (hence the movie's title) seared and bonded to their skin. Poppy blackmails the US president (Greenwood), demanding that he legalize all drugs and give Poppy total immunity. Poppy's goal is, apparently, to maintain her monopoly on the global drug trade, funneling profits through the major world governments, which will act as the regulators of all drugs (that's my guess about Poppy's motives and methods; the movie didn't seem too clear on this rather important point). The US president, meanwhile, is delighted at the thought of killing off all drug users at once, so he pretends to go along with Poppy's demands, but in reality, he simply wants all drug users to die: "No drug users, no drug trade!" he says, as he plans to wait Poppy out. Our heroes, the Kingsmen and the Statesmen, must do what they can to make sure that innocent people aren't killed, so they take it upon themselves to preempt the global release of Poppy's antidote. When Hart/Galahad finally gets his memory back, the superspies head for Italy, where Poppy's antidote is being manufactured. Along for the ride is Whiskey (Pascal), who wields a lasso like a ninja and has a deadly, electrified bullwhip that would make Indiana Jones green with envy.

Eggsy's personal motivation in all this is that he's now in a relationship with Crown Princess Tilde, the butt-sex-loving Swedish beauty he met in the first film. Tilde and Eggsy are on the rocks because Eggsy, out of a sense of honor, confesses to Tilde that he's on a mission that may require him to have sex with another woman in order to gain information that could potentially save the world. Tilde is understandably upset, and somewhere along the line, she turns to drugs... thereby infecting herself with Poppy's pathogen. The clock is now ticking for Eggsy, who is desperate to acquire and release the antidote to save Tilde.

I wanted to like "Golden Circle," but in the end, I felt it was noisy and nonsensical. There was simply too much going on that didn't make sense to me. An otherwise beautiful car chase at the beginning of the film is ruined by the bizarre fact that the bad guys, though heavily armed with mounted Gatling guns, don't deploy those guns until very late in the car chase. I also thought the depiction of the progression of the pathogen wasn't consistent. According to the story, an infected victim first develops blue veins, then goes through a manic dance phase, then becomes paralyzed as his muscles seize up, then dies when his eyes explode and blood gushes out of his nose. But we see victims who skip the manic phase altogether, and others who never seem to be paralyzed. When the epidemic nature of the pathogen is discovered, the president orders a massive quarantine; this results in a ludicrous scene in which infected people are placed in individual cages that are then stacked atop each other, hundreds of people high, thousands of people across. I had to wonder: what happens when someone in a cage wants to shit? With all that shit raining downward thanks to gravity, the lowest cages would be a hell of ever-rising excrement. Victims would drown in shit long before their eyeballs had a chance to explode. And here's a story-logic problem pointed out by my coworker: if Poppy was savvy enough to target Kingsman so thoroughly with her missiles, why didn't she do the same thing to Statesman?

Tonally, the film is all over the place. This was true of the first movie as well, but the first movie did a better job of juggling the manic, the satirical, the parodic, and the sentimental. "Golden Circle" never quite finds the right balance, and even though the film has a couple decent character moments, the overall effect lacks emotional coherence.

That said, Vaughn is still good at delivering over-the-top fight scenes that are comically unreal but easy to follow. My hat is off to all the stuntmen involved in the production. Pedro Pascal is particularly notable for the same feline grace that he brought to his brief role as the ill-fated Red Viper in "Game of Thrones." He somehow manages to channel a cowboy, a ballet dancer, and a martial artist at the same time. "Golden Circle" certainly doesn't lack for action.

And while I can't really recommend this sequel, I did like the constant US/UK ankle-kicking that characterized the interplay between the Yanks and the Brits. I also laughed at the movie's strange use of Elton John as a sort of stage prop, and I was tickled by the movie's final shot, which goes for the bizarrely incongruous: a well-established cowboy character (Tatum as Tequila) dressed as an English dandy and wearing a bowler hat.

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle" is, as I said, noisy and nonsensical. I think you might actually have to be on drugs in order to enjoy it fully. I also wasn't sure what message the movie was trying to send regarding drug use. Personally, I side with the evil Poppy when it comes to legalization; I actually think that that's the way to go, and drugs are something that, in my opinion, the US government should regulate. It could pay down its massive debt in just a few years if it controlled this vice. The heroes in the movie also seem to be pro-drug use, which makes me wonder what, exactly, the conflict with the villain is all about. Only the US president comes off looking truly evil: as a druggie-hating moral tightass, he has no problem with genocide-level mass death. (I heard the movie had originally been laced with tons of anti-Trump jokes, but those all got stripped out in favor of something more likely to appeal to the hoi polloi.) The whole story is a confused jumble, and any message the movie might have had is lost in the screenwriters' addled mental convolutions.

If you do decide to see this movie, turn your brain off first.



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