I once heard it argued that Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar only work as a duo because Vaughn satirizes Millar the way Paul Verhoeven satirizes Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It was a ridiculous, nakedly Marxist tantrum. Millar takes himself and his work far too seriously to ever collaborate with someone who believed his sole job was to competently stick Groucho glasses and a clown nose on his pages.
In reality, Millar is the dark satirist, and Vaughn is one of the best directors in the business. If you need proof of the genius of either, read Superman: Red Son, Civil War, Old Man Logan, and Jupiter’s Legacy, and watch Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class.
And of course, watch the Kingsman films.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle, like its predecessor, is the kind of movie modern action/comedy studios should be making all the time. If the first Kingsman: The Secret Service made for the ultimate triumph of indulgence in tongue-in-cheek populist warfare, The Golden Circle makes for a fun ride in doing it all over again. The result isn’t as satisfying as the original, but it certainly helps give it clarity.
The beginning of the film finds Eggsy in a good place, both in his job and in his relationship with Princess Tilde. Then a quirky ‘50s nostalgic zillionaire drug lord Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) wipes the Kingsmen organization out and plots to ransom the world for legitimacy. Upon discovery of the Statesmen – the Kingsmen’s American counterpart – Eggsy, Merlin (Mark Strong), and Harry (Colin Firth) must work with their boozing brethren to save the world.
Unlike the last film where Samuel L. Jackson’s lisped billionaire evildoer Richmond Valentine plotted to slaughter the human population via its technological obsession but had himself no stomach for violence, the first thing we see Poppy do here is grind a human being into meat that she then cooks into a burger to serve her new henchman. And if you think that’s absurd, The Golden Circle has two+ instances of deus ex machina and Sir Elton John playing himself in a role that might as well serve as an allegory for the whole film. He’s the butt of joke after joke only to somehow wind up being one of the film’s most compelling characters.
That said, the movie does have the usual cast of problems for a sequel. Some jokes are on repeat mode from the first movie and as usual with Vaughn’s movies, the structure is a little unwieldly, especially for a movie that’s nearly two and a half hours long. The impressive henchman Angel (Tom Benedict Knight) is teased as a potential boss fight for the Kingsmen only to be jettisoned by the midpoint of the film for arbitrary plot reasons. Channing Tatum’s character Tequila is a cameo with less screen time than Elton John and the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood), who is himself something of an offensive caricature of George H.W. Bush. Critics will hammer it for everything, and I can’t say I blame them. This should just not work.
And yet, here I sit writing this review with a smile from ear to ear as I think about all the ways the film is laughing with me. I don’t mean in the “we know how crazy this is and don’t care” sense; The Golden Circle cares. It takes real time and even in one instance breaks its own comedic flow to earnestly develop its central characters.
The satire oozes from every pore from beginning to end. Poppy’s worldwide drug cartel has created something of an opioid epidemic across the world. She’s laced her latest product with a toxin that makes every consumer – people that she and other elitists like the President of the United States sneer at for being plebs – turn blue in the face, develop ants in their pantaloons, and then die from paralysis, and will withhold the antidote unless she’s given the attention and elitist stardom she craves. Best of all, she frames it like the ultimate act of virtue signaling.
Showmanship is another theme in the film, and not just because the drugs make everyone look like a blue monkey. The good guys’ gadgets are relatively conventional, save for Whiskey (Pedro Pascal)’s electric lasso, while the bad guys get drones, robot dogs, and bionic arms that can be remote-activated even when severed. Poppy’s entire retro community has the kind of Andrew Ryan braggadocio that you just know she’d want to turn into a theme park as her next diabolical plan. The President pretends to cave to Poppy for Fox News ratings but is secretly playing her because he wants to win the war on drugs. Even the statesmen act with a bluster that betrays them, like Whiskey’s seduction techniques. Or when Eggsy forces Whiskey’s giant American flag parachute open to stop a cable car from crashing into a group of old men on rocking chairs, and one remarks that the entire ordeal cured his constipation. By contrast, the Kingsmen, especially Eggsy, true to the spirit of the original, value integrity and modesty; the only two people he truly BS’s are the king and queen of Sweden when he’s dining with them.
Then, of course, there’s the music. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” is conspicuously absent but John Denver’s music appears twice, and not by accident. Recall the pattern: “Money for Nothing,” the most brazenly ironic Dire Straits song, opened the first film as a cue to take nothing you’re about to see seriously. “Free Bird,” the song always demanded of every band or artist no matter the gig, came on during the chapel massacre (maybe The Secret Service’s darkest joke). Then “Pomp and Circumstance,” a song that’s actually about how unfair it is that young men who have their whole lives ahead of them are conscripted into fighting wars that only benefit the elites, played as Valentine’s chosen survivors’ heads exploded. The Golden Circle’s most noteworthy addition is Denver’s signature piece “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” one of the most hilariously misappropriated songs in modern times. Of all the places the Kingsmen and Statesmen travel, not once do they set foot in West Virginia. But, of course, the song wasn’t really even about West Virginia; Denver was driving through Maryland but couldn’t find a word to appropriately rhyme with that, and he also very nearly sold that song to Johnny Cash before choosing to perform it himself.
The other Denver classic (which I won’t spoil) played is in an achingly sincere moment, especially if you know anything about its history.
Everything in The Golden Circle extends Millar’s satire from the original but the film somehow remains alive in its own moment. It has no real interest in its world beyond what jokes it can get away with telling, but franchises are rarely this true to themselves. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong and all I really saw was a terrible movie that I somehow found to be more credible than Spider-Man: Homecoming, both nu-Star Wars, half the Daniel Craig Bond era, and the entire Bourne film series. But ultimately what’s on the screen for me is the surest of all signs that Matthew Vaughn stands beside Edgar Wright, Shane Black, Lord and Miller, and James Gunn as the deftest satirical filmmakers in the modern era.