* * * 1/2 (out of five)
John Denver’s Annie’s Song was used very prominently in this year’s Free Fire and Okja. His song Take Me Home Country Roads was used very prominently in Alien Covenant and Logan Lucky. Now, Kingsman: The Golden Circle uses both, very prominently. Channing Tatum was in Logan Lucky and is now in Kingsman. Co-incidence? I don’t think so. I think Matthew Vaughn, director and co-writer of Kingsman, is having a sly joke, and it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone of his unexpectedly mega-successful Bond-parodic action franchise.
I wasn’t a fan of the first instalment, The Secret Service (2014). At the time I wrote, “There’s a lot of spitfire razzle-dazzle but barely any wit, panache or charm in this huge bloated misfire of a movie that sits like a spew stain on the impeccable jacket of Colin Firth’s body of work.” My main issue with that film essentially goes uncorrected here: the dialogue is simply unfunny but thinks it’s funny, making everyone – cast and audience – uncomfortable. But the tone and, especially, the imagery this time around is much more fun; it may not be funny but it’s cheeky, and every single shot is bright, crisp, colourful, wittily designed and gorgeous to look at. It’s an action movie that’s actually easy on the eyes.
There is also a villainous plot – which doesn’t get going until an hour and fifteen minutes into the film, mind you – which wouldn’t actually be too horribly out of place in an actual Bond movie. The world’s most powerful drug lord Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) taints her product with a nasty virus that infects all users worldwide – hundreds of millions of them – and sends them into paralysis, with death imminently promised, unless they legalise all recreational drugs worldwide, in which case she will release the antidote. It’s a nifty idea, and actually engenders a series of even niftier twists. And Poppy’s lair – a clearing in a South American jungle in which she has built a tiny replica of 1950s Americana – is very neat, killer robot dogs and all.
Killer robot dogs, you say? Really? Yes, this is a movie that is stuffed with stuff. It’s crazy long – two hours and twenty-one minutes, which is about the average running time of the Daniel Craig Bond films – and there are so many action set-pieces that I certainly can’t recall them all, and I’ve just seen the film. It’s so long, and there’s so much stuff in it, that the first hour or so becomes instantly forgettable, and when one major actor re-enters the film in the final act, it’s a jolt, because you’d forgotten they were in it in the first place. Like chocolate cake with chocolate sauce and chocolate ice-cream on a chocolate plate, it’s yummy and gets your serotonin pumping but also just too much.
But this is a first-world complaint. Too much chocolate? When people tell me the Oscars are too long, I tell them to fuck off! It’s once a year, I want a lot of Oscars, if you don’t like them don’t watch them. So maybe too much Kingsman is a good thing. Part of the film’s shtick is that there’s just so much of it. It’s the relatively charming, incredibly well designed, friendly action comedy that keeps on giving. This really is a film that you can feel comfortable going to the bathroom when you need to, because, in the extremely grand scale of things, you can’t have really missed anything, because there’s so much more to come.
Taron Egerton returns as Eggsy, the young likely lad recruited into the British private secret service, Kingsmen, by Colin Firth’s Harry Hart in the first film. Harry was killed off pretty decisively in that one – shot through the eye by Samuel L. Jackson, which usually means you’re kaput – but he’s rather miraculously resurrected here, which, of course, instantly forfeits from the movie any rights to making us worry about anyone. When you bring back a dead character because the audience wants the actor back, there aren’t high stakes, just big paychecks (and, theoretically, big returns: I suspect this instalment is going to be a massive box office hit).
Firth looks almost as uncomfortable as he did in the first one, and his character is very strangely written; there is one major decision he makes, vital to the course of events, that still has me scratching my head. Egerton is more enjoyable than he was in the original, mainly because here he’s in the suit more and in his ‘hood clothes less – he was really, really hard to swallow as the cap-wearing lager lad in the origin story. Moore makes the best meal possible out of every one of her lines, and if those lines had actually been witty, we may have had, at least in Poppy, a very memorable villain.
The movie’s star performance is from Mark Strong, whose character Merlin operates as the “Q” figure of the franchise, the gadgets guy and tech wizard. Strong has been playing both tough guys and parodies of tough guys for a while now – his secret agent in Sacha Baron Cohen’s criminally under-seen Grimsby was an absolute hoot – and here he kind of does both, bringing, in every scene he’s in, some tonal coherence to the movie. His final scene is truly wonderful. It would have worked, with perhaps a ten percent alteration in performance, in a real Bond film, which is the vibe the whole movie – the whole franchise – should aspire to.