Thursday 5 October 2017

Corporate spies: "Kingsman: The Golden Circle"

2014's Kingsman: The Secret Service was a cartoonishly violent fantasy of social mobility in which the unholy trinity behind the Kick-Ass series - comic book guy Mark Miller, nerd-enabling screenwriter Jane Goldman and producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn - gave the distractible, snickering, hormonal teenagers who nowadays stalk the shopping-mall multiplex exactly what they wanted: loud, bloody carnage, anal sex jokes cribbed from pub toilet walls, a passing sense there might be a place for them in this big and blasted world. Like almost all of Vaughn's undertakings, it was packaged well enough to become a sizeable hit, and so, while we wait for global nuclear annihilation or the universe to right itself in some other way, here comes Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a.k.a. The Further Adventures of Eggsy, a full 141 minutes of them, not just giving the crowd what they want, but a whole lot more of what they want. My reaction proved much the same as my reaction to the Sex and the City diptych: the thin dose of smallpox that was the first movie rather inoculated me against the terribleness of the second. When your expectations are this low, there's very little chance a movie can disappoint, depress or outrage.

There are signs, however, that the first film's success caught even the calculating Vaughn off-guard. The Golden Circle proceeds with one of those sequel plots, initiated and sustained by loose ends we'd all thought the original had tied off, no matter that this approach risks implausibility in bringing the dead back to life. Sequel bloat, as evidenced by that running time, is also very much on the menu. It takes a full hour for Goldman and Vaughn to lay out the precise threat facing the Kingsmen, time the director spends ripping off/auditioning for the Fast & Furious series (it's both what the kids want, and what the habitual franchise-chaser Vaughn wants to do), setting up the domestic bliss Eggsy (Taron Egerton) now inhabits with the Swedish princess he took up the wrong 'un at the end of film one, getting Colin Firth to remember who he is and what he's still doing here (paycheques generally help, in these cases) and ushering on at least a dozen characters too many for any efficient blockbuster to deal with, foremost among them Sir Elton John, playing himself in a wilfully mismanaged cameo that most often contrives to leave him sitting around the set like an abandoned armchair or care home resident. (By complete chance, I found myself listening to "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" the very morning I set out for The Golden Circle: we seem further away than ever from that moment in popular culture.) 

In part, this is down to the new, highly considered, transatlantic direction the series takes here. In a twist literally discovered at the bottom of a whisky bottle, it turns out the Kingsmen have an American equivalent, the Statesmen, a bunch of lasso-wielding, liquor-swilling, boot-stomping rowdies introduced to the strains of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads". (The recurrence of that song here, after its recent deployment in Logan Lucky, makes me wonder how much this Denver mini-revival is down to the singer's timeless sincerity, and how much is down to a wider artistic conservatism: filmmakers giving the public the recognisable things they want.) Goldman and Vaughn's lumpen inability to do anything with dialogue that isn't the F-word (and not much more of note with that) leaves their otherwise sparky guest stars - Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Julianne Moore - looking very ordinary, like any other of the jobbing thesps the director recruits; they, too, are surely here for easy money, safe in the knowledge they'll be away working on more challenging and stimulating projects by the time The Golden Circle has lumbered into its third act.

Crucially, at no point do we feel the film has actually set foot on American soil: Vaughn is one of those low-cost, high-reward facilitators happy to plonk his stars down in front of a blue or green screen and patch in the bulk of his action during post, which is why his evocations of Savile Row and Hyde Park Corner look and feel as virtual and non-atmospheric as his idea of rural Kentucky, or a pharmaceutical repository deep in the Alps. (The casting of Emily Watson as a White House advisor is one clue that this production didn't venture too far beyond Leavesden; the complete absence of humidity in its Cambodia scenes, such that Firth and Egerton can be seen to engage in multiple gunfights in buttoned-down three-piece suits and not break into even a light sweat, would be another. So long as it looks cool, right?) A certain elegance can be observed in the tailoring: I might have been tempted to give editor Eddie Hamilton praise for the dissolve that carries us through a tainted bag of weed to the forest where it was harvested, were the movie he's cut not, you know, 141 minutes longYet the material everyone's working with is so flimsy, and when it's awful, it's properly awful.

It's become clear with these films that Vaughn is cut from squarer cloth than he reckons: the company-man plugs for Fox News and The Sun - it's what they want - recur here, and there's a lot of dwelling upon a range of Kingsman toiletries that will presumably be in the shops come Christmas, for that berk in your life who dreams of touting a whiff of Eggsy. Equally, though, there are moments when Vaughn's yuppified veneer cracks and we get glimpses of the wannabe wideboy who helped muscle Lock Stock and Snatch onto our screens. I still haven't quite figured out whether the Kingsmans reflect his own fantasies of working-class life (yellowing reference points: England beating Germany in the footie, the Royal Wedding) or just what he thinks the working classes will pay to fantasise about. Sometimes the films get caught between the two, as in the gurgling sequence here where queen-and-country compels Eggsy to finger a pliable blonde named Clara in a yurt at Glastonbury. Still, second time around, Vaughn can't work up the snotty energy to be properly obnoxious or shocking - the film's just congested, a build-up of that same product this filmmaker has been dealing in and profiting from ever since Layer Cake, one whose short-lived highs never remotely compensate for the toll exerted on wallet and soul. The more the Golden Circle logo appears on screen, the more it appears to fit the Kingsman brand to a tee: a big, gilded nothing, whether or not that's what we want or aspire towards.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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