On Kingsman: The Golden Circle

When the first Kingsman movie burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, it came as something of a relief.   After years of gritty entries in the spy genre, courtesy of the likes of Bond and Bourne, Kingsman: The Secret Service didn’t take itself terribly seriously, poking as much fun at the genre as it could get away with, while still managing to be a strong entry in the genre anyway, which is a good trick if you can manage it.   It threw a hefty dash of My Fair Lady, delivered some impressively staged action sequences and also provided the answer to the previously unlikely question of how dramatic / rom-com stalwart Colin Firth would be at playing a Bond-like superspy and, handily, the answer proved to be “bloody spectacular”.    Despite opening against the box office juggernaut of 50 Shades of Grey, the film exceeded all expectations by a considerable margin, a sequel was rapidly greenlit and now, two years on, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is on our cinema screens.

One of the problems with following up a surprise hit is that sequels frequently struggle a bit to capture that often ill-defined property that propelled the original above expectations and it’s probably fair to say that Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t entirely live up to its predecessor.   Inevitably, it lacks the freshness that the first one had, gifted to it by the fact that we really hadn’t seen anything like it for quite a while.  Fortunately, what remains is still a great deal of fun.

The movies opens a year after the original, with a sneak attack wiping out almost all the Kingsman agents.   Activating an emergency protocol, Eggsy and Merlin travel to America, where they encounter their US counterparts, the Statesmen, along with an old friend that neither expected to see again.   After the almost obligatory rather shaky start, everybody teams up to go after the architect of the sneak attack, a drug kingpin named Poppy Adams, who intends to blackmail the governments of the world into legalising all drugs to grant her the recognition she craves.

On the whole, the movie lacks some of the focus of the original, leaving it feeling a little meandering at times and giving the movie an extended run-time that it doesn’t entirely need.    A side-trip to the Glastonbury music festival is probably the primary culprit, particularly as the events there, while certainly plot-relevant, seem to be aimed at least in part at trolling that subsection of the first movie’s audience who happily sat through massacres in churches and hundreds of heads exploding before totally losing their shit at an anal sex gag.    The movie opens and ends well, though, so a slightly saggy midsection is not the worst offence it could have committed.

Casting-wise, everybody is solid and, as with the first one, give the impression of having way too much fun to feel entirely fair that they’re also getting paid for it.   Taron Egerton plays Eggsy with a degree of swagger as befits a successful spy, but remains in touch with the character’s common roots, together with a pleasant degree of vulnerability in quieter moments that neatly undermines the common image of the invincible superspy.    Colin Firth, returning despite his character’s apparent death in the original, is as excellent as ever, giving us a less certain Harry than we saw previously as he struggles to regain his previous form after what happened to him (for the record, the detail behind his miraculous return is handled pretty well) and the role reversal between Harry and Eggsy as the younger man temporarily becomes the mentor is a nice touch.   It’s a genuine shame that the marketing department chose to make Harry’s return a key part of the publicity for the film (very much against Matthew’s Vaughn’s wishes), as it would have been a great reveal in the second act, but, regardless, it’s good to have him back.  Mark Strong is as watchable as ever and it’s nice to see him step outside the mission control role that he principally stuck to in the first.    A surprising return from the original is Hanna Alström as the Swedish princess Tilde – her relatively minor role in the first movie was essentially that of the classic “Bond Girl”, a damsel in distress who the hero gets to have fun times with at the end of the film before never seeing her again.   The Golden Circle subverts that almost entirely by giving her a much larger role as Eggsy’s girlfriend and, while she does end up in a damsel in distress situation again, decent chemistry with Egerton provides the movie with an unexpected, but pleasant degree of warmth, plus the opportunity to further subvert the whole James Bond thing when Eggsy reluctantly faces the prospect of having to sleep with a target.

Julianne Moore leads the newcomers to the franchise as primary villain Poppy, who she plays as Martha Stewart if Martha Stewart was a cannibalistic psychopath drug lord with an epic-level 50s obsession and an unhealthy fixation on Elton John (insert your own “So basically Martha Stewart” joke here).   Poppy’s totally deranged and Moore milks it for all she’s worth.   Speaking of Elton John, I honestly assumed his appearance would be no more than a brief cameo, but he’s in a surprising amount of the film as Poppy’s hilariously grumpy captive, forced to give regular performances for her and her assorted henchmen.   He’s clearly having a whale of a time and it’s really quite funny to see the now-seventy-year-old Elton wearing some of the more flamboyant outfits from his earlier career.

Channing Tatum, as Statesman agent Tequila, gets surprisingly little screen time, despite being front and centre in the publicity campaign, but he makes the most of what he’s given and he’s clearly being set up as a major player for a third movie.   Instead, Pedro Pascal’s Whiskey gets the majority of the action as he accompanies Eggsy into action and he’s very effective, albeit in an intentionally rather stereotypical role.   Jeff Bridges brings his by-now-perfected cool older dude act out as Statesmen leader Champagne and Halle Berry works nicely opposite Mark Strong as Ginger Ale, the Statesmen’s technical expert.    And Bruce Greenwood puts in an entertainingly slimy turn as a complete self-centred git of a US President, which does make you wonder if Matthew Vaughn had some sort of premonition or something.

The first movie had a number of standout action sequences and the sequel certainly doesn’t drop the ball on that front.   Vaughn has handily proved by now that he possesses a genuine flair for directing action and he does so again here, with the opening fight in a taxi and the final assault on Poppy’s 50s chic / Cambodian temple base as standouts.

In the end, as previously noted, Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t entirely live up to the original, being somewhat hampered by an extended run time that it doesn’t really require.   Fortunately, a brief sag in the middle doesn’t detract from the fact that, on most levels, the film is great fun, and really leaves you wanting to know where Vaughn plans to take things next.    Fortunately, with the movie doing solid box office around the globe, a third movie is likely assured, and I’m keen to see it.

On Westworld

It’s safe to say that when HBO go big, they really don’t mess around.    They’ve shown that on several occasions over the years; my first experience with them, I think, was the remarkable WW2 miniseries Band of Brothers, but they’ve put themselves to the forefront of televisual badassery over the last few years with the epic fantasy series Game of Thrones.    But all good things must come to an end, particularly in television where it’s either that or outstay their welcome and become a bad thing, and thus HBO are looking ahead into their future and seeing a time where Game of Thrones will no longer sit proudly as its flagship TV series.

And so, with only two seasons remaining to play out on the battlefields of Westeros, there’s a new gunslinger in town, and its name is Westworld.

Based on the 1973 sci-fi thriller of the same name, the series is set in a futuristic theme park, a recreation of the old west, populated by the euphemistically-named “hosts”, androids indistinguishable from humans, whose sole purpose is to fulfil every whim of the wealthy guests who come there to play.

The original movie is a basic thriller – guests arrive at the park, robots go wrong and a chase ensues, leading to a final confrontation.   The malfunctioning robots are the villains of the piece, principally embodied by Yul Brynner’s implacable Gunslinger, and matters play out in a straight-forward manner.    The TV series, unsurprisingly, is much more ambiguous in its approach.

Created by Jonathan Nolan, previously responsible for the excellent AI-themed series Person of Interest, and his wife / writing partner Lisa Joy, it becomes apparent rather quickly that the hosts are beings to be pitied, as the show pulls no punches in depicting the horror that lies hidden behind their lives.   They spend their time in pre-programmed loops, with multiple contingencies coming into play depending on how they interact with guests.     Once the loop plays out, they reset and begin again, once the park’s staff have made any repairs that might be necessary.     Which is not uncommon by any means.     While the park is set up for families – dialog asides refer to the existence of adult-only areas and the control room staff are shown monitoring a family’s progress within the park and putting a stop to a bloody confrontation before they can get there – most of the guests seen within the show come across as bored, wealthy and, to put it bluntly, total arseholes.    To these jaded individuals, tired of carefully constructed quests – I could do a whole post on the video game metaphors within Westworld – the hosts are basically there to be abused, raped, murdered; essentially they see them as an outlet for their darker impulses, one that they take advantage of with zero restraint, secure in the knowledge that the hosts will simply be repaired, reset and returned to their loops, oblivious to just how crappy their existences are, to wait for the next indignity to be visited upon them.

The staff, equally, do everything to dehumanise the hosts under their charge – an understandable move, given what happens to them, thinking of them as anything more than machines would be a significant handicap.    Hosts are routinely stripped naked when taken out of the park, leading to uncomfortably creepy scenes when hosts are being interviewed to diagnose problems, and are quite regularly decommissioned if an issue arises, banished to large storage areas of inactive hosts that, speculative foreshadowing ahoy, certainly aren’t under any circumstances going to be one hell of a problem when the shit hits the fan.    Hosts can be switched to a different role, effectively a totally different life within the park, at the drop of a hat, just by giving them different programming.    The programming isn’t necessarily even that detailed, containing only what they need to function within their storylines; a rather sad scene reveals that Teddy, whose current role within the park is that of a good-natured bounty hunter haunted by a past guilt that he won’t talk about, actually can’t talk about it because nobody ever bothered to come up with a backstory for him.    He carries around a hidden guilt without even knowing why.    It’s next to impossible not to sympathise with them and the show clearly sets out to get the audience to do just that.

As with most shows this early in their run, the appeal of Westworld is in the questions that it poses to the audience about what’s going on.    It’s fun to speculate about what’s going to happen, what certain things might mean, what certain characters intend to do and so on.     It’s currently following several different plotlines, giving insights into how the park works, establishing the personalities of the main players and so forth, but there’s plenty of room for speculation.    Theories abound online about, say, which of the human characters will turn out to be unwitting hosts, why certain hosts appear to be different, or whether different plotlines are even happening at the same time – a major theory is that two characters are actually the same person, with their scenes occurring decades apart.     Personally, I disagree with that one, for reasons that I won’t bore you with, but there’s a lot of entertainment value in discussing them.

Westworld is, so far, a slow-burner of a show.    A dense script is carried by an astonishing cast.   James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins would be an eye-catching line-up for a movie; for a TV show, that’s mind-blowing.   Occasional bursts of impressively staged action fit into an otherwise relatively slow pace, but the show carries a sense of implacable momentum, that, as certain hosts begin to see the cracks in the world they exist in and start to defy their programming, something is building up that cannot be stopped.    When events come to a head, all hell is likely to break loose.

So here we go…

Yeah, it’s a blog.   Obvious question, why?    Well, it basically goes back to a forum that I used to belong to (still do, actually, but the forum has effectively died), which was dedicated to discussing movies.   More specifically, mistakes found in movies, but we tended to stray off-topic on a regular basic, so we were quite lucky if we managed to stay within movies as an overall topic.

Anyway, I used to post reviews of movies that I’d seen on the forum, as did others, something that I haven’t bothered with lately because there’s nobody there to read them.   But I’ve had a couple of forum people mention on Facebook that they liked reading them and wished I continued.     I could just post reviews on Facebook, but as they had a tendency to get overly long, it seemed fairer to, rather than clutter up people’s timelines with lengthy blocks of text, to set up a blog where I can post the reviews, then drop links onto Facebook and let people choose whether to read them or not.   Seems reasonable, right?

With a secure knowledge of my own peculiarities, I can safely say that there’s zero chance that this will stick solely to movie reviews.   I’ve never seen a tangent that I didn’t like, so I’m sure things will veer off course and most likely sooner than later.   We’ll see.

With regard to comments, as the whole idea of this is really to act as a proxy for Facebook posts, I’ve disabled them (at least, I think I have – not sure about this blogging thing), so any comments can happily go on the Facebook post that I use to link to the blog post.   I may enable them again in the future, but, for now, Facebook can fill that particular niche.