Friday, September 22, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle — More cheerfully deranged spyjinks

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong violence, frequent profanity, drug content and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

This is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.

Director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle is just as hyperkinetically loopy as its 2014 predecessor, and I mean that in the best possible way. Both films are deranged riffs on the 1960s spy craze: from the colorfully mod sets to the manic gadgets and weapons. Think Our Man Flint or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ... on steroids.

Waitaminute ... isn't he dead? Having tracked the nefarious Golden Circle's drug-dealing
enterprise to a huge lab concealed beneath a mountain ski chalet, Eggsy (Taron Egerton,
left), Galahad (Colin Firth, center) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) plan their assault.
The Kingsman films are over the top in all respects, which includes frequent profanity and outrageous dollops of violence, the latter guaranteed to whiten the faces of sensitive viewers. (Consider this ample warning.)

But none of this should be taken seriously. These are comic book-style comedies, even if Vaughn and co-scripter Jane Goldman repeatedly crash the boundaries of good taste. Actually, this sequel is more palatable in one key respect: It lacks the first film’s vulgar sexuality, which is a blessed relief.

On the other hand, this second outing does suffer from bloat. At 141 minutes, Vaughn and Goldman overstay their welcome by at least one frenzied action sequence. Too much of anything becomes tedious.

Following a brilliantly choreographed, pedal-to-the-metal prologue that nearly claims the life of Savile Row-garbed Kingsman agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton), Vaughn and Goldman kick this second global adventure into even higher gear, with an unexpectedly vicious housecleaning: a purge reminiscent of how 1996’s first big-screen Mission: Impossible began. When the dust settles, only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong), the organization’s fastidious Scottish tech guru, are left standing.

Forced to activate their organization’s emergency “Doomsday Protocol,” Eggsy and Merlin are guided to the plains of Kentucky, and the massive Statesman bourbon distillery: actually a front for an even more massive compatriot spy organization that clandestinely protects the civilized world. In its own, inimitably American fashion.

2014’s Kingsman milked considerable humor from the class divide that initially separated Eggsy — introduced as a wayward, uncouth, working-class bloke — from Harry Hart/Galahad (Colin Firth), the seasoned operative who brought the young man into the fold. This film does the same, with even funnier results, as the now-suave Eggsy and (always suave) Merlin confront their rougher, gruffer American counterparts.

Kentucky is cowboy country, and everything about Statesman adheres to that model, starting with boots, pronounced drawls and plenty of denim. The primary Statesman field agents are Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal); their tech guru — Merlin’s counterpart — is Ginger Ale (Halle Berry).

As for the group’s leader, who else but Jeff Bridges would be cast as Champagne? He has a great time sending up his various cowboy roles, down to little gestures such as Champ’s habit of wiping his mustache with a finger moistened in bourbon.

Vaughn finds a great excuse to re-stage the first film’s pub fight, when Firth’s preternaturally agile Galahad showed an awe-struck Eggsy that “manners maketh man.” This time, the Kentucky barroom come-uppance comes from Pascal’s lasso- and whip-wielding Whiskey, with equally satisfying results.

The key imperative, of course, is to determine precisely who destroyed the Kingsman network ... and why. Enter the so-called Golden Circle, a mysterious criminal enterprise led by Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore). She’s the world’s richest and most successful entrepreneur, which nobody knows ... because her merchandise is restricted to the production and distribution of illegal drugs.

The obligatory anonymity vexes her quite seriously.

Moore is a stitch: even funnier, and more outrageous, than the first film’s lisping Samuel L. Jackson. She plays Poppy as an America’s Sweetheart gone terribly, terribly wrong: an unwilling expat so homesick, that she has plowed much of her ill-gotten gains into the creation of Poppyland, a twisted blend of Las Vegas and Disneyland, built in the jungle of her Cambodian villain’s lair.

Production designer Darren Gilford deserves an Oscar for this set: Poppy’s dog-nuts effort to re-create the pop-culture Americana of her childhood, complete with retro beauty salon, bowling alley, concert hall and lavish diner, the latter doubling as her office. Gilford and his crew paid meticulous attention to every corner, and the result is a sinister, pastel-hued masterpiece that would be right at home in a Tim Burton movie.

Moore’s Poppy suits this garishly unsettling environment, as she keeps her minions in line with a sing-song, schoolmarmish tone that belies her very, very nasty tendencies. Why rap a miscreant’s knuckles with a ruler, when you can summon a pair of razor-toothed robot dogs?

(One does wonder who builds all of Poppy’s lethal gadgets. We never meet the Golden Circle equivalent of Merlin and Ginger Ale.)

Poppy has a most unusual scheme for world domination, which is right in keeping with Jackson’s equally demented — and gory — machinations in the first film. As an added bit of dark humor, Poppy little realizes that her plan suits the U.S. President just fine, given that it’ll allow him to take care of a “little problem” that has annoyed him for years. This triggers a clandestine “round ’em up” protocol with an uncomfortably pointed reference to current events ... and more than a faint echo of TV’s Torchwood: Miracle Day.

As for casting, of course the U.S. President is played by Bruce Greenwood, in an unhinged riff on his John F. Kennedy, back in 2000’s Rules of Engagement.

Moore aside — who also deserves an Oscar nod, as one of cinema’s all-time greatest burlesque villains — this film can’t really be praised for acting talent; the roles are too florid and deliberately one-dimensional. Tatum’s Tequila is smooth-talking swagger; Pascal’s Whiskey exudes a touch of roguish lothario. Berry’s Ginger Ale is bright and perky: a droll contrast to Strong’s calmer, more thoughtful Merlin.

Egerton fares better than the rest, giving Eggsy some depth that builds further on his unease, as a simple bloke who still can’t quite get comfortable in his posh suits and world-traveling escapades. He’s no more “real” than anybody else in this farce, but he’s definitely more relatable.

Edward Holcroft pops up again as Kingsman dropout Charlie Hesketh, now serving as Poppy’s trusted — and vicious — lieutenant. Hanna Alström also returns as Eggsy’s beloved Princess Tilde, whose marital intentions threaten the anonymity that a Kingsman agent must maintain.

Emily Watson makes a spirited Chief of Staff at the side of the U.S. President, and Poppy Delevingne is appropriately sultry as Hesketh’s promiscuous gal pal.

But nobody has more fun, in a supporting role, than Elton John. About which, no more will be said here.

Except to note that several of his songs also play a key role. As was the case with the first film, Vaughn counterpoints the considerable mayhem against highly unlikely — and often hilariously jarring — pop, rock and even classical tunes. It’s all part of the giddy fun.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle may represent another few paces on the march toward the end of civilization as we know it, but my, what a way to go...

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