I admit I have trouble fully knowing what to make of the “Kingsman” movies, both of which I’ve seen for the first time in the last few days, and one of which -- “The Golden Circle” -- hits theaters this weekend. My trouble is that I can identify at least four different genres operating all at once.
As satirical political comedies, both “Kingsman” movies offer subtle and insightful social commentary.
As mindless action film spectacles, both offer obvious, in-your-face gore and over-the-top violence.
As character-driven drama, there is an imbalance in terms of gender -- the perspectives of male characters are almost the only ones with any depth -- but the characters we do get have flashes of genuine humanity and emotion.
A fourth genre -- sexploitation -- is the one that stumps me the most, and both films fall into it for one brief scene each. I’ll come back to that one in more detail later.
What fascinated me most about “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” was its political perspective, which I applaud for in its coherency and thoroughness.
Just as the first 2014 film built a stinging and complex case against the tactics of the wealthy to enforce class divisions -- and did so in part by examining British “manners” -- “The Golden Circle” makes a thorough deconstruction of more particularly American set of values.
The villain, Poppy, played with comic juiciness (and sadism) by Julianne Moore, represents the epitome of idealized Americana, emptied of its morality. She checks off just about every box in the American Dream: She’s a successful CEO living in a Disneyland-esque theme park she created as a monument to 1950s kitsch. Her business is recreational drugs, so she has built her Better Homes and Gardens paradise in the middle of the jungle outside of the United States, but she talks of wishing she could go back and live in her beloved country.
Her throwback nostalgia for an America of yesteryear has a hypocritical underbelly: It’s not that she sells drugs (hers is a business as American as the tobacco industry, after all), but it’s that while superficially celebrating nostalgia, she also invests in super-high-tech robotic technology, having no empathy or trust in fellow humans, even her closest partners. It’s an indictment of the way computer technology today is used to create isolated echo chambers and division.
The first “Kingsman” was maligned by some critics for having what they saw as a conservative point of view. After all, the villain there (played by Samuel L. Jackson) was concerned with climate change. I disagree with that reading, though I take even more issue with the notion that having a conservative point of view would be a reason to malign a film.
Only superficially was Jackson’s villain a “liberal activist.” Under the surface, his plot was apolitical. It was more about eradicating poor people in order to preserve the indulgent lifestyle of the wealthy -- climate change was simply a given in his plan, and no one questioned it.
With “The Golden Circle,” screenwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (who also directs) give their response to those critics who read the first film as conservative-leaning, and I see some signs of some gleeful trolling on their part.
Here we get another villain with a superficially “liberal cause,” the legalization of recreational drugs, but her actual plan is much more complex -- and relevant to today’s politics. In order to blackmail the president of the United States into legalizing recreational drugs, Poppy laces her exports with a chemical invention that turns users’ faces blue before it slowly kills them.
Eventually, millions of drug-users across social and political lines in America become affected, and Poppy goes on national television to announce that only she has the antidote, and to offer it publicly to the president as ransom.
This is where the plot thickens -- and where the film moves far from an attack on liberal politics to a satire on contemporary conservative ideas. The president’s response, despite having someone in his own cabinet develop the blue-skin sickness, is to celebrate. Now, he reasons, all of the law-breakers will die at once. He declares, “I just won the war on drugs!”
Once the United States government started locking people up in mass numbers of cages based on their blue skin, which indicates they broke the law, and lawbreakers must be punished -- that’s when I realized this movie is daring people to look past the superficial political sides and to see the moral emptiness behind our most deeply-held partisan beliefs.
“The Golden Circle” is a movie about America today, and how we talk about immigration.
That’s straightforward, smart filmmaking, but where the trolling comes in (which I also love) is in the utilization of FOX News clips. It’s standard in movies like this to cut to newscasters on television giving updates on the end of the world in progress, but one particular channel that hardly ever gets airtime in movies like this, except maybe in brief flashes in a montage, is that liberal pariah of television news networks, FOX News.
In the world of “Kingsman,” though, FOX News is apparently the only source of news around. The movie cuts to a television showing FOX News many times, in many different contexts -- even in other countries, which makes little actual sense. It’s a joke, and a hilarious, thematically resonant one, by Goldman and director Vaughn. The punchline: our superficial indicators of partisan loyalty are meaningless, and it doesn’t matter if we collectively agree that a particular TV network is bad, when we stay silent on actual policies.
Another example of satirical brilliance comes in the form of Elton John. The singer gets more than an extended cameo in “The Golden Circle,” he’s basically a supporting character, and his presence is important in the film’s exposes of the gruesome underbelly of 1950s-era Americana pleasantness.
It’s not by accident that the singer that Poppy would kidnap and enslave to perform private concerts for her would be Elton John. It reminded me of a great point I saw last week on the recent debate about same-sex marriage and cake. A gay man on Facebook argued that those who want to refuse to give their services to gay people should also refuse to take the services of gay people -- meaning no watching movies with gay actors, no clothes designed by gay fashion designers, and yes, no listening to Elton John. The refusal should go both ways.
I thought of that point when I saw the traditionalist Poppy enslave the flamboyant singer, and when Elton John finally fights back later in the film, I don’t think it’s an accident that he’s decked out from head to toe in rainbow feathers. Or that he makes an innuendo that is reminiscent of a strikingly overt sexual scene in the first “Kingsman” film.
Which brings me to the sexplotation aspect of this series. I will say that sitting down for the screening for “The Golden Circle,” I had my arms crossed, ready to dislike whatever was coming, because at the end of the first film -- which I enjoyed up until that point -- there is the most brazen sexual objectification of a female character -- a literal princess -- we had barely gotten to know. Suddenly, the male hero asks to kiss her, and she counter-offers with an outright, specific, sexual act.
It shocked me, even though it was, admittedly, completely consensual. It was just out of nowhere, and it echoed “James Bond”-style sexual conquest in a way I found totally distasteful.
I wasn’t the only one to take offense to that scene, and now, with “The Golden Circle,” it seems like the filmmakers are trolling again, this time toward people like me, because that one joke is turned inside and out and upside down and is everywhere in this new film. The first surprise comes in the first few minutes of the film, with the discovery that it wasn’t a one-night-stand sexual conquest but the beginning of a long, committed relationship.
The princess, named Tilde, is a significant character this time around, and consent and mutual respect in sexuality is actually a major theme.
I still don’t know what to make of the brief, sexually explicit scene that happens right in the middle of this new movie. Like the first time around, the blatantness of the sexual exploitation surprised and troubled me, but it is contained, this time, around a scene that is explicitly dealing with the question of what consent and respect look like. So there’s something else going on here.
This is the kind of series where a gun gets pointed at puppies and the trigger gets pulled. But as one character insists again in this film, referring to the bullets in those puppy-pointing guns: “They were blanks!” No puppy may actually get harmed, but I think Goldman and Vaughn get a kick out of making us think that they will.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Taron Egerton, Julianne Moore, Colin Firth
Running time: 2 hours, 22 min
Rating: R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout and some sexual material