Ellements of Film #3: Kingsman: The Golden Circle | Vol. 4 / No. 50.1

[As always with these things: Spoiler Alert that gets more Spoilery the longer you read]

So before my current review can make sense, we have to rewind a bit. A couple of years ago, I was visiting my sister and we were at a loss for things to do. We decided to watch a couple of movies, and my sister suggested Kingsman: The Secret Service. I was vaguely aware of the movie based on the trailer; I knew it was a spy film, that Samuel L. Jackson played the bad guy, and (again, based on the trailer) I’d had little interest in seeing it in theaters. It read as yet another spy film that took itself way too seriously while overusing tired spy movie tropes. But I’ll watch anything with explosions when it’s for free, so I was game.

I. Freaking. Loved it.

I adore that film. It does use the same old tropes, but in a loving mix of satire and homage. There’s a real, emotional heart to the film. I’m convinced Samuel L. Jackson talks with a lisp in the entire thing just so that one line will be funnier, and that is dedication, and possibly top-level trolling. And the fight scene in the church is probably one of the best fight scenes from the last ten years of cinema, if not more. It’s marred at the very end by a pretty tasteless and fairly pointless “save the world, sleep with the girl” anal sex thing that would probably manage to ruin the whole film for me if I were a better feminist, but mostly I just magically manage to be in a different room when those scenes come up. It didn’t help matters that the director, Matthew Vaughn, called the people who were upset by the scene “bloody feminists,” called the scene empowering because it was the female who suggested anal sex (never mind that she’s been isolated and held captive for I believe at least a month at this point), and suggested that anyone who didn’t like it just wasn’t in on how cool and edgy he was. But overall, it is genuinely one of my favorite movies from the last few years. It’s also one that I frequently insist on showing to people who haven’t seen it yet, with the enthusiastic fervor of a newly-converted cultist.

So of course, my sister and I had to go see the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, together. And while I still greatly enjoyed it, this time I was expecting great things from the trailer, and was a little let down when I saw the actual film. (What a twist!) It’s still a very good movie, my sister and I both laughed a lot, and it was a super enjoyable way to spend an evening. But I don’t love it quite as much as I do its predecessor.

First, the synopsis, as spoiler free as I can get it:

After Kingsman headquarters is attacked, Eggsy/Galahad and Merlin must travel to the United States to enlist the assistance of their brother agency, the Statesmen, in getting revenge on the mysterious Golden Circle, a cartel led by Julianne Moore’s Poppy (Get it? Because she runs a drug cartel, so her name is Poppy, which is a flower we get drugs from? So clever.) There they find Harry Hart, previously presumed to be dead, but apparently injured and suffering from amnesia (this would normally count as a spoiler, but the damn trailer spoiled it so I’m off the hook.) They have to try to get Harry to remember his life as a super spy while working with the Statesmen to prevent Poppy from fulfilling her villainous schemes.

Pros:

  • Still some of the best fight choreography I’ve ever seen. I don’t think they topped the church scene from the last movie, but they came damn close. And always with an excellent soundtrack accompanying the violence.
  • All the gadgets. It is Americana, it is kitsch, and I freaking love it. Also, I really, really want some of it.
  • Julianne Moore. While her background isn’t given as much depth as it could be, she’s just delightful as a Martha Stewart/Pablo Escobar mashup.
  • An honestly really funny jab at the faux-spiritual uber-rich who invade music festivals.
  • Surprisingly on-point messaging about the war on drugs and the negative consequences of villainizing drug addicts.
  • Salvaging what was definitely the worst part of the last movie into something halfway decent—an actual, loving relationship between Eggsy and Princess Tilde. Yes, Tilde usually just gets to play the anxious girlfriend, but she’s given personality and an arc.
  • A surprisingly hefty cameo from Sir Elton John, in which he gets to wear outlandish costumes, play some of his music, kick peoples’ asses, and say “fuck” a loooooot.
  • A return to the character of Charlie Hesketh that was actually somewhat interesting. Probably cribbed slightly from Winter Soldier, but still interesting.
  • The character of Merlin being an absolute, goddamn treasure. Seriously. I love him.
  • Some truly genuine humor, and definitely an Americanized version of a British set of values.

Cons:

  • A bizarre emphasis on Fox news as if it is an actual, trusted news organization. I’m guessing the studio that did the movie owns Fox News? But it’s really weird to see it being treated as if anyone who isn’t an aging Republican or a young racist watches it.
  • They took the occasional too much/too obvious CGI and turned the dial up to 11. There were a few moments in the last film that were over-the-top fake, but they were spaced far enough apart you didn’t notice them as much. In this film, there are a loooot of portions where you are very aware that there is green screen happening, which takes you out of the action a lot.
  • A near-abuse of the word “fuck.” I don’t know if they were just so pleased to have an R rating they had to curse constantly to make sure they’d earned it, but I, someone who swears very frequently, actually got tired of the word “fuck” and would have paid actual money for someone to throw in a couple “damns.”
  • Did you think Channing Tatum was in this film? Because he’s not, really. I’m pretty sure Elton John gets more screen time. Which is disappointing, because I would watch an entirely separate film that was just about Agent Tequila of the Statesmen. Or an Agent Tequila/Eggsy team up.
  • A sex scene even more pointless, exploitative, and crass than the one in the last film. We’re talking so bad that the star, Taran Edgerton, made Poppy Delevingne (the actress) use her husband as a stand-in for Edgerton’s role.  (More on that later in the spoiler-y section.)
  • Trying to fit almost too many stars in at once, with mixed results. Much as I love Colin Firth, and much as I love Harry Hart, I don’t think he actually needed to be brought back for this. His death was meaningful, poignant, and almost perfectly-toned in the last film. Bringing him back spoils a lot of that, and also makes you wonder why of all the deaths happening in the series, his is the only one that gets a redo.

Now, for the really spoiler-y part, that doubles as my least favorite part of the film. So if you don’t want the plot semi-ruined (more than the plot-ruining trailer already has) skip ahead to my final thoughts, but know that you are missing some grade-A rant material.

 

 

 

 

SPOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOILERS

 

There were so. Many. Women. In. Refrigerators. For those of you who don’t know that term (which is hopefully none of you, because I don’t know why you would be here reading my rants if you didn’t) this refers to women who are exploited, injured, or killed, mainly to further the storyline of the male protagonist, and for no storytelling value of their own.

The last movie was really hit or miss on female representation, but there were parts of it I loved specifically for the female characters. On the down side we have Eggsy’s mom, who exists mostly to be a sad widow and get abused by her new partner, thus inspiring Eggsy to be protective while also ensuring his life is in a ruined enough state for Harry Hart to sweep in. We also have Amelia, who starts off as one of the two female Kingsman recruits, only to be “killed off” in the first training exercise as a message to the other recruits about teamwork. (Almost none of the recruits heed this message.) And Princess Tilde, who started as a pretty cool firebrand of a royal before the whole “last scene” business freaking ruins it. Then we have the good from the last movie. While it would have been cooler to have a woman with actual prosthetics play Gazelle, I really adored Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, the unflappable henchwoman with razor-sharp prosthetic legs. I also love, love, love Roxy. She is kind to Eggsy without being patronizing, supportive without being unaware of her own goals, competent while still having her own anxieties, and fairly kickass. She even actually wins the competition that is one of the main storylines of the movie, though her success doesn’t get the screen time it deserves. While she doesn’t get to do the main fighting sequences her role is still very important. Most of all, it was very freaking refreshing to have a platonic friendship between a male and female lead. Weirdly enough, girls and boys can be friends without wanting to sex each other up! I know, I was surprised that a movie wanted to reveal that secret, too.

And do you know what this movie did to Roxy? It fucking killed her off in the first fifteen minutes of the film. I was kind of afraid something like this would happen—the trailers featured her only briefly, and everything else was Eggsy/Merlin/Statesmen-centric. But it is still very freaking disappointing. She’s killed in a missile launch aimed at Kingsman headquarters, and unlike Harry Hart, doesn’t get some neat explanation of how she managed to escape death. She’s just dead. And not even in a cool way, like an epic fight scene or a meaningful sacrifice. She’s just collateral damage. Her death exists so that Eggsy and Merlin can go avenge her and the rest of the Kingsmen by teaming up with other men, because spying is a man’s world, damnit. Get out of here with your competent female spycraft.

But even my anger over Roxy is eclipsed by my absolute disgust over what happens to a new character, Clara. Clara is the girlfriend of Charlie Hesketh, who returns to this film to be the main henchman of the villain. In order to try to track Charlie, Eggsy must plant a tracker on Clara. Because this is Spy World, it is an amazing nanobot tracker that not only shows her location, but can transmit audio, too, after it makes its way into… I think her bloodstream? I forget. Something that definitely shouldn’t work that way because of science. But for Plot Reasons, the tracker is held at the end of what can only be explained as a finger condom, and can only be successfully deployed via the mucous membranes. Your poor, innocent movie critic Elle, upon hearing this explanation, immediately thought “Okay but how is he going to discretely get his fingers in her eyes, nose, or mouth? I mean I guess there can be somewhat plausible reasons to stick your finger in someone’s mouth, but that finger condom thing is gonna be pretty obvious.” Oh, Elle. No. Because what else has a mucous membrane? That’s right! The vagina. Eggsy needs a plot reason to finger a stranger. To save the world! Because Eggsy is in the aforementioned loving relationship with Princess Tilde, he doesn’t actually want to do this, and you see a lot of guilt and pathos from him. He tries to get a Hall Pass from Tilde, but it doesn’t really work, and he decides he must do it anyway. For the good of the world. And we see it. In excruciating detail. We see Clara in her underwear. We follow his finger down her skin. We see the bulge of his finger in her panties. And then we get the tracker-eye view going into her goddamn vagina and then through those all-important mucous membranes. And as soon as the tracker is in place, Eggsy bails. I cannot fathom the reasons anyone thought this was necessary. I truly can’t. It is nearly pointless, it is complicated for the sake of being complicated, and it is exploitative in the extreme. It is so deeply uncomfortable that, as I mentioned before, Taran Edgerton refused to have his hand be the one on film in the scene, so the husband of Poppy Delevingne is the one whose hand actually appears on screen. The same actor who was totally good with the anal sex stuff from the last movie and the way the camera obscenely panned over Princess Tilde’s ass felt so uncomfortable he had to get a hand double from the actress’s own husband. Let that sink in for a minute.

Both Eggsy’s discomfort with the act and the extremely exploitative nature of how it is shot also forcibly reminds the audience of something most spy films prefer we forget: everything that is happening here is sexual assault. Eggsy gained Clara’s consent by false pretenses, which is known as rape by deception or rape by fraud. Consent, for those in the back, must be knowing, enthusiastic, and sober. I think this scene maybe passes that middle one, and only on Clara’s part.

It doesn’t help matters that Eggsy later reveals the encounter to Charlie in a moment of smugness, leading to Charlie killing Clara. So once again, a woman is punished for sexual indiscretion, even though it was entirely the result of Eggsy’s deception and then revelation. Way to go, Eggsy.

Misfortune actually falls on most of the female characters in this movie. In addition to Roxy’s death and Clara’s assault/death, Tilde ends up getting poisoned by the tainted drugs Poppy has distributed, as does the female Vice President? Not totally sure on that character’s role. Poppy herself meets a grisly end (though we probably saw that one coming), and Tilde’s mother mostly exists to be silent at dinner and fret over her poisoned daughter. Halle Berry’s Ginger Ale ends up mostly okay, if largely sidelined, and Eggsy’s mom pops up in the final scenes to show she’s not dead. Those two are the bright spots.

The treatment of female characters in this film is incredibly disappointing, after the positive representations we got of Roxy and Gazelle in the last film. And in this case, it truly is enough to ruin large swathes of the film for me.

 

 

 

END OF SPOILERS/FINAL THOUGHTS

 

I feel like this film tried to take a lot of the elements of the last film and turn them up a notch. In a lot of cases (Eggsy’s emotional core, celebrity additions, camaraderie among spies, interesting villain plots) this turned out well. In others (CGI, treatment of women, intentional “edginess,”) this turned out poorly. Overall, you get a film that is fast-paced, largely enjoyable, and full of most of the things that make you love the spy genre. But there’s also a lot there to remind you why the spy genre is hella problematic.

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Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not explaining the good, bad, and ugly about recent films to strangers on the internet, she studies gender in popular culture.

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