Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Like all adaptations, Kingsman (2014) plays fast and loose with its source material. Unlike a long-running franchise, however, The Secret Service (2012) was a one-shot, although it was technically integrated into the so-called ‘Millarverse’ of author Mark Millar, which includes other angry young franchises such as Kick-Ass (2008). These more contained publications often feel like storyboarded screenplays, which make the changes that occur in the translation from the page to the big screen (especially when dealing with a big-budget special effects extravaganza film) seem like change for its own sake. In this regard, Kingsman has more in common with 2 Guns (2013) which was also adapted from a graphic novel and had its twist ending altered. Unlike the Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg action-comedy about double crossed agents, however, Kingsman managed to turn itself into an honest-to-goodness franchise, capturing the attention of fans even if both films received similarly mixed reviews. What set director Matthew Vaughn’s film apart from other, similar endeavors?
Kingsman is a story about criminals, bullies, social class, and family, all themes which have dominated Matthew Vaughn’s directorial career. Draped in the finery of classic spy-thrillers with special gadgets and doomsday devices, the original graphic novel and the film are spectacular enough to let whatever medicine they might contain go down smoothly. Where the stories diverge is what’s most interesting, though, as the twin franchises build upon those differences. In the graphic novel, the protagonist, ‘Eggsy’ is the nephew of superspy Jack London. Although his family is not aware of his trade, Eggsy and his mother resent Jack for abandoning them for so long while they live near the poverty line in estate housing projects. In the film version, Harry Hart aka Agent Galahad owes a life-debt to Eggsy’s father who threw himself on a grenade to save his fellow agent’s life. In both stories Eggsy is bailed out of jail when he comes of age and recruited into a secret super spy training facility. On the page and the screen, it’s the older man trying to raise Eggsy while both of them learn a different kind of responsibility than they are used to.
While most of the differences are minor, a lot can be made of them. For example, the lack of familial obligation between Colin Firth’s mentor and Taron Egerton’s young punk cum superspy theoretically streamlines their connection to one another as they are not forced to overcome decades of resentment. However, this also weakens some of their interactions, and Firth’s Hart loses some of London’s Michael Caine flavorings because he did not spring from the same socioeconomic challenges as Eggsy. The doomsday weapon of The Secret Service is a mind control device which compels humans to murder one another designed by a tech billionaire as a solution to overpopulation and climate change. In the film version, one of the weapon’s tests takes place inside a bigoted Church in Kentucky and places Colin Firth at the center of the carnage; were it not for the film’s finale this would be its angriest and most astonishing sequence. The graphic novel allows Eggsy to save the day and honor his Uncle’s memory by using the sum of all the skills and knowledge he’s learned over the years to change the signal from one of hate to one of love, saving the day. In the film version, Eggsy relies a bit more on his teammates Merlin (Mark Strong), a gadget expert and mild comedic-relief, and Roxy (Sophie Cookson), a fellow young recruit.
Kingsman’s ending is bound to remain controversial. It gets by with slick action and bright color but nevertheless is pretty shocking for a blockbuster production. When Eggsy is trying to deactivate the doomsday signal he purposefully activates the device’s failsafe. In order to ensure his plans succeed the evil tech billionaire, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), has installed explosive devices into the necks of world leaders, aristocrats, and businessmen, blackmailing them into complying with his violent ends. The film ends with the heads of dozens of heads of state erupting into fireworks. If James Bond and other fictional super-spies have ever been the arms of a racist, bigoted, sexist, classist status quo then Kingsman emancipates the genre as it literally blows up the establishment, the act of which would be the inciting terrorist incident in nearly any other film. The perplexing icing on this cake has vexed critics and fans for years. Seemingly not content with paving a brave new world for the genre, the film falls back on familiar tropes in its final moments. The kidnapped Princess Tilde of Sweden (Hanna Alström), who refused to comply with Valentine’s plans, promises Eggsy sexual favors if he saves the world and frees her and the film ends with him taking her up on the offer.
Luckily, the sequel dispels a lot of the uncomfortable implications of the scene. In Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) Eggsy and Tilde are in a committed long-term relationship. The Golden Circle is quite a movie, in fact, as it doubles down on its Bondian set pieces and the traditional upwards-punching anger of Vaughn’s oeuvre. Drug lord Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) is the film’s primary villain, backed by Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft) a washed out Kingsman trainee with a grudge against Eggsy. It’s a shame that Hesketh was unable to tap into similar emotions. Hesketh is just the same dull bully he was in Kingsman who cannot wrap his head around the concept that Eggsy is a better agent in heart, body, and mind, than Hesketh could ever be. While he works as a henchman and his grudge against Eggsy is believable the film doesn’t provide any understanding of how he came to work for Poppy and his bionic arm is only addressed as part of Poppy’s proclivity for robotics.
Poppy, who lives inside a heavily guarded secret jungle temple ruin she has transformed into a faux-nostalgic 1950s Americana town called ‘Poppyland’ replete with diner, barbershop, and bowling alley, has devised an evil plan to hold all of the world’s drug users hostage by releasing a virus into her products and holding the antidote hostage until the US President ends the War on Drugs and grants her immunity. She hopes to legitimize the drug trade this way and thus officially and publicly become the wealthiest and most successful businesswoman in the world. The U.S. President scoffs at the idea of doing anything to help drug addicts and declares, to the accolades of his sycophantic general, that he has just won the War on Drugs and will pretend to agree to Poppy’s demands until all of the infected citizens are dead. U.S. Presidents don’t often appear in such stories; the role often exists solely for the sake of exposition and the character is just there to bear the weight of an impossible dilemma until the hero saves the day. Here however the blustery black comedy of Bruce Greenwood’s President is more reminiscent of Tim Robbins’ in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) who is prevented from blowing up the moon by his generals and pleads: “would you miss it?!”. In The Golden Circle generals do not hold the president back and he locks up the infected victims in draconian cages stacked one atop the other in pyramids erected inside football stadiums in place of emergency shelters.
The infected victims go through several stages, the most ludicrous of which is the spasming which makes them boogie down and pop and lock. There are a number of historical illnesses referred to as dancing but this is a macabre misnomer for horrific uncontrollable jerking such as that caused by mercury poisoning and is not traditionally accompanied by musical montage and a glint in Channing Tatum’s eye. The dancing is followed by a statuesque paralysis and ultimately ends in death by hemorrhage. Throughout the course of the film a handful of victims are individuals we’re asked to care about: Channing Tatum’s Agent Tequila, Princess Tilde, one of Eggsy’s childhood friends, and the US President’s Chief of Staff (Emily Watson).
Eggsy’s trajectory during the film is different from the previous movie and I don’t think it’s as well explored. The Golden Circle remains a sequel and while the film’s opening moments thin the ensemble a bit, the movie still contends with an exploding roster of new characters and struggles to juggle a number of subplots and ideas within its 141 minute run-time. The most glaring of these is the revival of Colin Firth’s character who was executed by Valentine and his henchman by gunshot through the eye, mirroring London’s fate in the graphic novel. Absurdly, The Golden Circle introduces a device developed for the express purpose or reviving head-shot victims involving nanotechnology and retrograde amnesia which can be cured by forcing patients to relive past trauma. It’s goofy but the movie leans into it. The device itself looks like an inflatable plaster that fills with blue and orange liquid and is specially housed inside of the stetson cowboy hats worn by Statesman agents.
Statesman are the US version of Kingsman. Where the Kingsman use a high-end tailor as cover for their funding and gadgets the Statesman own and operate a bourbon distillery. Where the movie version of Kingsman have their agents’ code names pulled from the Arthurian tradition the Statesman code names are all based on alcoholic beverages. Their Q is Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) who holds aspirations of being a field agent, their leader is Champagne (Jeff Bridges) who prefers to go by Champ, and their best and brightest is Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) who chooses to betray the cause because of his tragic past. There is a sliver of a chance that this new focus was meant to salvage the reputation of Kentucky after the negative portrayal the state received in Kingsman but aside from standard machismo ideas of superiority (Tequila successfully defeats and captures Eggsy and Merlin single-handedly when they infiltrate the Statesman compound and Champ gloats about the excessive net worth of Statesman when compared to Kingsman.)
The film begins with Eggsy getting accosted by Charlie while heading to his taxi cab. The two engage in a high-speed chase and a gadget-filled fisticuffs as the cab is revealed to be a special Kingsman spy-car. There’s a unique dynamism to the camera in these films as it dodges and darts it’s way through the action as if trying to find the best angle with which the frame each beat in the scene. It’s been said that comic books feature a moving frame that captures a still image whereas a movie camera is a still frame which captures a moving image. The action cinematography of the Kingsman series challenges this notion when the camera dashes about, enhanced with special effects, pausing only to frame a moment from a particularly lovely angle. The fighting comes to a stop when, after accidentally executing the driver, Charlie is thrown from the cab as it crashes to a stop leaving behind only his detached prosthetic limb.
Eggsy takes the wheel, converting the cab into it’s racing gear, and outmaneuvers the three vans full of goons that have been following him. Making his way through Hyde Park he finally dispatches the goons with the help of Merlin’s gadgets. It’s a pretty standard take on the spy-car though the confidence and slickness of the action does make it feel fresh again. In order to escape the police Eggsy is forced to drive into the water, which humorously requires him to hold his breath, in order to reach a Kingsman safehouse. The cab, of course, further transforms into a submersible with underwater propulsion. Once inside the safe house Eggsy complains that he will be late for dinner and is offered a way out by Merlin which involves leaping into an open sewer. The film highlights the fact that leaving in this manner proves Eggsy’s commitment to this dinner and underlines the beat by having him request a kiss from his girlfriend while covered in raw sewage to which she agrees. It’s played for laughs, but it’s a bit of a heavy-handed way of showing us how deeply they are apparently committed to one another that goes beyond the traditional fact that he’s nervous about meeting her parents.
The dinner he’s late for is actually his friend’s birthday party and the scene definitely feels like a bit of a distraction. It’s useful to know that Eggsy still hangs out with his mates but nothing revealed here really pays off later. Eggsy gets his friend to agree to dog sit for him while he’s dining with the royal family of Sweden. Eggsy is able to make use of Hart’s etiquette lessons to acquit himself well when it comes to royal table manners but takes advantage of his spy glasses and Roxy to navigate his way through the King’s conversation topics which are designed to trip him up. Eggsy almost blows it when he watches his friend nearly blow himself up through a spare pair of Kingsman glasses. Unfortunately, at the same time Poppy launches her attack against Kingsman and she eliminates the entire agency with simultaneous missile strikes. It’s a little absurd but everybody wants to watch a movie about an underdog and a super spy with unlimited resources and royal girlfriend is decidedly not an underdog.
Merlin and Eggsy, the only survivors of the attack, locate their organization’s doomsday protocol: a bottle of Statesman Bourbon with their logo hidden in the capital letter of Kentucky. The two men get drunk together before figuring it out and Merlin reveals his fondness for John Denver’s country music, though it appears limited to “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. The duo join a guided tour of the Statesman distillery but, in traditional movie fashion, leave it to do some snooping. While attempting to access a secret door which leads to a massive underground compound they are stopped by Agent Tequila (Tatum) who subdues them with his bullwhip and charm. Tequila certainly seems like a competent agent as he handily defeats the two Kingsman members but there’s a certain thickness of skull that comes across in his portrayal. Tequila correctly deduces that these two men aren’t mere innocent bystanders but incorrectly assumes they are up to no good. Like all the Statesman agents, Tequila’s dialogue is flavored with delicious colloquialisms like “that dog don’t hunt” but this only adds to the unfortunate stereotype being presented.
Eventually, Tequila realizes his mistake and apologizes when Ginger discovers a Kingsman umbrella emblazoned with the American agency’s logo on the S in their own doomsday protocol vault. Tequila’s suspicions are revealed to have rested on the fact that Statesman has been holding a British man in custody for quite some time. The man whom the Statesman know as “The Lepidopterist” is, of course, Harry Hart, who survived his gunshot wound thanks to the life-saving procedure developed by Statesman. With the help of the British agents the former Agent Galahad can finally have his memory restored. Hart’s subplot is complicated and feels unnecessary. Of course his presence lends the film a lot of manly British emotions to give it a similar amount of sweetness and heart as the first one but so brazenly conquering death robs the film of much tension. If you can cure gunshots to the brain what can’t you do? Hart also has trouble recovering. His amnesia sent him back to a time before he joined the army when he dreamed of studying butterflies and despite recovering his memories he suffers from hallucinations of butterflies clouding his vision. Furthermore, going through death and re-experiencing the crossroads of his life has dealt Galahad’s confidence a heavy blow. Hart is regretful of many of his choices and shares these concerns with Eggsy. This subplot doesn’t seem to go very far. Naturally, having Eggsy build Harry back up acts as a kind of karmic repayment for their relationship in the previous film but the thread feels stunted. For example, there’s never a scene where Hart is forced to overcome his demons at a crucial moment which is the sort of beat these ideas normally set up. Instead we’re treated to more subplots where Tequila becomes infected with the virus and is fridged for the remainder of the film, literally.
The members of Poppy’s cartel are branded with circular tattoos made from molten gold. Having spotted such a tattoo on Charlie and having traced the breach of Kingsman’s security back to the robotic arm Eggsy left in the Kingsman cab the team decides to investigate Charlie’s girlfriend in order to learn his whereabouts. Eggsy and Whiskey head to Glastonbury Festival in order to place a tracker on Charlie’s girlfriend Clara (Poppy Delevingne). The film loses the plot a little bit here. There’s the traditional moment where the experienced expert Whiskey completely fails to seduce the girl at the bar who is then successfully seduced by the young upstart Eggsy, lying through his teeth. Modern films usually present this is a coordinated effort where the loutish first attempt tees up the second man to “rescue” the target. The whole bit is presented a generational and international competition between the two agents so it plays a little tacky in this day and age. Further dampening this whole scene is the fact that the location tracker provided by Statesman is designed to attack itself to a mucus membrane. While the body is chock full of mucus membranes including the cavities of the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth, the delivery device is designed, ludicrously, like a small condom that fits over one’s finger and is explicitly stated to require being introduced genitally. Eggsy successfully completes his mission and Clara is soon forced to travel to Italy and receive the cure from her boyfriend.
The cure is being developed and shipped from a facility located in the Italian Alps which is successfully infiltrated by Eggsy, Whiskey, and Hart. Unfortunately, Eggsy gets on Charlie’s bad side again when Clara’s dalliance is revealed. The three men are chased down and find themselves trapped in a cabin. While the Kingsman franchise excels at depicting hand-to-hand combat it becomes a bit more standard when dealing with the big action of toppling ski lifts. While trapped in the cabin Hart convinces himself that Whiskey is going to betray them and instead of covering Whiskey while he dispatches the small army sent to assassinate them, Hart and Eggsy argue about whether or not Whiskey is innocent. In the end, Hart shoots Whiskey in the head and dispatches the remaining Golden Circle soldiers with one of his Kingsman gadget bombs while Eggsy applies the life-saving device.
It’s eventually revealed that Hart’s instincts were quite correct. Whiskey harbors a deep resentments towards drug addicts originating from the death of his wife at the hands of burgling meth-heads years ago. He, like the US President, hopes that by letting them all die he’ll be leaving the world a better place. While Whiskey was recovering from his injuries, however, the agency followed other leads and tracked Poppy to her Cambodian lair. Working against the clock while Whiskey recovers, Hart and Eggsy are joined by Merlin as they rush to Cambodia in order to force Poppy to activate her drone army and disperse the cure before the infected succumb to the virus. It’s a pretty lazy dastardly scheme. Poppy might be delusional but she has no intention of actually killing many millions of people. It’s Whiskey and the US President who are the real villains, willing to kill off huge segments of the population with the flimsy excuse that it will save the world. Like the evil plan in the first film, the US President’s ploy is a completely immoral solution to a real problem. Drug addiction, overpopulation, and climate change are all real problems, but there’s no way mass slaughter is the solution.
Merlin introduces Hart and Eggsy to the new gadgets provided by Statesman including a minesweeper disguised as a baseball bat. It’s a requirement for sneaking up on Poppy’s compound which has been repeatedly described as protected by a minefield. Right in front of the compound, however Eggsy steps on a mine and freezes. I appreciate that this moment is set up but it absolutely feels like a cheat. Why bother introducing the minesweeping gadget? Merlin decides to sacrifice himself to save Eggsy’s life and replaces him as the weight keeping the mine from detonating. Merlin frames it as repaying the debt he owes Eggsy’s father for taking the grenade that also saved Hart’s life. Mark Strong belts out a version of “Take Me Home”, attracting the attention of Poppy’s guards, and takes most of them in the blast. This sort of sacrifice play should carry a lot of weight, and I won’t say it’s not touching, but after reviving Colin Firth from a point-blank headshot I wouldn’t be surprised to see Roxy (who died in the blast when the Kingsman mansion and the entire grounds were demolished by one of Poppy’s missiles) or Merlin (who was blown to smithereens) return in the inevitable sequel.
Eggsy and Hart blast their way through the compound, working well together as a team perhaps galvanized to avenge Merlin’s death. Eggsy has a final showdown with Charlie where he defeats the man’s upgraded prosthetic arm and once again proves himself the better man. Poppy is forced to provide the activation code and the two men successfully defeat Whiskey. This fight is at least the most visually spectacular of the movie and has the best set-up stakes. Having witnessed Whiskey take on an army handily, both the heroes and the audience understand just how difficult it will be for the good guys to win. Of course, in the end, all is well.
The US President’s Chief of Staff is successfully cured of her disease and successfully spearheads the US President’s impeachment and arrest. Statesman purchases a distillery in Scotland (renaming it Kingsman) and the two agencies become brothers in arms. Ginger Ale, always prevented from becoming a field agent by Whiskey’s dissenting vote, becomes the new Agent Whiskey after both Eggsy and Hart decline the position. Eggsy overcomes his cliche fear of commitment, here accurately presented as the awkwardness of becoming a public figure, i.e. prince of Sweden, while also being a super spy and the film ends with his marriage to Tilde. There’s a nice shot of the wedding bands, two perfect golden circles, that provide a better origin for the film’s title than Poppy’s cartel. At the film’s close a cured Agent Tequila, dressed to the nines replete with bowler hat, steps out of a cab in front of the rebuilt Kingsman offices.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is an action-comedy but very few of its jokes are actually directed at the spy-thriller genre. The gadgets, action, code names, outfits, villains, and plots are indeed all ridiculous but it’s just subtle enough to play straight. At times during the film I found myself asking who this movie is for. It’s difficult to believe the genuine Bond crowd would be down for a film where the US President laughs at the prospect of letting a significant portion of his population die. Even the more anti-authoritarian Bourne crowd would shy away from many of the anti-American stereotypes not quite averted by the film. Kingsman is only just this side of Mission Impossible and it’s amazing to have it thrive in this era of unusually dour spy dramas. Vaughn’s Kingsman franchise possesses a sincerity that takes it beyond spoofs like Austin Powers and In Like Flint (1967) with a mean streak that elevates it above simple buddy comedies like Shanghai Knights (2003) and Rush Hour (1998). As a spy comedy that doesn’t rely on the oafishness of its leading man and action that can dazzle even the most ardent genre fans, with social commentary that will throw antiestablishmentarians for a loop, the Kingsman franchise has nowhere to go but up and you’ll want to be on board for the ride.