Film Discussion

Viewpoint: do the Kingsman movies have a culture problem?

Tony Black does some wondering about culture and the Kingsman franchise...

Beware The Golden Circle spoilers, folks…

Kingsman: The Golden Circle has been getting some pretty savage reviews, have you noticed? Not from us; our boy Chris Haigh fairly approximated it in my view as a three-star picture – fun, silly, enjoyable, but not nearly on the same level as Matthew Vaughn’s original, The Secret Service. Some reviewers have really hated The Golden Circle, though, possibly because they were hoping for something more innovative and vibrant from a director and franchise which bounced on the scene almost three years old with a naughty spring in its step, and a single digit finger in the politically correct distance of the franchises it self-referentially takes a cue from, principally James Bond.

While The Golden Circle does suffer from sequel bloat in almost every way, the bigger problem throughout for me seemed to be a cultural one, because culture is forefront in the mind of Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman here, even more so than The Secret Service. What surprised me was how clumsily handled their take on culture, as opposed to pop-culture, felt in the much-anticipated sequel.

We’ve talked a bit before about the inspirations on the original Kingsman. Mark Millar’s comic served of course as the primary source material but Vaughn, as shepherd visually of the project, has always had a fascination with the dangerous swagger of hard, charming men, mixed with a cheeky level of Cool Britannia anarchy. You see the former in a lot of his work – Daniel Craig’s turn in Layer Cake (which helped land him the 007 gig), Michael Fassbender adopting Sean Connery’s Bond in X-Men: First Class, and with Taron Egerton’s Eggsy in The Secret Service, that all came together: Vaughn delights in taking a commoner and elevating him to the Establishment. That infamous anal sex gag in The Secret Service is the ultimate middle finger to Eon and the Broccoli estate.

In the first Kingsman movie, however, that cultural switch and appropriation was central to the narrative journey Eggsy went on, and one of the reasons you rooted for him. The whole fun of Kingsman was seeing these two cultures come together: modern, urban Britain where boorish, unemployed middle-aged men booze in the day, come home & hit their wives, and young lads wear peaked caps, wear low hanging jeans and the white lads inflect their accents with black gangsta patois… meets old school, upper class, pre-1960’s cultural revolutionary Britannia; Colin Firth’s Harry Hart epitomises John Steed, the umbrella, precise tailoring, penchant for comportment and stickler for good manners. The joy of The Secret Service wasn’t seeing Harry rebuke Eggsy for being common, it was seeing Eggsy channel his roots into something else – by the end, he’s 60’s Michael Caine with a dash of 70’s Roger Moore. He’s lower and upper class. He’s both worlds united.

The Secret Service heightens these cultural stereotypes for dramatic effect and makes them central to the story of Eggsy and the central theme of the picture. Why, then, does The Golden Circle take these elements for granted and hash them up when moving across the Pond?

One of the key elements of the sequel has been the American influence. It’s always been there; recall how Samuel L. Jackson’s lisp-rattling bad guy Valentine in the original was American, often commenting on the alien nature of traditional British manners from his perspective (and the franchise’s most kinetic moment to date, Harry’s battle in the church, takes place in Kentucky). The villain of the sequel has an even stronger foot in Americana, as Julianne Moore’s Poppy inventively carves herself a 1950’s town out of ancient Cambodian ruins.

Yet The Golden Circle attempts to do for American culture what The Secret Service did for British by introducing Statesman, the US espionage equivalent. Where Kingsman operates out of a London tailoring business as its front, Statesman fronts a Midwestern whiskey company. Where Kingsman agents wear sharp suits and carry gadget filled brollies and briefcases, Statesman agents all dress like cowboys, have Southern drawls and use magic whips as weapons.

You see where this is going but what’s it trying to say? In The Secret Service, as discussed above, there felt like a cultural point being made, commenting on how British society has inexorably changed as class divides and cultural influences have affected each generation. There doesn’t seem to be anything of the sort in The Golden Circle. Jeff Bridges chews cigars and downs tumblers because, yee haw, he’s a Southern American man, and y’all better understand that.

Channing Tatum, horrendously wasted throughout, seems simply there for women to swoon at the sight of him in chaps. Even Pedro Pascal’s most signature Statesman in the plot, Agent Whiskey, ends up with character motivation linked more to the commentary on drugs and the danger of drugs than anything to do with why he swings a magic, people slicing whip around. Where Kingsman felt like an idea with a point, Statesman always feels quite the opposite – aesthetically pleasing, but hollow.

Of even more interest is how Vaughn & Goldman manage to get a serious dig in, and some wish fulfilment over, the Trump Administration. Bruce Greenwood’s President isn’t a direct approximation but is played a dumb hick who somehow managed to get into the Oval Office, and is now quite prepared to let millions die to ‘solve a problem’. The fact he later ends up impeached will raise a smile to anyone who quite frankly still has no idea how American politics has ended up in the state it’s in, and though it may be a cheap and obvious gag, it works.

You’ll see more of this in heightened reality films or sci-fi shows that can get away with it over the next few years – where once cultural representation of American power would be a dignified Morgan Freeman as the Commander-in-Chief in Deep Impact, it’s only a matter of time before Mike Judge’s Idiocracy edges ever closer to becoming near-documentarian in how prophetic it is.

Perhaps the most misjudged cultural element? The Scottish one. This felt bizarre, and purely to garner an emotional reaction in a film devoid of anything that might make you care. Mark Strong’s Merlin, almost as much the heart of the Kingsman franchise as Eggsy, is offed in transparent, weak fashion when he makes a noble landmine sacrifice and goes out singing John Denver in a pronounced Scottish brogue, as ethereal bagpipes play over the score.

Come on. You can do better than this, Matt & Jane. If you’re going to take out a character like Merlin, earn it. Tagging on a proud Scottish heritage in the face of death (for a sacrifice, by the way, that totally wasn’t needed given Eggsy & Harry could have cut through those faceless goons like butter) just felt cheap, and again serves to remind you that culturally, the Kingsman sequel is empty and bereft.

So while the scathing reviews aren’t honestly warranted (save those for stuff that really deserves it, like The Emoji Movie), one would hope if we do get Kingsman 3, which Vaughn apparently wants to make, that either cultural aspects be addressed as neatly as they were in the original, or they’re left behind entirely so we can enjoy a daft, modern, late-Roger Moore Bond-style slice of fluff without any awkwardness left hanging over the edge.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is now on general release. What did you think of the film? Let us know!

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