It certainly has been a banner year for John Denver’s “Country Roads” in film. It’s been prominently featured in Alien: Covenant, Logan Lucky and most recently, Kingsman: The Golden Circle. (Those last two make me think that maybe, just maybe Channing Tatum has written the song into his contract somewhere. Fingers crossed we get Magic Mike 3: Tokyo Strip with a routine set to the charming melody.) Surprisingly, it is not the film filled with characters from West Virginia that features the song most prominently, but the one about British secret agents. (I heard the familiar strains four times, including a bagpipe rendition.) To be fair they do stop over in America in this outing–to Kentucky but the American South is the American South.
Like its predecessor Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Golden Circle follows Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), now a full fledged secret agent with the Kingsmen. Very quickly, however, the other Kingsmen are dispatched, leaving only Eggsy and quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong). The pair find out the spy agency’s doomsday protocol is to seek refuge with their American “cousins” in Kentucky. There they join forces with the beverage code-named Statesmen: Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and their leader Champagne (Jeff Bridges, doing his patented Jeff Bridges cowboy-thing). They also find that Eggsy’s mentor, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), is still alive, despite having been shot in the head by Samuel L. Jackson in the first movie.
The villain is Poppy (Julianne Moore), the head of the world’s largest drug cartel, the eponymous Golden Circle. She makes her base in ancient Cambodian ruins that she’s retrofitted into Poppy Land–a fifties themed Main Street U.S.A.-esque deal complete with beauty parlor, theater and diner. The diner is essentially Poppy’s office and houses a meat grinder that she uses for less-than-model employees. Her plan is to poison her own supply in an effort to force the government to legalize and regulate recreational drugs. Which leads us nicely into one of the major issues with both Kingsman films: the absurdly conservative politics.
I’ve read the comic series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons that the films are based off, and I really didn’t like it and was kinda offended. But it was by Mark Millar, so being offended is par for the course, and The Secret Service movie was charming and different enough that I enjoyed it; it added minority and female characters, gave everything a lighter tone, and was clearly having fun with the genre. The Golden Circle is still enjoyable, but it’s harder to ignore some things now. The first film features an environmentalist for a villian and this one deals with regulating recreational drugs. The superspy is traditionally a conservative figure. He or she (but let’s face it, he) upholds order in the face of extremists. The Kingsman films just feel a little more blatant in their politics than Bond, Bourne or hell, even American Assassin. It doesn’t help that the series also centers around the abstract concept of being a ‘gentlemen.’ Something not defined by money or class but rather by adhering to a certain set of behaviors and ideals.
There are a lot of moments that make me cringe. Female Kingsman Roxy is reduced to Eggsy’s guy-in-a-chair (shout out to Ned) before being blown up. Princess Tilde is brought back in what feels like an attempt to save face for the terrible anal sex joke The Secret Service ended on, but it only raised questions about why she and Eggsy would be in a relationship. There’s a mission that involves fingering a villain’s girlfriend. One character is told to never do recreational drugs again and just stick to alcohol. And boy, for a movie that is so anti-drug, it really loves its alcohol.
The series also has a really weird relationship to disability and especially prosthetics. I didn’t mind Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) on her own. She wasn’t much of a character. She was pretty much just a generic henchwoman, but the blade leg prosthetics were neat and allowed for inventive action scenes. (Side note: In the comic, Gazelle is man with prosthetic legs, alas no blades.) Unfortunately, The Golden Circle brings back Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), the snobby bully who failed his Kingsman training; he’s now a villain equipped with a robotic arm and vocal cords. The arm isn’t as fun as the blade legs–it’s not even the best robotic arm to appear on screen in recent years, and it’s kinda troubling that both movies feature villains with disabled henchpeople. Attempts at adapting and thriving with disability are dangerous in this universe it seems.
Outside of politics, The Golden Circle is a little sloppier narratively than the first film. It tries to hit a lot of the same beats as The Secret Service (prosthetic as weapon is just one example; a more obvious one is the return of Harry’s bar fight/etiquette lesson), while also attempting to one up its predecessor. This makes the film feel a little bloated, and the plot gets a little overly complicated, including a betrayal that feels thrown in simply because Arthur (Michael Caine) was revealed to be aligned with the villain in the first one.
Now, it’s not all bad. Afterall, I did say I find the film enjoyable. The action is still fun, and the design of the world is engaging. The Statesmen’s whiskey factory headquarters and Dolly Land are undeniably stylish. The performances are good (although if you come for Tatum or Bridges, be warned: they have little more than glorified cameos). Plus there is a truly transcendent turn from Elton John, playing himself.
The Golden Circle is a pretty fun watch if you can turn off your brain. Unfortunately for the film, it turned my brain on.
Cake rating: I’m not an expert on boozy cakes, but I know they exist. This movie practically demands one, maybe two. Hell, as long it’s not pot brownies, partake as much as you want. But I would recommended staying away from the hamburgers.