(On Cable TV, July 2018) I liked the original Kingsman film, but with a number of significant reservations: writer/director Matthew Vaughn can turn out action set pieces like few others, but his sense of humour is crass, and his fondness for unpleasant gore (matching the source comic) takes away from what would otherwise be a more fun experience. Many of those highs and lows are also on display during Kingsman: The Golden Circle: the visual design (wow, that villain’s lair!), energetic direction and colourful characters are all great good fun … if it wasn’t for such over-the-top gore as many characters being fed through a meat grinder with subsequent cannibalism. Eeew. Or the heave-inducing “plant the tracker” sequence plot-engineered to be as gross as possible. It’s things like that which make it impossible to recommend the film without numerous qualifications, or to justify the acquisition of a Blu-ray edition. Still, at other times this sequel matches or outshines the original. Plot-wise, the film’s mess: predictable set-pieces grind the film to a halt when they’re dull, and speed by when they’re fun. The American Statesmen offer an amusing contrast to the Kingsmen, expanding the madcap world of the original. Protagonist Eggsy is all grown-up, slick and suave, meaning that we get to spend far less time with the chavs and he gets to play the Bond role model he became at the end of the first film. One likable character makes it back to the sequel only long enough to be killed, but on the flip side we’ve got Colin Firth back with charm, Pedro Pascal making a great impression, Julianne Moore chomping on scenery as an unusual villain, no less than Elton John being turned in an action hero, and Halle Berry bringing her best to the screen. Some of the action scenes are fun in more or less exactly the same way as the original: Pseudo one-take action sequences with plenty of speed ramping are once again at the forefront of what the film has to offer in-between needless gore and adolescent tittering. I don’t usually bother with star ratings because they’re overly reductive, but Kingsman: The Golden Circle offers another failure mode for them: When the good stuff in the film is forth four stars out of five and the bad stuff is repellent enough for warrant a sole star, a three-star compromise doesn’t quite seem to accurately present a good idea of the final result. Can Vaughn grow up so that we don’t have to approach his next movies with a ten-foot pole and an apprehensive stance?
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Kingsman was billed as “Kick-Ass for the spy movie” and that did nothing to put me in a good mood given how I disliked Kick-Ass’ mixture of cheap cynicism, crudeness and hypocrisy. It felt aimed at a far younger audience, and I feared that Kingsman would more or less go that same way. But while Kingsman does have its own crude excesses in presenting its chav-becomes-suave plotline (oy, that final joke), it’s also gleefully fun and honestly enamoured with the material it emulates: It’s instructive to compare the film with 2002’s “hipper Bond” xXx and how eloquent Kingsman can be in promoting the classical gentlemen-spy archetype. (Try not to quote “Manners maketh man” the next time you proudly pick up a good umbrella.) Director Matthew Vaughn knows what kind of film he’s building, and the result is far more satisfying than his own previous Kick-Ass. It certainly helps that the film can rely on Colin Firth as the ultimate gentleman spy. Firth, not previously known for anything resembling an action role, here gets two splendid action sequences –they may be heavily enhanced by blurry special effects, but he looks and acts the part well enough to convince. The simulated-single-shot church scene is regrettably ultra-violent, but it’s also an anthology piece for a very specific kind of action mayhem. Taron Egerton is remarkable as the lead protagonist, but the film is also filled with interesting supporting performances by Samuel L. Jackson (having fun at the expense of the usual villainous clichés), Sofia Boutella as an enabled enforcer and Mark Strong in a welcome non-antagonist role. The editing and direction flows quickly and wittily, with a great soundtrack support and enough winks and nods to other movies to make it even more interesting. A self-assured comedy with just enough action beats to make it a respectable spy thriller, Kingsman feels fresh and fun.
(In theaters, June 2011) I wasn’t expecting anything after the underwhelming Wolverine, but this X-Men: First Class is a return to the strengths of the original trilogy: Some thematic heft, good acting performances, clever sequences and an sense of cool that doesn’t fall into self-indulgence. Even as a prequel, it works just fine: There’s some dramatic irony at the way the characters come together and split apart, and the script is wildly successful at weaving the October Missile Crisis in the fabric of the plot. James McAvoy may be good as Charles Xavier, but it’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show as Magneto, with plenty of good supporting roles for people such as Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and Oliver Platt. (Meanwhile, January Jones -for all she brings to the film by parading around in white thigh-highs and gogo boots- seems unacceptably stiff). The initial X-Men trilogy worked well in large part due to its thematic ambitions about bigotry, normalcy and self-acceptance; if First Class doesn’t do much than rehash the same issues from “didn’t ask, didn’t tell” to “mutant and proud”, it’s still far more interesting than other recent meaningless comic-book films like Thor. The idea to set the film in the early sixties has refreshing stylistic implications (despite the anachronism of late-sixties fashion) that carry through to the Saul-Bass-tinged closing credit sequence. Director Matthew Vaughn manages to helm a surprisingly talky film with the right mixture of action and character moments, while giving some energy to the whole. X-Men: First Class may be a small victory for style over rehashed substance, but even in repeating itself it seems quite a bit better than the norm –and in presenting itself attractively, it makes itself difficult to criticize. Suffice to say that it’s an enjoyable film, and even one that may get viewers to watch the original trilogy again –something that seemed improbable after Wolverine.
(In theatres, March 2010) Every year, there are now a few movies that make me feel old. Old, as in having finally escaped the sociopathic, bloodthirsty, surface-obsessed 16-32 age bracket. Old, as in rolling my eyes at conscious attempts at shock spectacle. Old, as in not being overly amused by films catering to the comic-book crowd that thinks that R-rated films in which they have to sneak into are necessarily better than anything else. Old enough, in short, to be left cold by Kick-Ass’s deliberate crassness, buckets of spilt blood, titular profanity and general hypocrisy. Nominally a “realistic” attempt to fit super-heroes in the real-world, Kick-Ass ends up in the same super-heroic fantasy world it claims to avoid in the first few minutes. Compared to Mark Millar’s original comic book (which is quite a bit harsher, although not that much more respectable), the film is generally lighter, often better-structured and ends on the kind of conclusion fit to leave anyone exit the theatres whistling happily. Never mind the sociopathic 12-year-old girl that murders without remorse, the convenient Mafioso villains or the jaundiced view of an alternate world where super-heroism is needed. There’s a reason why I never fit into comic-book culture, and Kick-Ass only reminded me of about a dozen of them. And yet, despite everything (and the blood-thirsty jackals braying for gore and laughing inappropriately during my screening at the Brighton Odeon), I still found a lot to like in this film. The rhythm is energetic, Matthew Vaughn’s direction shows moments of inspiration, Chloe Moretz is more adorable as a tween killer than you’d expect and the movie features not one, but two tracks from The Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die album. When it works, Kick-Ass is a darkly comic film that almost has something to say about superhero power fantasies. When it doesn’t, though, it’s just another reminder that I’m now over the hill in terms of pop entertainment. Now let me shake my fist at those lawn-trampling younglings and mutter unintelligibly in my creaky rocking chair.