(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?
(On Cable TV, December 2017) Any half-witted observer can see China barrelling its way to become the twenty-first century’s dominant hyperpower (helped along by the United States’ ongoing abdication of the role), and one supposes that this will eventually change movies from an American-dominated art form to a Chinese-dominated one. After financing many American movies, China is now producing its own blockbusters, borrowing a few western actors for marquee purposes. So it is that The Great Wall is the latest of those Chinese blockbusters. On the surface, it has certainly mastered the formula: Here is a spectacular adventure set against alien antagonists, celebrating Chinese achievements (i.e.: The Great Wall) and heroism. This kind of filmmaking is well in-line with many recent Chinese blockbusters, and the accumulated technical skill collected along the way is shown in a film that’s decently paced, features a number of fine set pieces and is visually competent. What’s more problematic are the film’s wasted opportunities and the inclusion of western actors as protagonists. While I don’t think the film whitewashes anything (if anything, the western characters have clear reasons for being there and acting the way they do, and are shown as generally less capable and definitely less honourable than their Chinese counterparts), it’s a curious case of a film made in China but using western actors in the lead roles—Chinese cinema is mature enough that shouldn’t have to rely on such crutches to gain entry to non-Chinese markets. This being said, theatrical distributors don’t listen to reviewers—they see Matt Damon and book the movie or not. Less happily, there’s a sense that the movie doesn’t quite know what to do with the actors at its disposal—despite being able to depend on Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Defoe, the film gives them perfunctory roles that don’t really showcase what they can do. Pascal does carry himself well for a relative newcomer to movies, but Defoe seems to disappear behind a dull role. Still, I don’t regret seeing The Great Wall at all—it’s a perfectly acceptable time-waster when wrapping up Christmas gifts, and it does have a handful of sequence worth putting down the wrapping paper. Politically, I suppose I should see the rise of China with a wary eye … but as a reviewer, I’m more tempted to see what else will come out of this new player on the blockbuster field.
(On Cable TV, April-June 2014) As a promise for this season of Game of Thrones, “adapting the second half of George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords” couldn’t have been a more enticing prospect given the book’s sheer density of high narrative points. What we got was a bit more than that: a restructured narrative thread that mostly stuck to the book, but went cherry-picking plot threads from latter book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series in an effort to even out the pacing and even added subplots and a crucial bit of information not found anywhere in the books so far. Not that the additions were all required: simply telling the story as written was crazy enough, with plenty of role reversals, character deaths and sweeping set-pieces. As an adaptation, you can see the TV show slowly becoming its own thing, trying to keep order over the increasingly out-of-control sweep of the book series. But it’s still remaining broadly faithful to the books, enough so that fans should be pleased with the results. Peter Dinklage and Lena Headley once again steal the show as the lead actors, although new actors such as Pedro Pascal shine by fully incarnating minor characters with a great deal of skill and charm. Otherwise, it’s continuity in action, as the level of quality of the series remains constant and there are few major tonal shifts in what’s on-screen. The budgets are either getting bigger or the production team is getting better, because it seems as if the visual aspect of the show gets more impressive each season. Still, it’s the writing that remains so interesting, especially the way the screenwriters are wrestling a massive thousand-page epic into a format digestible and enjoyable by TV audiences. There’s no watching this series casually now: with the number of characters, the convoluted back-story and the multiplicity of sub-plots, it takes dedicated effort to watch Game of Thrones, and to its credit HBO isn’t even trying to dumb it down to network-TV standards. Even hitting its fourth season, Game of Thrones is more impressive than ever. Of course, the real challenge begins next year, as the adaptation hits what is widely acknowledged as the weakest/dullest book of the series, and the plot lines start venturing past what has been published to date. But it’s been a solid series so far –let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the show-runners for the rest.