*. Horrible. Just horrible.
*. The first two Kingsman movies — Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle — weren’t groundbreaking classics, but they were somewhat distinctive in their blend of wildly over-the-top, retro spy shenanigans mixing lowbrow humour with hugely indulgent (in terms of both budget and violence) action sequences. Whatever you thought of them, it did seem as though they’d set up a franchise. You knew what you were getting with a Kingsman movie.
*. That is, until this bloated piece of junk finally crawled into cinemas, over two years after its original release date. There had been something like eight postponements, mostly due no doubt to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I also suspect that the studio might have known they had a turkey on their hands. Eventually, however, the bomb did go off, leaving the franchise now in ruins.
*. I can’t understand what happened. Matthew Vaughn returned to direct, and shared the writing duties as he had in the first two films. So you’d think there’d be some continuity. But everything about this movie is different. Different, and worse.
*. Technically this is a prequel, taking us back to the years of the First World War, a conflict that was hatched by a bitter Scot going by the name of the Shepherd (Matthew Goode) with a raging hard-on for independence. He lives on a mesa somewhere with a bunch of goats and a stable of agents who have infiltrated the corridors of power all over the world. These agents include such historical luminaries as Rasputin (who also had a prominent role to play in Hellboy, evidence of his oddly durable place in the annals of villainy), Mata Hari, Gavrilo Princip, and even Vladimir Lenin.
*. Opposed to this secret society of international shit-disturbers is the pacifist Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes). Orlando is, in turn, assisted by his box-checking sidekicks Polly (Gemma Arterton) as the sassy lady who can talk back and kick ass, and his Black butler Shola (Djimon Hounsou), who doesn’t talk back and who will take a bullet for his titled lord, should the need arise (and it does).
*. Orlando has a wife and son but the wife is killed in the opening sequence while Orlando is visiting one of Kitchener’s concentration camps in the Boer War, which was kind of depressing. And then his son, who we were starting to like, is killed in the trenches in the Great War, which is even more depressing. And so, duty calls and the Kingsman outfit is born.
*. I don’t know where to begin explaining how much I hated this movie, or even if I should bother. But for starters, it’s at least an hour too long. Instead of just being pure insanity, like the first two movies, the script is full of leaden lines delivered portentously and the plot is a mash of actual historical events retold as part of the Shepherd’s conspiracy. So we get the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Rasputin “healing” the son of the tsar, and the Zimmerman telegram all explained in ways that don’t make any sense, even if you accept tossing history to the wind.
*. To take just one example: even after the Zimmerman telegram is decrypted America still won’t enter the war on the side of the allies because President Woodrow Wilson is being blackmailed with a video that had been made of Mata Hari giving him a lap dance in the Oval Office. I mean, this is just stupid.
*. Where are the laughs? This movie has no sense of humour at all. The only scene where I even thought they were trying to be funny was the awkward and creepy bit that has Rasputin massaging Orlando’s leg before turning into a whirling dervish. At least I think that was trying to be funny. And it sure wasn’t.
*. Instead of laughs we get a painful rehash of how awful the First World War was, with a ponderous reading of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est.” Which isn’t even on point because that poem is about a gas attack, which is something we don’t see here. Otherwise, even the trenches of the Western front are presented in the usual prettified style, and the heroism of Orlando’s son is underlined in bold in headline type, all of which sort of undercuts Owen quite a bit.
*. To dilate on this point just a bit: Orlando’s arc, and it’s the same arc the film travels, takes him from being a conscientious pacifist to someone who glories in war. As he vanquishes the Shepherd at the end (throwing him from a cliff after the Shepherd mocks him for being a namby-pamby peacenik) he declares that now he can become the man his son would have been. That is, a military hero. Then the dirty filmstrip is destroyed and America joins up to fight and there are cheers and exclamations of how “We’re going to war!” Yay!
*. But even this naked jingoism isn’t the most alarming political message the film carries. Apparently the Shepherd isn’t just anti-British empire but anti-the toffs who threw him off of his family farm. And he’s the villain. He chums around with the likes of Lenin and Hitler because Scottish independence is on the same level as the Russian Revolution and the Nazi takeover in Germany. Not surprisingly, all his operatives are lower-class losers raging against the system. The point being that there is a natural class order (not to mention a gender and race hierarchy) just as there is a natural international (imperial) order, and to go against any of this means you’re not just wrongheaded but pure evil. Hard to believe a movie like this existing in the twenty-first century, but here we are.
*. Look, if a movie wants to be pro-war (and pro-empire, and pro-Victorian class structures) that’s fine. But then why all the stuff about war being so horrible? And why introduce Polly and Shola just to have them be such stereotypes?
*. Orlando’s son is killed at the front (for the crime of impersonating a Scot), which sends his dad into a tailspin. But Polly is there to stir him out of his funk with the usual clichés and by tendering her resignation. Orlando then rises to his feet, as the music rises, and says he won’t accept her resignation but he will accept a very strong cup of tea. The music soars! Polly smiles! Because you know what a strong cuppa means in Britain. It means he wants to fill Polly up with a new heir! And also save the empire. Maybe both.
*. What a dull, stupid, cliché-ridden, politically obnoxious mess. I can’t imagine wasting $100 million on such crap. Something is very wrong with the movie business.
*. One can only hope this is the end of the line for the franchise, at least if they don’t have anything better on tap. And since a mid-credit sequence introduces us to a young Adolf Hitler, who is going to work together with Lenin to . . . just trash everything for no good reason at all . . . it seems they did have a sequel in mind. From the looks of it, that might turn out to be the worst movie never made. Let’s hope.