I went to see Kingsman 2: the Golden Circle today with officemates. As a piece of filmmaking it was ecstatic genius – applied technology, taut script, masterfully handled film and comic tropes, and a profoundly coherent design strategy. What I found very interesting about it was the way that it unabashedly felt like a celebration of values and standards. In that sense, it is “rebellious” in an age where asking people to maintain personal responsibility, common courtesy, and the cultural mores that allow people to live in harmony have become anathema in most media. To be honest, I waited for the other shoe to drop, for some wink to the audience that the often over-the-top traditionalism was all part of the act. What was more interesting, thematically, was that it never did.
Instead, both Kingsman movies, in keeping, I suppose, with their title, are unapologetically reactionary in a very strict sense. They treat the populist massacres and excesses of the twentieth century in many ways as a wrong-turn detour from a near-Victorian world of deportment and protocol, hierarchy and constraint. While the film world’s technology, clear from the Bond-ian gadgets, gizmos, and throwaway lines about nanites and augmented reality telepresence, is at a Spykids level of handwaving, is cutting edge, the overall narrative is one of loss and redemption, upholding decency and mercy (though not without plenty of mooks mown down in the process), and venerating tradition for no other reason than it provides an anchor in a time of chaos and turmoil.
But one thing it did remind me of is the way that the “old world” of the pre-WWI, adventurously liberal world of the modernist era has sustained itself fairly quietly under the surface of raging seas of the Cold War, globalization, and the slow, sustained effort to infect the Islamic world with extremism on the part of Saudi Arabia and other neighboring powers. Europe is still very much a continent of monarchs, aristocrats, and courtiers, even though many of those once-powerful names have merely gone behind a curtain of high-finance, high-speed racing, and high-stakes gambling. The United States never even had a blip in the hold of power from the “first families” of the Eastern Seaboard, from their Episcopalian fortresses along the rocky shores of Massachusetts, New York, Maine, and riverine Pennsylvania and nestled in the hills and in the un-newsworthy playground cities of the coastal South. Kingsman as a media property feels like a hyperviolent foray into at least the material trappings of that world, from bespoke clothing to small-batch liquor, from handmade electronics to a drug lord (lady?) indulging her nostalgic Johnny Rockets’ aesthetic grafted viciously onto a hidden Cambodian temple. Not all elites are immune to the fashions of the times, and, the movie seems to imply, moving too far forward culturally creates some kind of inherent evil. That echoes the idea of the well-connected all gathering to be blown up in the first film, for that matter.
I am reading too much into what is ultimately popcorn fare, but going off of the intricate detail of the film and the homages that flash past faster than you can say Ralph Lauren or George Dickel, the nostalgia for a bygone era and its society pump through the film like the thickest of blue blood, even when the action travels to an unseen side of America. The “old ways” of America are, thus, the ways of the frontier and Fifth Avenue, robber barons and rawhide, rather than the currently vilified sorts of tradition surrounding religion and redneckery (as evinced by the slaughter of an entire Pentecostal church body and a bar full of bruisers in the first and second films respectively.) I do not think it is possible to do justice to the potential complexity that the film implies through subtext, nor do I think that it is always a conscious thing in the minds of the films creators.
At the end of the day, it was a fantastically entertaining movie that will entertain you for more than two hours of intense violence, truly out-loud laughs, and a cameo sequence wholly unexpected and yet incredibly satisfying. Even though the musical leitmotif is literally “Country Roads,” somewhere beneath it all remains the “Rule, Britannia” and “There Will Always Be an England” that underpinned the first film of the franchise. I look forward to seeing where Matthew Vaughn and company go with the whole kit and caboodle.