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The genre of “spy movie” has always been an awkward figure in the modern blockbuster pantheon. The knee-jerk comparison point for this moribund stylistic genre might be Western, but that does a bit of a disservice to the Western. Both Westerns and Spy movies were the dominant genres in the proto-blockbuster days of the ’50s and ‘60s but the Western has passed through a number of unique stylistic identities and found new life now as a genre for prestige dramas. Meanwhile, the spy film still feels like the exclusive property of the ‘60s, with almost all modern franchises in the genre like James Bond and Mission Impossible tracing their origins back to that decade.
Even stuff that’s of the modern era like Bourne or 24 have had a similar feeling of stasis to the ‘60s leftovers- it’s a genre unstuck in time and unstuck in context as a result. The last time a spy thriller made any kind of grander point it was the private military contractors are amoral, which is up there with “the sky is blue” in terms of meaningful contribution to the broader cultural stew. There is, however, a recent exception to this particular state of stagnation and hallelujah it’s getting a sequel; let’s talk about Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle.
In case you missed the first film, 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was a mid-budget comedy/action flick that came out of nowhere to make back 4X its budget. It was the third comic book film adaptation by Matthew Vaughn and his second dip into the realm of spy fiction, with the first being his Bond-esc take on the X-Men in 2011’s First Class. The film is based on a work of the same name by Mark Millar, the same guy behind the original Civil War comics and Kick-Ass, another comic that Vaughn adapted to the big screen.
The plot revolved around the titular Kingsman, an extra-governmental spy agency working out of Great Britain. The agency was basically a roman à clef of classic, James Bond-esc spy ephemera dialed up to 11. They’ve got all the gadgets and cars of a James Bond only they take it 1 level further, with bulletproof bespoke suits and super umbrellas.
Our heroes were Colin Firth, a key Kingsman agent who brings in the young Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton, to give the agency some new blood. It was a good time overall even if the tone was decidedly inconsistent- careening between an innocently playful love of Golden Age spy aesthetics and a more self-aware wallow in bad taste.
Most importantly, the story offered a take on the spy narrative that actually tried to dig into the genre’s history at the forefront of idealized masculinity. Eggsy’s journey from street slob to Baby Bond is a transformation that mirror’s his own maturation into manhood and is all about trying to take the best elements of classical ideals of masculinity and polishing them up for a new generation.
Now it’s sequel time, and a big part of this sequel looks to be introducing an American counterpart to the Kingsman in the form of the Statesmen. Our set-up this time is the Kingsman have been strategically targeted and taken out, with only Eggsy and Mark Strong’s tech guy Merlin as the remaining members. With their backs against the wall in the face of a new threat, the boys decided to seek out help from the Americans after finding some vague instructions at the bottom of a bottle of Statesmen whiskey, which is a real thing you can buy now in conjunction with the film. This is all a serious departure from The Secret Service’s approach to Americans as that film viewed the boorish cross-section of self-deluding American exceptionalism and do-gooder Capitalism as the downfall of the entire world.
However, Kingsman’s always been at its best when it was trying to bold confront traditional male power roles- the good and the bad. If there’s any kind of a guiding light to the series, it’s willingness to stand up and embrace the sleaze and slime of old school masculinity as well as the power and responsibility, hence the tone flittering between worshipping and mocking its central style. As such, grounding the Statesmen in the visual language of the cowboy is a perfect complement to that idea.
Obviously, there’s some disconnect here as Matthew Vaughn is an English filmmaker, so his conception of classical American masculinity is going to end up a bit stereotypical, but I can’t fault the cowboy as a pretty solid icon to draw from. As I mentioned at the start, the Western and the Spy genres do have some significant similarities, both in terms of a retro-simplistic appeal and all the problematic elements that accompany what the past considered to be “uncomplicated.”
Case in point, the Statesmen, seem to be whiskey obsessed, cowboy themed agents steeped in the visual iconography of the American West, with their signature weapons being a whip and lasso. Now those are really cool elements that do speak to worthwhile ideals of masculinity in the past, but each of them comes with an uncomfortable asterisk. They show their class with the upscale, well-aged whiskey…that they drink so much of they’re basically alcoholics.
They draw their ideology from the era of bringing law to the west but also Manifest Destiny and colonialism. These same contradictions were a big part of The Secret Service’s approach to finding a personal kind of male identity in the modern world drawn from the ideas of the past so this all makes sense. I do wonder what exactly will be the character arc of this film in the same way Eggsy’s progression to manhood was in the last movie, but this is still an early trailer with plenty of room to grow.
I suspect the return of Colin Firth’s Harry Hart AKA Galahad will probably tie into whatever struggle fills that void. His opening narration already hints at the beginnings of a story, presumably about Eggsy’s willingness to embrace the glamor and rewards of the Kingsman life but unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices of leadership. As for the rest of the supporting cast, Channing Tatum is a perfect candidate for a secret agent cowboy given how excellent he is at comedy, and Jeff Bridges’ could play his role in his sleep.
I also really love the audacity of adding Halle Berry to the cast. For those who don’t know, she was the last Bond Girl of the original franchise before the reboot, starring in the universally maligned Die Another Day. It’s only fitting, really, given how much Kingsman embraces the elements of the Bond franchise the main films just seem ashamed of these days.
All in all, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is looking to be more of what worked in the first film only now with an admirable amount of restraint. I mean, I liked the first Kingsman film very much but even I will concede that it didn’t need stuff like blowing up President Obama or anal sex with a princess. It’s still possible that level of bad taste wallowing is present in this sequel and they’re just hiding it, we won’t know till it comes out.
Even if that is the case, the promise of exploring the Statesmen is a nice exterior perspective for the film and the return of Colin Firth is a welcome enough element to make up for a lot of shortcomings. It’d just be a shame if the only spy film out there that’s genuinely about something lost that element in its own sequel.
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