Slick Spy Parody Showcases Elaborate Stunts

Nattily-dressed Taron Egerton is superspy "Eggsy" in Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Photo Giles Keyte / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

*On the mark: This is Mark Fields’ 10-year anniversary as our film critic.

Julianne Moore’s unhinged villain highlights Kingsman sequel

The stalwart James Bond spy franchise has sparked several game attempts at parody over its 50-year dominance of worldwide box office numbers, though at times the series itself became cartoony enough to defy spoofs (I’m looking at you, Pierce Brosnan). But now that 007 has returned to a more serious tone with Daniel Craig as Bond and Sam Mendes in the director’s chair, it seems there is an opening for a rollicking take-off. In 2014, Kingsman: The Secret Service was successful enough to prompt a sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Based on a comic book called The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, the two Kingsman films imagine a nattily dressed independent spy ring hidden beneath a Saville Row tailor shop. The first film showcased Colin Firth as a most unlikely superspy with Taron Egerton as his working-class protégé, Eggsy. Eggsy is back in The Golden Circle as a full-fledged and confident agent when the entire Kingsman network is inexplicably wiped out by a mysterious and ruthless foe. Eggsy eventually finds his way to the U.S. to link up with a parallel American secret spy group, Statesman, and they set out to defeat the threat.

But don’t make the mistake of taking any of this too seriously. The Golden Circle is played by its cast and its high-octane director, Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust), purely for fun. And fun it is, from the outlandish and frenetic stunts to the elaborate production design to the tongue-in-cheek performances and finally to the extended and hilarious cameo of a certain flamboyant British rock pianist.

In addition to Firth (who drolly riffs on his prim cinematic image) and the affable Egerton, the cast also includes Mark Strong as the capable technician enabling the Brit field agents; a surprisingly dressed-down Halle Berry as his American counterpart; Channing Tatum; Pedro Pascal, and a number of other familiar faces, all obviously having a lark with this amusing trifle of a cinematic thriller. 

That said, the stand-out is Julianne Moore as Poppy, the nefarious drug lord behind all the mayhem. Her unexpected take on a spy supervillain is a thoroughly off-kilter cross between Goldfinger and Donna Reed (ponder that for a moment!).

The stunts are well-done and deliciously over the top, and the whole film is lushly eye-catching. Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t aspire to much more than being wittily and thrillingly entertaining, but sometimes that just what the arch nemesis ordered.

Also appearing at nearby theaters in October: Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to the sci-fi classic directed by Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve (10/6); Marshall, featuring Chadwick Boseman as the esteemed Supreme Court Justice in an early civil rights case (10/13); and Suburbicon, a George Clooney-directed thriller from a script by Coen Brothers (10/27).

Laugh at Logan Lucky, Just Don’t Think Too Long

Ocean’s 7-11? Soderbergh shifts gears to NASCAR heist film.

Director Steven Soderbergh knows his way around a good caper movie, having created the very successful rebooted Ocean’s series that has starred George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and a cast of popular actors.

With his latest film, Logan Lucky, Soderbergh transfers the criminal hijinks from the glitzy, ersatz-sophisticated environs of Las Vegas to the hard-scrabble, redneck epicenter of NASCAR: the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Although the laughs and thrills are maintained (thanks in no small part to Soderbergh’s winning cast), the translation is not entirely successful.
Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play the chronically unlucky Logan brothers, Jimmy and Clyde.

Jimmy was a star athlete in his youth, but an injury ended his promising career. His marriage to Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) also ended in disappointment. After being laid off his construction job at the Charlotte race track, he decides to pursue a reversal of his fortunes by planning a heist of the speedway’s daily receipts. Jimmy and Clyde assemble a ragtag team of accomplices (including Riley Keogh and an atypically cast Daniel Craig) whose skill sets are questionable at best. After this set-up, the rest of the film, as expected, is the playing out of the heist and its aftermath.

Neither the director nor screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (rumored to be a pseudonym for an as-yet unknown writer) seem able to decide whether they want to love their characters or condescend to them. At times, the brothers and their gang are portrayed as complete doofuses, yet we viewers are supposed to believe they are capable of this convoluted scheme.

Another disconcerting element is that all these Southern-fried characters are played by non-Southern actors, including Craig, a Brit. Are they all having a lark or mocking the accents and attitudes of the American South? It’s unclear. Finally, the plotting is neither completely coherent nor convincing. The success of the caper is way too dependent on unlikely circumstances that nearly always work out for these laid-back thieves.

I’m also troubled by the seeming lack of justification for the crime. For heist movies to work, we the audience have to believe that the targets of the crime somehow deserve their fate. We can set aside our consciences and cheer for the breaking of the law only if the perpetrators are karmically justified. I didn’t fully buy into their motivation.

Nevertheless, Logan Lucky is a lot of fun. The humor is loopy and offbeat, which can be pleasantly disarming. Setting aside the cornpone accents, the actors are all likable and easy to root for. Tatum draws on his substantial charisma to win our sympathy for Jimmy. While Driver seems to be channeling Tim Blake Nelson in his performance, the character’s quirks are still entertaining. Craig especially is delightful as explosives expert Joe Bang. His portrayal of Bond has become increasingly sullen and opaque of late, so it’s refreshing to see the actor having fun in a role.

The direction and scripting are also mockingly self-aware. At one point, the hillbilly thieves are referred to in a media story as Ocean’s 7-11, a sly reference to Soderbergh’s other caper films. The credits also announce the debut of a new cinematic talent: “and Introducing Daniel Craig!”

In the end, the machinations of the crime and the self-referential humor carry the day if you let the film wash over you as mindless entertainment. Just avoid the temptation to give it deeper thought.

Also appearing at your nearby Cineplex in September: Unlocked, a spy thriller starring Noomi Rapace and Toni Collette, directed by Michael Apted (9/1); It, featuring Bill Skarsgard as Stephen King’s killer clown (9/8); and Home Again, a rom-com showcasing Reese Witherspoon (9/8).

At Theatre N: From the Land of the Moon (Mal de Pierres)

French actress Marion Cotillard has been a fascinating cinematic presence since she first captured the attention of American filmgoers with her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose in 2007. Since then, she has played a variety of emotionally resonant (and often slightly disturbed) roles in Inception, Midnight in Paris, Rust and Bone, Two Days, One Night, and even The Dark Knight Rises. Her greatest acting gift is her amazingly expressive face, which can be simultaneous deeply brooding yet luminous.

Director Nicole Garcia understands how to use Cotillard to her advantage in From the Land of the Moon (Mal de Pierres), and does so with a vengeance. Much of the footage in this melancholic film focuses on Cotillard: her face, her profile, even her back walking away from the camera. And we watch, fully absorbed. Unfortunately, there is not much more to this film than the 42-year-old actress.

Set in rural France in the 1950s, From the Land of the Moon tells the story of Gabrielle, a passionate, unstable woman struggling against the expectations of her family and of society. Forced into a marriage of convenience, she suffers both emotionally and physically until she is sent to a medical spa to be treated for kidney stones. There she meets a convalescing military officer, and a new world of love and desire open up for her. Of course, this being a film, that doesn’t mean life will become easier.

Overall, From the Land of the Moon feels drawn-out, even ponderous. And I couldn’t stop thinking that I had seen it before. That said, there are certainly worse ways to spend two hours than watching Marion Cotillard’s lovely, anguished face.

Also at Theatre N in September: The Trip to Spain, the latest culinary travelogue with British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (9/1, 9/8 weekends); The Journey, a fictional account of the Irish conflict focusing on leaders from either side, featuring Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney (9/22 weekend).

Finding the Human Drama Within the History

Detroit dramatizes 1960s riots, while Dunkirk fails to connect

Detroit

4 Stars

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s most recent films, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, were both set during recent American-led military incursions (Afghanistan and Iraq). Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal effectively dramatized those conflicts by putting human faces and stories behind the familiar details from daily news reports.

She has done the same again with her newest film, Detroit, but the historical events that inspire this story can be found much closer to home: the racial conflicts that erupted into violence in many American cities in the late 1960s. Again, Bigelow masterfully humanizes a sad chapter in American history by giving us flesh-and-blood characters with whom to empathize.

Almost exactly 50 years ago, in July 1967, as tensions over racial injustice reached a boiling point in Michigan’s largest and largely racially-segregated city, a police raid on an illegal after-hours club resulted in several days of unrest known as The 12th Street Riot. Part of that riot was a controversial encounter between a group of mostly African-American young people and a rogue and demonstrably racist detail of city police and National Guardsmen at the Algiers Motel. When it was over, three black men were dead and the policemen involved were charged with murder, assault, and conspiracy. All those charged were eventually acquitted.

Bigelow brings that awful night to life in her gritty, powerful film. Like her earlier films, she captures the chaos of the rioting neighborhood. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor John Goldenberg heighten the agitation with jiggly hand-held camera work tightly focused on the terrified youth and their interaction with the on-edge police involved. The fear, and the stakes, are palpable.

The last act of Detroit, in which the incident is taken through a stultifying investigatory and legal process, feels flaccid and unfocused after the unrelenting tension of the film’s beginning.

The appealing cast is largely unknown but includes John Boyega (Star Wars The Force Awakens), Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War), Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black), and Will Poulter (The Maze Runner).

On reflection, I’m not sure the film would be as emotionally effective in a second viewing. Much of its power derives from the immediacy and unfortunate familiarity of the story. Nevertheless, Bigelow has again demonstrated an uncanny gift for breathing life into a little-known American tragedy.

The film depicts the evacuation of thousands of English and Allied forces in 1940.Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
The film depicts the evacuation of thousands of English and Allied forces in 1940. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Dunkirk

2 Stars

Writer-director Christopher Nolan has made some of the most inventive and engaging films of the last dozen years, including the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, and a personal favorite, a wicked period piece called The Prestige. So it’s understandable that a critic’s curiosity would be piqued when Nolan decides his next feature would be a war picture that depicts the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation during World War II.

Sadly, Nolan’s formidable gifts as a cinematic storyteller seem ill-suited to this particular subject. Dunkirk is a crushing disappointment of a film that completely fails to find the human drama in history that Bigelow did in Detroit. The plight of the characters, an indistinguishable group of young British and French soldiers, is sympathetic to the audience but they serve merely as human props in a movie more fixated on bombs exploding and ships sinking.

Dunkirk is further marred by dialogue that is fuzzed out to the point of being unintelligible and a Hans Zimmer musical score that is tense mostly because it is so interminably grating.

The only narrative innovation is in Nolan’s decision to tell the story in three different time sequences: one on land taking a week, the second a day at sea, and the last an hour in the air. This quirky concept works better than it sounds, and the disparate times do eventually converge at the climax of the film. But I would have been more impressed if I had been more engaged in the story throughout.

Sinking In The Heart of The Sea

The pedigree of In The Heart of the Sea would appear fool-proof: a competent cast, with Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland and Ben Whishaw; a true adventure story that had already inspired Moby-Dick, and the Oscar-winning directorial vision of Ron Howard.

Although exquisitely photographed, Sea sadly sinks under its own ponderous weight as it rehashes any number of prior sailing and shipwreck epics. More problematic for this whaling story is the evolved mores of its audience. In 21st century America, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make heroes out of men who hunt these magnificent creatures for glory and profit. Whaling may have been a noble and economically crucial profession in early American history; but to modern eyes, it’s simply barbaric. And it certainly is no longer satisfying as entertainment.

Critic’s Note: There has been a lot of media coverage in recent months about the lack of roles for women, both in front of and behind the camera. I mention that now because these two major studio films featured only a small number of roles for women; none were of narrative consequence, and one involved a bubble bath. Although I can do little to change this sorry situation, I can at least call attention to it.