KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Violence, Drug Content, Language throughout and some Sexual Material

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Written by: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn

(based on the KINGSMAN comics by Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons)

Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal, Edward Holcroft, Hanna Alstrom, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood & Emily Watson

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE was one of the biggest cinematic surprises of 2014 and became a huge hit for its over-the-top R-rated action, goofy comedy, colorful characters, and self-aware spy plot. It was essentially the KICK-ASS of spy films. Last year, we finally got a follow-up to KINGSMAN and saw the next chapter in the super-spy adventures of Eggsy and his secret agent cohorts. Like almost every sequel in existence, KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE is a step beneath the original film’s quality. However, there is still a lot to love about this ultra-violent, bombastic sequel.

A year after the events of the first KINGSMAN, hoodlum-turned-Kingsman-agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has been pulling off successful spy missions and wooing his Swedish princess girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom). Eggsy’s world gets a severe shake-up when robot-armed Kingsman reject Charlie (Edward Holcroft) leaks information that destroys the Kingsman headquarters. With their former secret service in shambles, survivors Eggsy and tech-wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) make their way to the USA’s Statesman organization. Their main objective is to take down the head honcho responsible for all of the death and destruction: Poppy (Julianne Moore) who just happens to run the world’s largest drug cartel and is currently holding millions of lives in her hands. As you might imagine, zany spy shenanigans and gory ultra-violence ensues.

For a sequel that took three years to hit theaters, THE GOLDEN CIRCLE actually does a damn fine job of continuing its cinematic world. The tone, characters, and wild action sequences all jive completely well with the first film. I watched GOLDEN CIRCLE right after a rewatch of SECRET SERVICE and (though it falters in other areas) this sequel is completely connected to the first film in cool ways. Taron Edgerton plays the year-older version of Eggsy as more confident, but still a young man who has self-doubts and problems to overcome (besides saving the world again). Mark Strong receives considerably more screen time as Merlin this time around. Seeing as all of the marketing has already spoiled it, Colin Firth also returns as the presumed-dead Galahad and is just as fun to watch in his second go-round.

Besides having lots of returning faces (including a stand-out Edward Holcroft as a metal-armed henchman), GOLDEN CIRCLE throws a lot of new characters into the KINGSMAN mix…with uneven results. The best new additions comes in Jeff Bridges as the Statesman leader and Halle Berry as the Statesman’s tech-master. Channing Tatum seemed like he would have a big role to play in the proceedings, but sadly gets sidelined for most of the film’s long running time. Julianne Moore steals the spotlight in her scenes as the overly cheerful (yet extremely sadistic) drug cartel lord. However, Moore’s villainess needed more screen time to shine because she doesn’t receive nearly the amount of fun interactions that Samuel L. Jackson’s speech-impedimented villain had in SECRET SERVICE. Pedro Pascal is a ton of fun as lasso-wielding Agent Whiskey though.

GOLDEN CIRCLE truly begins to show its sequel wear-and-tear when it comes to the film’s frantic juggling of subplots. There are a lot of things crammed into the 141-minute running time and it feels like it’s just too much at points. We see Colin Firth’s subplot and Merlin receives his own story arc. Eggsy is facing pressures with his princess girlfriend, facing ethical dilemmas on the field, and engaging in cat-and-mouse games against Charlie. There’s also something involving President of the United States (played wonderfully by Bruce Greenwood). Of course, the Kingsman have been destroyed and there are repercussions from that. Also, there’s a plot for world domination from Julianne Moore’s drug cartel lord and an out-of-nowhere kidnapping plotline. Did that sound like a lot of stuff? It is…arguably too much and more interesting moments suffer as a result from the script’s overcrowding.

On a positive note, KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE remains entertaining the whole way through. It’s just a very messy film…and I’m not solely referring to the film’s gratuitous violence (which remains ridiculously awesome) when I say that. GOLDEN CIRCLE’s many storylines occasionally stifle each other, even if they are each cool in their own ways. There are nifty twists that heighten tension and provide excuses for awesome action scenes (never a bad thing in this series). The laughs are just as plentiful as ever too, because KINGSMAN still doesn’t take itself seriously in any way, shape, or form. If you liked or loved the first KINGSMAN, you’ll probably enjoy this one a lot too. Just don’t expect this sequel to live up to the heights of the original and you’re bound to have fun!

Grade: B+

KILLING GUNTHER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language, and some Sexual Material

Directed by: Taran Killam

Written by: Taran Killam

Starring: Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Hannah Simone, Peter Kelamis, Aaron Yoo, Paul Brittain, Amir Talai, Ryan Gaul, Allison Tolman, Cobie Smulders & Arnold Schwarzenegger

KILLING GUNTHER sounds like a great movie on paper. It has Arnold Schwarzenegger in a wildly over-the-top role and he’s clearly relishing every second of it. The film takes a mockumentary approach to contract killers and has a hilarious premise. Sadly, KILLING GUNTHER is an underwhelming disappointment for many reasons…not the least of which being that Schwarzenegger is barely in this thing, even though he’s playing the title character. Aside from a couple of funny bits and a few chuckles, there aren’t many positive qualities to be found in KILLING GUNTHER.

Blake (Taran Killam, who’s also the director and writer behind this mess) is an up-and-coming hitman. Though he exudes confidence, it’s clear that Blake really needs to learn more of the contract killing ropes. In an effort to become the #1 hitman in the world, Blake is attempting to take down the mysterious killer known as “Gunther” (Arnold Schwarzenegger). To do this, Blake gathers a documentary crew and colorful band of eccentric assassins. However, the shadowy “Gunther” seems to be aware of Blake’s attempts to kill him…and the body count begins to rise. If
“Gunther” doesn’t kill these contract killers, the dysfunctional relationships between them just might.

KILLING GUNTHER starts off strong. The film’s funniest moments spring from the first 15 minutes and a couple of supporting characters (who are sadly not around long enough to save a majority of the running time). The set-up of gathering this mismatched band of hitmen together is pretty entertaining to watch and shows a lot of promise for the events to follow. However, the film’s momentum only lasts so long before things begin to go downhill in a dull way. Even though it runs at slightly over 80 minutes in length, there are numerous dull spots that will likely bore the viewer far more than they elicit laughs.

Most of the film’s faults fall directly onto the shoulders of director/writer/actor Taran Killam, who takes a great premise and woefully underwhelms with a cheap execution that squanders most of the outlandish potential. Killam spent about six years in the cast of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and you’d hope this film would be funnier due to those credentials alone. Killam’s protagonist is a boring bland cardboard character. Even though he gets a few laughs in his introduction, this annoying hitman quickly wears out his welcome very fast. The same can be said for most of the other cast members, especially Bobby Moynihan (as redneck explosives expert Donnie) and Hannah Simone (as the most serious assassin of the bunch). These two get laughs early on and then quickly become tiresome.

The funniest cast member is easily Aaron Yoo as a poison-obsessed killer, who refuses to touch a gun. As you might imagine, he’s pretty much useless in a firefight and a certain scene resulted in a huge laugh from me. The only other noteworthy performance belongs to Arnold Schwarzenegger…you know, the selling point of this film for most people. Unfortunately, he only pops up for the final 25 minutes. Arnold does receive some chuckles and makes the film way more entertaining in his scenes. However, it’s too little executed far too late and this inevitably results in a lot of disappointment from those who wanted to see an action-comedy with Arnold.

KILLING GUNTHER’s tiny budget becomes apparent in its on-screen fire and explosions. While the film convincingly has a few decent gun fights, the fire effects and explosions look like they were added with Flash Animation. This is quality that I’d expect from a cheap YouTube video and not a film that clearly had enough money to attract Arnold Schwarzenegger (even if it seems like he was only brought on set for a couple of days, if his small screen time is any indication). In some ways, I feel like I’m picking on a small film by ripping into this movie. What can I say though? It’s a missed opportunity and not a good film.

The premise behind KILLING GUNTHER is hilarious and there are some big laughs during the first 15 minutes. However, things quickly spiral downhill as forced humor becomes tedious, annoying characters overstay their welcomes, and the film slowly trudges towards Arnold’s brief screen time that should have been a main focus of the film…and not regulated to the last third. It’s not a complete failure due to two solid performances (Yoo and Schwarzenegger) and some good jokes, but KILLING GUNTHER remains a huge disappointment nonetheless. Unless you’re a Schwarzenegger purist and absolutely need to see this film, then you should just skip over this missed opportunity.

Grade: D+

THE GAME (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, and for some Violence and Sexuality

Directed by: David Fincher

Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl & Anna Katarina

Despite getting off to a rocky start with ALIEN 3, director David Fincher demonstrated his masterful cinematic storytelling in 1995’s crime-thriller SE7EN. Audiences seemed primed and ready for a follow-up thriller from Fincher, but 1997’s THE GAME grossed below studio expectations and typically isn’t one of the first titles that gets brought up in conversations about Fincher. While it certainly isn’t on the same high quality as Fincher’s perfect thrillers, THE GAME is a tense ride that keeps your eyeballs glued to the screen. In some ways, THE GAME feels like the feature-length version of a good TWILIGHT ZONE episode, which means that it comes with many positive qualities and a few noticeable problems.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a super wealthy banker who (despite living in a huge mansion and having a lavish lifestyle) just can’t seem to relax and enjoy life. When Nick’s younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) comes to town, it appears that Nick’s life just might change in exciting and potentially dangerous ways. Conrad gives Nick the unique birthday present of an interactive game that’s specifically tailored for each player. The strange gaming company CRS soon infiltrates Nick’s life seemingly everywhere he turns. Soon enough, Nick is being thrust into deadly scenarios and begins to doubt that he’ll survive this sinister “game.”

I’ve only seen a handful of Michael Douglas performances (I still need to watch WALL STREET), but THE GAME’s protagonist seems perfectly made for this actor’s style. Douglas comes off as a convincing tightwad, rich guy asshole and I was wondering if I’d be able to feel anything for this prick of a protagonist during the film’s first fifteen minutes. However, Douglas’s character does reveal a more human, emotional side as this “game” pushes him to his breaking point (both mentally and physically). Douglas gets to show a range of acting as his character goes through periods of depression, desperation, fear, anger, and determination. Michael Douglas acts his ass off and it’s a joy to watch.

The supporting cast doesn’t exactly have a big range of names as a lot of CRS employees and business colleagues only show up for a single scene or a couple of brief moments. Sean Penn makes the most of his small role as Nick’s desperate brother and gets to deliver a bombshell scene midway through that makes the already intense thriller even more intense. Deborah Kara Unger plays Christine, a waitress caught up in the middle of the game and also a potential love interest for Douglas. James Rebhorn is appropriately creepy as a CRS spokesman who introduces Douglas’s character to the potentially fatal “game.”

Because THE GAME is a David Fincher film, you can bet your bottom dollar that the cinematography looks slick and atmospheric. Fincher’s distinct visual style (that often has a unique feeling of bleakness to it) adds a layer of seriousness to material that (to be honest) dangerously comes close to being goofy and over-the-top. The viewer really needs to suspend their disbelief at certain points in the script to make this story work, but that doesn’t lessen the constant suspense. Much like Nick, we never quite know what is real and what is part of the “game.” We only have an idea that this won’t end well for the formerly Scrooge-like protagonist who’s finding his humanity as he’s trying to save his own skin.

THE GAME’s problems stem from plot holes that rear their ugly heads during the final minutes. The script went to the trouble of including lines of dialogue that fill in certain gaps and let the viewer know that there were other possibilities during certain scenes. However, a couple of big moments seem to rely on certain characters being omnipotent. One major scene has similar flaw that was pointed out and made fun of in DUMB AND DUMBER (of all things, and that film came out three years earlier than THE GAME’s release). I couldn’t help but think back to one line of dialogue and laugh my ass off, because that scene in THE GAME really falls apart when you think about it.

THE GAME is another solid thriller in David Fincher’s stellar filmography, even though it’s not quite on the same level of his other thrillers (e.g. SE7EN, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, GONE GIRL, etc.). There’s lots of suspense and entertainment to be found in this film, but you do have to buy into some pretty far-fetched ideas and silly coincidences (particularly in the action-driven finale). Michael Douglas’s performance is so good that it’s worth watching the entire film just to see it. However, constant twists (as silly as they get) and the thick atmosphere are likely to keep you hooked. As silly and ridiculous as THE GAME can be, it still remains a damn good thriller that’s worth watching. If you can overlook certain plot points, you might love it more than I did.

Grade: B+

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