The Plain Truth: Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight

There’s a moment in Tom McCarthy’s latest film Spotlight when Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) crosses out a word from a manuscript about the systemic cover-up of child molestation by priests in the Catholic Church that his crack investigative journalists have been laboring on for months. One of the reporters asks Baron what he’s deleting. “Another adjective,” Baron sighs. He could almost be describing the aesthetic of Spotlight, a movie that strips away almost all of the poetry of cinema for the prosaic exposition of a newspaper article—a gripping newspaper article, but a newspaper article nonetheless.

spotlightRecounting the investigative leg work that went into the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking 2002 expose of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church, Spotlight is as much a paean to the institution of journalism as it is about the wrongdoings of the Church. As McCarthy has said in interviews, it takes an institution to take on an institution. The Spotlight Team, financially supported by the Boston Globe to do in-depth investigations that can take up to a year to complete, are anathema to the 24/7 news cycle that, too often, driven by the constant need for content, relies on “amateur journalists” and ideologues while sprinting past the need for fact-checking.

The Spotlight Team, on the other hand, beats the pavement, knocking on doors (and getting doors slammed in their faces), making difficult phone calls, waiting outside elevators and offices to ambush those who are trying to cold shoulder them or to be the first person to submit the appropriate forms for access to important court documents, poring over old newspaper clippings and church listings, scrolling through microfiche, even, heaven forbid, sitting in a library until closing time. Worse, the Catholic Church strives to thwart their research, doing everything in its power to hide any and all incriminating evidence. McCarthy’s film persuasively demonstrates that without the institutional weight of the Globe, the Church would have succeeded in keeping its secrets hidden. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” professes lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) at one point in Spotlight. The film rejoins, “And it takes a team of highly trained professionals to save one.”

spotlight-dataWatching a journalist curse when he discovers that a court’s copy center is closed or a group of reporters huddle in a basement to read the employment statuses of priests may hardly seem like the stuff of high drama, but McCarthy understands the pleasure of finding evidence, connecting the dots, and stumbling on the awful truth, constructing what is essentially a police procedural with reporters instead of cops—a newspaper procedural. The audience already knows where the story is headed, but it doesn’t know how it got there and finding out is fascinating. It is a narrative structure that goes back to the beginnings of Western drama with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and drives the success of such television franchises as CSI and SVU.

But in making his movie a procedural, McCarthy shears it of unruly life. Boston is a city rich with local color, which is mentioned in the film and can be seen in the neighborhoods the reporters visit to conduct their research, but beyond the architecture—and the looming presence of the Church throughout Boston, no matter the neighborhood—there isn’t a lot of that color to be experienced. For example, one senses a missed opportunity when Garabedian asks reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) where he’s from. After Rezendes replies, “East Boston,” Garabedian cocks his head warily and says, “You don’t sound like you’re from East Boston.” Rezendes doesn’t seem to know what to make of the remark any more than the rest of us do and so responds by shrugging, which is how the movie treats not only East Boston but pretty much the rest of Boston and the people who reside there, too.

spotlight 2That’s too bad. The cast is strong. One imagines what the actors might have done had McCarthy given them characters with a richness of detail closer to the ones who people his quirky comedies rather than reduce them to generic reporters who look dour or tear up when they learn a new fact about the Church’s malfeasance. On occasion, we catch glimpses of something more finely observed, as in the scene where reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) finds, in a dank storage room reeking from the dead rat in the corner, the Catholic directories that suggest the depth of the problem the team will encounter. With everyone crowding around the books in the excitement of discovery, editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), unable to read the print in the dim light, asks why there aren’t more lights on, forcing Carroll to admit that he didn’t know how to turn them on. It’s an odd detail, but the kind drawn from everyday life, where all of us, immersed in important events of the day or not, reside.

There is no reason that a film recounting a story so rooted in human nature needs to sacrifice its humanity. Nor does it follow that visual sophistication need be sacrificed in service of a televisual realism. There is no doubt that the story told here is compelling, but one feels that in focusing so much on data being compiled and analyzed to solve the difficult puzzle of how to nail the Church for its crimes, what the data is all about, people, has been reduced in the telling, hidden in plain sight.

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The Look of Love: Todd Haynes’ Carol

Carol storeTherese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a bored, young department store clerk graced with waifish good looks, forced against her will to don a Santa Claus hat by her termagant manager—clearly Therese does not radiate enough holiday cheer to get the second-bestselling dolls into the shopping bags of doubting mothers. But before the day dims behind a cloud of mercantile tedium, she espies from across the room an elegant and beautiful middle-aged woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Their eyes lock. Only a cruel god would keep them apart.

Rather, a cruel god or the laws and mores of America in the 1950s. With Carol, director Todd Haynes has crafted a ravishing film about two women from different classes and generations, who fall in love in one of the most repressive decades for homosexuals in America. On the surface, Carol resembles Haynes’ 2002 film Far from Heaven, about a 1950s suburban housewife who, after discovering that her husband is a closeted homosexual, finds herself falling in love with their gardener, a handsome and kind man who also happens to be African-American. Both Carol and Far from Heaven explore the drama of stories about illicit love in an era known for its cultural and social prohibition.

But, for all there was to admire about Far from Heaven—and there was much—there was a chilliness to it that derived from the sense that Haynes was not just making his film, he was also making a Douglas Sirk film, or, as Roger Ebert put it, “The best and bravest movie of 1957.” There is in Far from Heaven a palpable distance between the story and its telling that renders the feelings being elicited as feelings that are being elicited.

carol windowCarol is more straightforward, more moving. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), Carol is a swoon of a movie, the magnetism of Blanchett and Mara—the star power of each actress is on full display—drawing us deeply into Therese’s and Carol’s intense field of attraction for one another. Indeed, if their initial encounter at the department store was charged, it’s downright intoxicating at the martini lunch the women share shortly afterward, as Carol meets with Therese after leaving her gloves at the store, a clear ruse to have a reason to meet again with the young woman.

There is an urgency in the development of their relationship that Haynes associates with Highsmith’s crime writing. In an interview with Manohla Dargis, he observed, “As the one novel outside the crime milieu of Patricia Highsmith’s incredibly prolific career, [The Price of Salt] spoke directly to the criminal mentality in that sort of overheated hothouse of the amorous imagination that is always in a state of producing outcomes, run-ins, scenarios. What’s going to happen with the same kind of urgency and paranoia that the criminal mind weaves its webs. … And then, of course, the love itself is against the law, is a crime.”

That their love is criminal fuels the film’s tension. As Carol’s marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) disintegrates, he struggles desperately to hang onto it, using their young daughter Rindy as a weapon, threatening to keep Carol from seeing her as a way to keep Carol from leaving him, even if he has to stoop to accusations of moral turpitude to get his way. Of course in doing so, he only causes the women’s love for one another to grow more insistent as they struggle to resist the pull of their longing.

Carol other windowAdding to the film’s spell is Carter Burwell’s score, recalling the sensual pulse of Philip Glass’s film work, which provides the perfect undercurrent for the women’s implacable desire, and the gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman, who has worked on all of Hayes’ films since the equally beautiful Far from Heaven. Lachman often frames the action of Carol through windows, refracting light, reflecting what lies outside them, clouded with rain or soot, capturing the way that perception is troubled, sometimes voluptuously so, when one is in the throes of love and desire. In fact, bracketing Therese’s and Carol’s romance are scenes in which the characters struggle to see the other through fogged or rain bedaubed windows, catching mere glimpses, first Therese seeing Carol, then later Carol, Therese. In those moments, they strain to see what the film brings to such luminous life for the rest of us.

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Police Action: Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario

When did the “War on Drugs” escalate into an actual war? Watching the opening of director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, in which the FBI crash through the front of a house with an enormous, armored vehicle, one is reminded of images from the 1980s of tanks plowing into crack houses, images that rightly caused public outrage. By now, we have become inured to the idea that law enforcement uses military tactics to maintain law and order—at least, when it has to. So in Sicario, knocking down the front of a house doesn’t seem outrageous. There are hostages. There are bloodthirsty drug dealers. The good guys need to win. This isn’t time for mincing about.

sicario bodiesAlas, in Sicario, the FBI is too late. Instead of hostages, the agents find a brood of rotting corpses that have been plastered into the walls of the house and a booby trap that takes out a number of agents, compelling agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to join an inter-agency investigation at the behest of Matt (Josh Brolin), who claims to work for the Department of Defense though Kate has her doubts about whom he actually answers to. What follows is Kate’s education, her rough initiation from innocence to experience, beginning with a legally dubious trip to Juarez during which she meets Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a renegade from the Colombian drug war even more morally confounding than Matt, who literally leads Kate into the underworld as she pursues him through a tunnel connecting Juarez to El Paso.

While Sicario recalls Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, it is less didactic in purpose—Traffic, at least in part, seemed intent on showing us the scope of the US/Mexico drug trade, from the upper class users all the way down to the unfortunates who are really nothing more than collateral damage in the showdown between drug dealers and law enforcement. Once its plot gets underway, Sicario seems more willfully pulpy, turning less into an expose of the war on drugs than a taut, brutal revenge drama.

sicario k and aIt’s whose revenge that is a bit of a surprise. At the beginning of the movie, as we follow Kate on the job and then into her new position working with Matt, it seems to be Kate’s story, as she moves toward her revenge on those who killed the hostages and especially those FBI agents. But as soon as she joins Matt and Alejandro, it becomes clear that she is not all that important to what unfolds. Neither Matt nor Alejandro tell her what is going on—initially she was told the operation in Juarez was to have taken place in El Paso and when she pointblank asks what the mission of the operation is, they won’t tell her.

That could be because she’s a woman. As I recall, she was the only woman at the Juarez briefing, which was swimming in so much testosterone, the funk of a men’s locker room practically wafted from the screen. And no one talked to Kate at the briefing except Alejandro, who remained cryptic, simply telling her to keep her eyes open. Later, when busloads of Mexicans are taken into custody and interrogated, the two men again refuse to tell Kate what they’re doing, but when her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), another FBI agent recruited for the interagency investigation, asks, they tell him.

sicario nightAccordingly, Kate’s story gets shouldered out of the film by Alejandro’s. As it does, it becomes clear that Alejandro is the film’s sicario, at least in one sense of the word as it is defined at the beginning of the film: “In Mexico, sicario means hitman.” But he is also, in a very real sense, a product of the U.S. drug enforcement tactics we see acted out in the film, in which highly trained operatives bring to bear on the drug cartels advanced technology and weaponry of a scale that is as awesome as it is somewhat unbelievable. In fact, one of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, of the many under the masterful eye of longtime Coen Brothers collaborator cinematographer Roger Deakins, is when U.S. operatives engage in a nighttime raid wearing heat sensitive and infrared goggles. So the drug lords develop retaliatory tactics that they feel are commensurate with scale of the force they face. In fact late in the film, a drug lord even angrily spits out that he got his savage tactics from the U.S.

In that context, the word sicario also reflects the other definition given at the beginning of the movie: “assassins or hired killers in Jerusalem who killed Roman soldiers.” The assasins, sicarii, named for the daggers with which they killed their targets, were members of an occupied people, the Jews of Judea, who were fighting against one of the most powerful and advanced militaries in the world. They used terror in an attempt to even the fight. As the might of America weighs down on the criminals just south of our border, resistance is encountered that strives to recreate the atrocities of war, inducing us to increase the force of our response, impelling a fiercer reply from the drug lords, all in the name of a war that rages under the guise of a police action.

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Going Viral: Ridley Scott’s The Martian

the martianThere is an ambivalent moment in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Martians,” when the father of an Earth family colonizing Mars promises his family he’ll show them Martians only to reveal their reflections on the placid surface of a deserted Martian canal. As the children are aware, and as the reader knows too well, there are other Martians, native Martians, who have been entirely, or almost entirely, wiped out by the arrival of Earth’s colonists. They are the Martians the children had hoped to see but never will or can, since what they want to see has vanished long ago if it was ever there in the first place. It is a narrative all too resonant for those who call themselves Americans, and, perhaps unintentionally, it is echoed in Ridley Scott’s latest science fiction film, The Martian.

The movie stars Matt Damon as botanist Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars when his research team encounters an especially nasty storm in which Watney is thought to have been killed when a communications dish is catapulted at him by the driving wind, its antenna breaching his space suit. Due to sheer luck, however, Watney survives, only to realize that his camp’s oxygen, food, and water supplies will last a fraction of the time it will take before somebody can return to rescue him. So, with the application of a little science and whole lot of gumption, Watney sets out to survive against the odds.

the martian plantsTo his credit, Scott has crafted a handsome, fast-paced movie out of material that is probably best-served as a book. Its action, a combination of crisis and discovery strongly flavored by science, recalls Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama in that The Martian is also an adventure story that without the science is pretty thin. The movie’s plot really just bounds from one clever solution to a problem after another. Cinematically, The Martian is like a cross between Gravity—minus the zero-g splendor—and Robinson Crusoe on Mars –minus the monkey—plus, in its vision of the rival Chinese and US space programs reaching a détente in the name of rescuing a fellow spaceman, a dollop of 2010 minus the portentousness.

If this promises a modest movie, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, not least because Watney seems to be such a likeable fellow. True, he only seems to be likeable because that’s how Matt Damon plays him. Over the course of the film’s nearly 2 ½ hours, hardly anything is revealed about Watney except that he doesn’t like disco, that he is possessed of a high degree of ingenuity, and that he is willing to risk his life to save it. The relentlessness of The Martian’s narrative keeps us from knowing anything more, not making room for the kind of introspection that admittedly led to some of the clunkier moments of Gravity. Still, such pacing, while necessary for survival in the Cineplex, seems at odds with a movie in which a man spends more than a year alone, enough time to have experienced the kind of boredom that functions like a dark mirror, allowing one, without distraction, to look into eternity’s maw.

the martian stormBut Watney is squarely cut from American cloth. Death is his enemy. Should he die, or even prepare himself to die as Stone does in Gravity, he will have lost. Instead, with a rousing can-do attitude, he beats death at every corner. His commitment to the belief that technology can push back death’s inexorable tide, is so American that one can begin to see how calling Watney a Martian is akin to calling those immigrants who come to the United States, taking up its unwarranted optimism, the breathless rush forward of progress, Americans. In fact NASA even points out to him that by growing crops on Mars, he has effectively colonized it. So in The Martian, America, having colonized Earth’s unconscious with our cultural products and our peculiarly venomous brand of capitalism, is leaping out of orbit to Mars and, undoubtedly, beyond, a kind of virus. No wonder our creators in Scott’s previous science fiction film, Prometheus, wanted to rip our heads off.

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Cinemasaurus plex: Jurassic World

One of the difficulties of sequels—or installments of franchises, to speak shudderingly, for all that it promises, in today’s parlance—has been the need to top the original. Usually, that means giving us more of what the original did even if not as well. With its title alone, Jurassic World, the fourth movie in the Jurassic Park series, seems aware of this.   Not only has a park transformed into the world, but given the amusement park overtones of the film’s setting, one can’t help but think of Disney, which opened Disneyland in 1955 on a paltry 160 acres (the park itself occupied only about 60 of them) that has expanded over the years to about 500 acres, and Disney World in 1971, now covering over 27,000 acres.

Jurassic IndominusJurassic World continually nods to, and winks at, its status as a franchise—merchandise litters the visual landscape of the movie like errant facial hair at Burning Man. Even the premise of the movie comments on its own premise: faced with flagging attendance due to the public’s boredom with seeing the same old dinosaurs, scientists at Jurassic World create a new, more dangerous predator, the most dangerous ever seen—the Indominus rex. And here we are, sitting in the theater, just as the spectators at Jurassic World are, returning to a franchise we’d thought had expired in 2001 due to lack of interest, biding our time with the movie’s “plot” until the Indominus rex appears.

While we’re waiting, of course, it doesn’t hurt to see some other nastiness, appetizers for the main course, horrors d’oeuvres if you will, and Jurassic World serves them, mainly in the shape of a pack of velociraptors who are in the thrall of raptor-whisperer and former Navy man Owen Grady—the always quirky and charming Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation—and a Shamu-like Mosasaurus, that leaps out of a water tank for fish treats, though the fish it gobbles up aren’t mackerel, they’re great white sharks.

Jurassic mosasaurusThat the Mosasaurus is intended to keep us occupied until the Indominus rex goes on its rampage is, unsurprisingly in such a self-reflexive movie, also underscored by action in the film. Ostensibly, the movie is about two adolescent boys, Gray and Zach Mitchell, who are sent to Jurassic World to be shielded from the horrible spectacle of their parents’ impending divorce. Once at the park, they’re to be watched over by their aunt Claire who, it turns out, is too busy to tend to them, so they’re left on their own. Zach, the older of the two boys who is showing an interest in girls, is bored at Jurassic World. Sitting at the Mosasaurus show, Gray excited about the prospect of seeing the marine dinosaur, Zach has his face glued to his smart phone until the Mosasaurus leaps from the tank and takes out most of the shark with one snap, his reentry into the water splashing just about all of the spectators. That got Zach’s attention, just as it got ours. Finally, some carnage.

It’s hard to know what to make of this relentless self-awareness. On one hand, it feels like satire—it uses its own status as film product to mock the very industry it’s a part of. But there’s the rub. Once old Indominus rex appears, the satire goes out the window and this becomes a conventional monster-on-the-loose movie, making the self-awareness come across a bit smug and cynical, as if the film were telling us, “Yeah, we know it’s stupid. We know you’ve seen it before. What are you going to do about it?”

Jurassic owenNot a lot, I suppose, because as stupid and familiar as it is, there is something fundamentally satisfying about watching a giant monster run amok. I think it’s no mistake that the movies keep coming back to this formula, from King Kong to Godzilla to, well, Jurassic Park and all the other imitators, sequels, and remakes in between. The marauding dinosaur in Jurassic World is no different, though by this point the monster rampage has become a bit of cinematic comfort food. Still, it almost distracts one from the myriad of undeveloped or unpursued plotlines that abound in Jurassic World—the divorce has no presence after the beginning of the film and Zach’s interest in girls is just that. No development is needed apparently. Nor do we need to know much about Owen Grady except that he knows a lot about his little pack of velociraptors and moves through the world with the excited engagement of a boy playing out adventures in his backyard. It’s little wonder the Gray and Zach are drawn to him. Both have barely emerged from the world that Grady seems to occupy.

So if its lack of clarity about what its plot is—beyond the Indominus rex getting loose—as well as the screenwriting credit, which is attributed to four people, suggests a script written by committee, stitched together like Frankenstein, so, one could say, is the Indominus rex itself, made up of various traits from the scary dinosaurs of previous Jurassic Park films, out-of-control and come to attack its creator, much as this movie seems to want to do to those sitting in the Cineplex, who want to be shaken awake but, like Zach Mitchell, don’t want to take the energy to do it themselves.

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Rerouted: Amy Schumer’s and Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck

When I heard there was a new comedy being released titled Trainwreck, I imagined a manically plotted farce with bad behavior covered up by lies that spawn more lies, each more preposterous than the one that preceded it, while identities are swapped with breakneck abandon until no one can keep track of the truth, the whole thing hurtling along of its own momentum until it finally careens off the rails and the truth is revealed, all of the plot lines colliding together with finality, the lead characters relatively intact, having suffered only a few scrapes and bruises, maybe a broken bone or two. Think The Importance of Being Earnest or practically any episode of Fawlty Towers. Unfortunately, Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer have imagined something entirely different that, to my taste, is much less satisfying—a relatively by-the-numbers romantic comedy about a profligate whose life bottoms out until she realizes that all she has been missing in her life is the right man.

trainwreck muscleSchumer, who also wrote the screenplay, plays Amy Townsend, a magazine writer who enjoys booze, pot, and sex, though not necessarily in that order. It is her sexual abandon that lands her in trouble with her current-boyfriend, a musclehead who, with several funny, off-hand (and off-color) comments, reveals that he may be a bit confused about his sexuality but isn’t smart enough to have realized it yet. At about the time their relationship mercifully ends, Amy finds herself assigned to write a story about sports doctor Aaron Conners, amiably played by Bill Hader. Despite her resistance to the assignment—Amy hates sports—Amy is charmed by Aaron and they go out on a date that eventually leads to a bout of tipsy sex. To Amy’s chagrin, Aaron takes this as a sign that she’s possibly interested in pursuing a relationship. Given the generic inevitably, it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that after blatantly ignoring what she knows in her heart to be true, Amy comes to discover that Aaron is the “Mr. Right” he has always appeared to be.

What makes Trainwreck’s adherence to the rom-com template so disappointing is that it is, often enough, quite funny. In the opening scene, for example, Amy’s father (Colin Quinn), using dolls as an analogy, explains to his young daughters why he and their mother are divorcing, simultaneously making clear that monogamy is not only a bore but is, in fact, ridiculous. Such an incisive prelude would be auspicious were it not meant to establish that some of Amy’s problems with commitment come from her complicated relationship with her father who, over the course of the film, suffers health problems resulting from multiple sclerorsis, sending him to an assisted living center. It’s a subplot that feels mawkish, especially given the bite of the film’s opening.

trainwreck doctorAmy’s musclehead boyfriend also has some hilariously inappropriate scenes, especially one that unfolds in a movie theater. And the moment when Aaron calls Amy the day after their first date, and she freaks out, thinking he must be mentally ill before confirming with a friend that he probably just butt-dialed her, allows for the possibility of Trainwreck to take the air out of a genre that has become tiresomely predictable.

But however subversive the humor in Trainwreck seems to be, it is safely contained by the movie’s plot. This is a trademark of Apatow’s movies, actually. They have never shied away from being raunchy—in the service of “truth telling,” it seems—but always end with an unhealthy dollop of sentimentality. In interviews, Apatow has expressed admiration for John Hughes’ movies, and in their tendency toward the saccharine, it shows. Hughes undercut his sometimes tasteless cynicism with a warmheartedness that became treacle by the end of his career, revealing the cruelty at the heart of his more shocking jokes.

Apatow and Schumer are never cruel, though perhaps they should have been. They come close in a scene involving an intern at Amy’s magazine but the scene is cut short before it gets too discomfiting. If that is supposed to be the moment when the wreck occurs, then we are rerouted before we can crane our necks and glimpse the something we think we don’t really want to see, much as Hollywood has done with the cruel demands of truly memorable comedy.

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Kingsman: The Secret ServiceHave you ever wondered what would happen if the Knights of the Round Table had been secretly revived to protect the world from evil-doers? No? Well, neither have the creators of Kingsman: The Secret Service, a limp action film about a highly secretive intelligence agency whose operatives are named after figures from Arthurian legend. Apparently naming the man in charge of the Bond-like gadgets “Merlin” is as much magic as the filmmakers wanted—or at least allowed themselves—to muster. The allusions go no deeper that.

The movie centers on the tutelage of Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), a thug-in-the-making who had grown up in a London slum, fatherless, and is currently suffering the “What have you got?” phase of his rage against the world. Harry Hart, a.k.a. “Galahad,” played by Colin Firth with just enough restraint to remain charming, sees a goodness inside Eggsy—who is the son of a Kingsman who had sacrificed his life to save Galahad (this is unknown to Eggsy, of course)—that Eggsy himself no longer sees. So Galahad trains Eggsy to become one of the Kingsman, an organization that’s a hybrid of a James Bond type of secret service and the Men in Black.

Eggsy’s training as a Kingsman is a strange undertaking that amps up the theatricality of boot camp with a budget, complete with crazy locales and outlandish tests, like the one where the recruits are asked to sky dive only to be told, as they plummet through the air, that one of the parachutes doesn’t work—come to think of it, perhaps the Kingsman recruits are actually on a reality TV show. Not long after Eggsy begins his training, it becomes clear that billionaire philanthropist and Internet mogul Richmond Valentine is actually an evil genius with a scheme to stop global warming by killing the vast majority of kingsman 2humanity. Suddenly, the training becomes very real.

Well, not too real. The movie has no foot in reality. Unsurprisingly based on a comic book, The Secret Service, the movie follows the template of a James Bond movie reduced to the even cartoonier outlines of superhero stories—so, really, not unlike a James Bond movie, especially those latter-day Roger Moore ones. Moonraker anyone?  The plot of Kingsman is so ridiculous that it is inconsequential, leading one to suspect that it is an outright spoof of Bond movies. But, to paraphrase Homer Simpson regarding the Police Academy movies, I didn’t hear anybody laughing. Neither spoof nor full-blooded action film—most of the fight scenes, for all their violence, are too familiar to carry the weight of the film—the drama and the humor of Kingsman is drained of life in its uncertainty.

Central to the problem might be the villain, Richmond Valentine. Jackson, an actor usually known for his gravitas, plays Valentine as a nerd, a full-grown Pointdexter, his baseball hat askew, wearing oversized glasses that seem to double as computer screens ala Google glass, and uttering his maniacal nonsense through a speech impediment. If the fact that Valentine has some deadly toys at his disposal makes him sound chilling, he isn’t. Instead, he comes across as a petulant child in a man’s body. So forceful is the effect that one suspects he represents the fanboys who, with the intensity of protracted, middle-aged adolescence, lash out with fury when, say, Batman’s costume is altered for a future film in ways that do not meet their Procrustean ideals. Perhaps, one hopes beyond measure, the movie is actually a pointed satire of the dictatorship of the nerd currently ruling American cinema, threatening to crush any remaining pockets of cinematic resistance.

But there’s nothing that coherent in Kingsman. In fact, nothing in the film is more coherent than the appropriation of Arthurian names for characters who do not act with more than a scintilla of the moral uprightness possessed by the Knights of the Round Table. The Kingsman aren’t trying to find the Grail that will heal the ailing heart of their nation, or even the world, purifying themselves in their quests—or risk bedevilment if not—so they can be worthy of attaining the Grail. Instead, the Kingsman fight with terrorists or battle evil geniuses bent on global annihilation. More tellingly, they antagonize common bullies and then, when the bullies respond, beat the living daylights out of them. They’re not saviors. They’re bullies too. Who is the one who can extricate Excalibur from the stone and save us from them?

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