Roger Ebert made a point of evaluating films based on the kind of experience they set out to be. The same scale wouldn't apply to "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List," for instance, even though they were made by the same director. I'm trying to keep that in mind while sorting out my reactions to "Jupiter Ascending" and "Kingsman," a pair of action films from earlier this year. These are both clearly escapist popcorn films, but there are distinctions to be made within this classification. "Jupiter Ascending," for instance, resembles the Wachoswski siblings' last film "Cloud Atlas" aesthetically, but it's not remotely as ambitious. Rather, it's about the fluffiest, campiest action movie to come out of a major studio since Joel Schumacher stopped making Batman movies.
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a poor young Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who cleans houses with her mother while dreaming of a better life. After being targeted for assassination by a group of alien beings, Jupiter is rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum), a disgraced alien supersoldier now working as a gun for hire. Jupiter turns out to be space royalty, an exact genetic match for (and thus the presumed reincarnation of) the deceased matriarch of the powerful Abrasax family. The Abrasax's fortunes depend on "harvesting" the human beings they've "seeded" on various planets. Earth is next, of course, except that Jupiter's royal status means she technically owns the planet, running afoul of the plans of her past self's three children, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth).
And sadly, it's all a bore. As you might expect, the plot is really beside the point. The movie is far more concerned with flashy action scenes, wild overacting by everyone (but especially Eddie Redmayne), and a fuzzy romance between Jupiter and Caine. And there's nothing wrong with that. There have been plenty of silly, weird, self-indulgent sci-fi romps like "Barbarella" and "The Fifth Element" that are loads of fun without making a lick of sense. "Jupiter Ascending," though, is just badly executed from top to bottom. There is way too much exposition being lobbed at viewers constantly. Some of the visuals are nice, but the action scenes are frequently too murky, and the tone is far too self-serious. Kunis and Tatum do what they can, but their characters are too busy being shuttled from one ludicrous, overexplained dilemma to the next to engage in much banter or bonding. Most of the humor falls flat. The movie wants to be a romp, but it's a slog.
At the same time, there's good stuff here, in bits and pieces. I chuckled at the "Brazil" homage in the middle of the film where our heroes have to navigate a nightmare bureaucracy, capped off with a cameo by Terry Gilliam. Lots of the concepts were interesting, like the treatment of reincarnation and the genetically engineered aliens. And for all the digs that have been made at Eddie Redmayne for his performance, at least he was able to hold my attention when he was onscreen. That's better than a lot of the villians in recent Marvel films have managed. I think "Jupiter Ascending" could have been a much better film if it had been lightened up, and embraced the cheese. I mean, we have characters that are part dog and part deer and part dinosaur, and one of the major plot points involves stopping an incestuous space wedding. This could have been a total riot.
"Kingsman," by comparison, has a better idea of what it's doing. There's a scene about a third of the way into the film, where two characters share a discussion about James Bond movies over junk food, heavily winking at the audience that they're well aware that they're playing with beloved old tropes, and none too gently. "Kingsman" is based on a comic book, but is much more directly an update of the broadly comedic Bond films of the Roger Moore era, complete with fancy gadgets and outlandish villains. This was co-written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, creator of "Kick-Ass," so there's a lot of graphic violence, constant profanity, and a fair bit of raunch too.
Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) is a young, lower-class Londoner of promising talent, but an awful home life that has derailed his prospects. He's recruited one day by Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad (Colin Firth), a gentleman secret agent for an independent spy agency, the Kingsmen. While Eggsy undergoes training and testing with several other young recruits under Kingsmen quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong), Harry investigates a series of disappearances linked to tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his lovely assistant Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Of course Eggsy and fellow trainee Roxy (Sophie Cookson) end up getting involved as the mystery unfolds. Michael Caine and Mark Hamill also appear as the leader of the Kingsmen and an environmental scientist respectively.
"Kingsman" has a solid, funny script, full of little meta moments, subversions, and homages. Occasionally it can be crass and very mean, with R-rated content in abundance, but never to the point of causing any real offense. The tone is light, the action scenes are a blast, and the performances are exactly what they need to be. I'm especially impressed with Egerton, a newcomer who easily holds his own in scenes opposite Firth, Strong, and Caine. Sam Jackson seems too over the top at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that's exactly as it should be. And he's clearly having so much fun in the role, I can't really begrudge him. Ditto Colin Firth, who tackles his superspy role with gusto.
The visual style plays a big part in the movie's effectiveness. It's very kinetic and colorful, suffusing the film with an infectious energy. There are a lot of fanciful little touches in the fight scenes, lots of classic spy iconography and cartoon physics, deployed with loving dollops of blood and gore. It's easy to mistake this as a film meant for the YA crowd, because of the younger lead and comic book stylization, but it's definitely got an adult sensibility while remaining gleefully juvenile. I felt guilty about laughing at the series of assassinations choreographed to look like a morbid fireworks display, but also impressed that the filmmakers had gone through with it.
So I recommend "Kingsman" with some reservations - it's not a film that's going to appeal to many outside its bloodthirsty young target audience. However, for that audience it's going to be a treat, which is more than can be said for "Jupiter Ascending," which will be a chore for even the most committed Wachowski fans.