Two years ago, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a delightful surprise package and a genuine guilty pleasure. The tongue-in-cheek spoof of classic British spy movies was wickedly entertaining, loaded with lashings of suave style and ridiculous violence/action. Ultimately, it was just damn good fun.
With the original film, director Matthew Vaughn’s frenetic style of filmmaking played like a mad pianist, pumping out a ridiculous up-tempo number at lightning speed that was still somehow perfectly in-tune. Sadly, the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is more akin to someone just wildly bashing their hands on a piano, occasionally getting the right note here and there, but mostly delivering a red-hot mess. It’s not a complete disaster, but there’s something not quite right here.
Our sequel picks up not long after the events of its predecessor. Eggsy aka Galahad (the enormously likeable Taron Egerton) is now a fully-fledged Kingsman spy, attempting to find his way on his own, after the demise of his mentor, Harry Hart aka the original Galahad (Colin Firth). Vaughn wastes no time throwing us right into the action, as Eggsy comes under attack from Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a failed Kingsman wannabe. You know, the one who died in the first film? Nope. Apparently not. And it’s not the first ridiculous character resurrection this film tries to pull off.
Throwing all the bells and whistles Vaughn can muster, Eggsy and Charlie do battle in a ridiculously extravagant fight sequence in the back of an out-of-control cab, as it careens around the streets of London, to the sounds of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” The song-choice is a nice nod to the late singer, but it doesn’t fit this scene at all. We soon learn Charlie is merely a henchman for our film’s big bad villain, drug lord Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, in all her scenery-chewing glory), and she’s out to end the Kingsman, once and for all.
Poppy, a semi-psychopath who can switch from sweet, homely housewife to vicious, vindictive mafioso in 30 seconds, is hiding out in her appropriately-named jungle compound Poppy Land, somewhere in Colombia. Adams has decked out her lair to look like something from 1950s Americana, complete with a cosy diner that acts as her office, an old-time cinema house, and a full-size theatre where she’s holding Elton John hostage to perform for her when the mood strikes. Yes, the Elton John, in a delicious extended-cameo that may be the best thing in the whole movie.
Poppy’s grand scheme soon comes to fruition when she launches a devastating missile attack on the Kingsman’s headquarters, with Eggsy and his trusty helper Merlin (Mark Strong, the film’s MVP) the only survivors. I must point out the list of casualties also bizarrely includes a beloved canine, which I know can be a massive turn-off for a lot of viewers, so consider yourself warned.
With nowhere left to turn back home, Eggsy and Merlin head for the US of A and their Kentuckian counterparts, the Statesman – an American spy organisation that’s been around as long as the Kingsman. Given this is the South, the Statesman agents aren’t exactly polished gentlemen like their British friends. We get booze-drinking (their headquarters is hidden in a distillery, shaped liked a whiskey bottle) wild cowboys, with liquor-inspired codenames to match.
At the Statesman headquarters, we meet big boss and billionaire tyrant, Champagne (Jeff Bridges) who goes by Champ, obviously, and his wild-boy agents Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). But the biggest surprise, and second far-fetched character resurrection, is the discovery of Harry, alive and (sort-of) well, in a padded cell, under the care of Statesman operative Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Remember that point-blank shot he took to the head in the first film? Evidently one can survive such an injury. You just lose some of your memory. Right. And before you cry about spoilers, Firth is everywhere in the film’s marketing, so his appearance is as big a surprise as Henry Cavill’s will be in Justice League later this year.
But it seems that destroying the Kingsman was just Part One of Poppy’s master plan. Controlling all the world’s supply of elicit drugs (yes, all, apparently) has its benefits. You can quietly lace them with a potentially fatal virus and hold the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) ransom, demanding to make your products legal. Why? Well, Poppy wants to be the world’s most famous and beloved entrepreneur, of course. Yeah, just go with it. It’s up to the Kingsman and Statesman to join forces and stop our dastardly villain for good.
If you enjoyed the first film, the good news is you’re probably going to have a good time with the sequel. Much like most action sequels, Kingsman: The Golden Circle repeats many of the same beats as its predecessor. Vaughn knows how to push the envelope with his filmmaking, even if that can be to places a little too far. There’s one particular sequence involving Eggsy needing to implant a tracking device in a female’s nether region which is rather gauche, even if you’re not particularly prudish. Did we really need to follow it inside her to understand his mission was successful?
There is something wonderfully charming about Egerton, and he works this charm even more so than in the first film. He’s our every-man thrown into the most outlandish of events, and it’s hard not to cheer for him. Less can be said for Firth’s performance, however. It’s not his fault his character has been stripped of everything that made him so delightfully cool in the original. Even when he gets his mojo back, it’s far too late to really save the audience completely losing interest in Harry. Strong gives it everything he’s got, and Merlin somehow ends up being the most sympathetic character in the whole piece.
And what of our new additions to the franchise? Well, you’ve got three Oscar winners here, and none of them ever really do anything to showcase that pedigree. Berry does nothing more than stare at a screen for most of the film. Bridges is barely present to really make much impact. The only one who seems to be trying is Moore, in a completely thankless role. Poppy is utterly ridiculous, and Moore has a hell of a lot of fun playing a villain for the first time (someone correct me if I’m wrong on this), and shows wonderful comic timing. Her dotty performance is worth the price of admission alone. She’ll also make you never look at a hamburger the same ever again.
But the best addition may just be Pascal, who is genuinely entertaining and enormously fun, in all his Burt Reynolds-esque glory. It’s hard not to swoon at his masculine swagger and southern drawl, even if Pascal’s Chilean accent slips in, more than a few times. He’s even better when he gets to pull out his electric-lasso, in the film’s best and most impressively choreographed fight sequence.
I’m forgetting someone. Ah, yes. Channing Tatum. After you see the film, you’ll see why it’s easy to forget his performance. He’s barely in this film. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. He’s prominent in every piece of the film’s marketing. But I genuinely believe Elton John’s extended-cameo ultimately has more screen-time than Tatum’s entire role. Thankfully, it’s a cameo that is as utterly wonderful as it is utterly bizarre. Elton is at his bitchy best, getting to deliver some of the film’s best lines and moments. Who would have thought?
If the performances are weak, the narrative is even worse. The plot jumps around from location to location, with no real rhyme or reason as to why. It feels more like screenwriters Vaughn and Jane Goldman just wanted to film in the craziest, most exotic locations they could think of, whether that was conducive to the plot or not. And the plot is unnecessarily complicated yet somehow entirely dull. Unless you’re an elicit substance user yourself, it’s probably going to be hard to care about the fate of the millions infected with Poppy’s virus.
After the convoluted character resurrections, Vaughn has lost all sense of stakes in this film. How can you really care about the potential risk to our heroes when you know death may not really be death in this franchise? One potentially emotional sequence involving a character’s sacrifice loses all impact because, hey, maybe they’ll just show up in #3!
It’s also far too long, at an exhaustive 141-minutes. With such a running-time, there is so much being thrown at you, but amazingly, barely any of it makes any sort of impact. And I know this is getting picky, but there’s a sequence showing a whole swag of people watching television at different locations around the world, at the same time…yet all of them are somehow watching the exact same Fox News broadcast. Come on now. That’s product placement gone mad.
In saying that, the film does draw to a wickedly fun and utterly farcical climax, with an epic sequence involving an umbrella, a briefcase, a giant plastic donut, and a pair of over-sized scissors, all set to the pumping soundtrack of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” When a film ends on such a fun high, it almost makes everything before it excusable. Almost.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is ultimately a fine but forgettable piece of cinematic fluff that will likely do well enough to warrant a third outing. Egerton is a great leading man who will hopefully deliver something more than just being the cheekishly handsome spy one day. But for all its visual glory and extravagance, it’s a hollow film that leaves you wanting more.