Watching Kingsman: The Secret Service felt like you were witness to director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman getting away with something, pulling a fast one on the extremely safe studio system. The film took some of the well-established aspects from the spy genre and amplified them. It was James Bond with bloody violence and stripped of all the innuendo. Kingsman was extremely violent, vulgar, and tasteless. I loved it. Of course I’d be excited for a sequel and now Vaughn and company return with Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It’s a fairly solid sequel that is consistently entertaining, but The Golden Circle just is unable to recapture that dynamic energy that made the first film so much fun. That abrasive personality seems dulled a bit in this second installment. There’s plenty of fun in The Golden Circle but it is a case of diminishing returns when compared to its predecessor.
The sequel gets right to the action in the opening scene. Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is leaving the tailor shop that serves as the front for the ultra-secret spy organization Kingsman where he’s encountered by Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a rejected recruit from Kingsman who now has a mechanical arm. The two battle it out in a moving car as Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blasts on the sound system. In the aftermath of the fight, the mechanical arm left behind the car hacks into Kingsman’s servers providing Poppy (Julianne Moore), a criminal kingpin who has cornered the drug market, with the location of all of Kingsman’s agents and offices which she promptly bombs. All that remains of the spy agency is Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong), the two agents activating their doomsday protocol which leads them to Kentucky and a whiskey bottling plant known as Statesman, which serves as the front for their American counterparts.
The Statesman Headquarters brings about a whole new set of characters and few reveals. Merlin has his own counterpart in the American spy agency in Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), and the group is led by Champagne (Jeff Bridges), who prefers to be known as “Champ.” Deep within Statesman Headquarters lies a surprise – Harry Hart (Colin Firth) had survived the bullet to his head in the last film though he’s stricken with amnesia. At first the British spies are set to work with Tequila (Channing Tatum) until he’s stricken with a mysterious illness that’s revealed to be a poison placed in the illicit drug supply by Poppy as a means to force the hand of governments to legalize her product and allow her a bit of notoriety for her capitalistic exploits. A revitalized Harry, Eggys, and Merlin join up with Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to track down Poppy’s secret location and save millions of lives.
The Golden Circle certainly suffers from a lot of bloat because there are just so many characters and subplots circling around the spy sequel. On one hand is the relationship of Eggsy and Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), whom he rescued at the conclusion of the first film. Then there are all the people afflicted with disease crafted by Poppy in the drug supply, which afflicts Princess Tilde, some of Eggsy’s friends, and the White House Chief of Staff (Emily Watson). There’s always a subversive sense of humor at play in these various subplots that prevent them from dragging the film to a crawl, but they are a hindrance to the film maintaining a sense of forward momentum. There are a few aspects that are problematic and yet feel restrained, as if the increased profile of the sequel prevent Matthew Vaughn from fully embracing his Verhoeven-like ability to blend grotesque action with sharp satire.
And yet with all of its noticeable flaws, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is often very fun because the enthusiasm of its cast shines through. Julianne Moore is having an absolute blast as the villainous Poppy, and her character surrounds herself with a ‘50s retro lair secluded in the Cambodian jungle. Also bringing an obvious sense of fun to their performance is Pedro Pascal, bringing forth a southern drawl to accompany his whirling lasso and double-fisted gun-toting. And yet the scene-stealer of the Kingsman sequel is Elton John. It’d be wrong to spoil just what the legendary rocker does in the movie, but he never disappoints in his limited role and often delivers some of the film’s most wildly effective moments of outrageousness.
While failing to live up to its predecessor, Kingsman: The Golden Circle still entertains due to the fact that its cast is willing to push the material above its flaws. Despite all the aspects that work within the sequel, it still feels like Matthew Vaughn was pulling his punches. It has moments of brazenness but not an entirely consistent attitude that made the first film such a violent, vulgar good time. There’s no better example to this than the fact that first movie concluded with President Obama’s head exploding in slow motion. In the sequel, the president (not based on a real life figure) is merely impeached. Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman have always seemed to be willing to court controversy, and The Golden Circle represents the first time I’ve observed an apprehension to their work. Kingsman felt like they were pulling a fast one over the studio and audiences, and getting away with it due to its box office success. The Golden Circle feels like they’re afraid to get the boot out of the gilded studio system.