Decidedly less fun than its predecessor, Kingsman: The Golden Circle proves an all-around inferior sequel. Director Matthew Vaughn, responsible for fanboy favorites the likes of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, doubles down on the less successful elements of the first installment, championing poorly rendered CG over practical effects and eyebrow-raising one-liners over earnest emotion. What’s missing is the joy, replaced by shallow humor and hollow spectacle, as Vaughn delivers a super spy adventure that loads up on juvenile jokes and stylishly shot set pieces to the detriment of what made the first one so shamelessly good – a keen sense of heart and self.
“Manners maketh man,” professed Colin Firth’s Harry Hart, a fan favorite back from the grave by virtue of a whopper of a deus ex machina, but this time, there’s much more crass than class on display. Sure Eggsy, the rough and tumble chav turned dapper agent, has cleaned up nicely, pocket squares and all, but Kingsman: The Golden Circle shows far more interest in low-brow snickers than cinched up manners. Be it a tracker jammed up an enemy’s coochie, liberal use of sexual epitaphs and free-wheeling expletives, Sir Elton John (in an exhausting and overused cameo) drops enough F-bombs to justify the R-rating by himself, this is a product empathically geared towards the younger generation, one more interested in cheap chuckles and featureless eye candy than genuine team-building and narrative inventiveness. To quote one of 45’s favorite words – Sad!
Though the plot takes things in a new direction, obliterating the Kingsman’s entire support structure in standard sequel fashion, the window dressings have a majorly lather, rinse, repeat quality to them. Everything is taken up a notch as Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) discover that former-Kingsman-trainee-turned-villanious-henchman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) is in league with Julianne Moore’s Poppy Adams, a chipper exterior enshrining a sociopathic drug lord hell bent on power and money. Le yawn. As Poppy takes the world hostage by poisoning her drugs and holding the antidote ransom, the remaining members of the Kingsman must turn to their American counterparts, the Statesman, for backup saving the world.
The issues are abundant. Moore’s Poppy is the Dominic Greene to Sam Jackson’s lispy Blofeld, a toothless villain with nothing to do sans radiate dread through a pearly white smile. Even for a character who turns traitors to hamburgers, there’s no defining moment for this villainess, nothing motivating her evil plans beyond mere plot necessity. It’s true that a great spy movie doesn’t necessarily need a great villain (look no further than Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol for proof of that) but Poppy is such a blah character that it’s ultimately hard to muster much enthusiasm for her undoing. There’s some political maneuvering The Golden Circle attempts, ushering forth a fairly pedestrian analysis of the political divide regarding the war on drugs, but that too is never given the proper teeth to allow its bite to sink in.
Likewise, the Statesman are a failed experiment; padding to an already puffy blockbuster. Meant to be the Yankee counterpart to the Kingsman, the Statesman succeed only superficially. Credit goes to the casting director, by proposing the collection of Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry and Pedro Pascal (disappointing here) as supporting cast members, but unfortunately most are relegated to throwaway scenes or pop-ins, with the film running dangerously short on my man Channing Tatum. Pascal is the only one who gets significant screen time (you can likely thank payroll for that) but I found myself wishing that his and Tatum’s character had been combined, some of the fat trimmed, some of the storytelling excess tightened for camera.
Equally, it’s hard to ignore Vaugn’s treatment of his female characters, which oscillates from kind of offensive to just straight up weird. After establishing one particularly competent and bad-ass female agent, Vaughn swipes her from the table, a XX-chromosomed pawn to motivate his XY-protagonists. The twat-tracker scene, although funny in a rather puerile way, is more cringy and odd than anything and the fact that Eggsy winds up with the princess who’s anal cavity he invaded at the end of the last feature just sends all kinds of weird messages about adult relationships. Of all the moralistic hills to die on, it seems out of place that Vaughn and longtime co-writer Jane Goldman have decided that throwaway posterior buggery shall lead to monogamy here in the Kingsman universe.
Sure there’s highlights scattered throughout. Mark Strong is fantastic as Merlin and his scene featuring John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road” (one of many) has some serious sticking power; a few of the spastic and gravity-defying fisticuff sequences proof enthralling machinations of onscreen violence, outrageously over-the-top though they may be; that cast remains any director’s dream, though too many of the familiar faces prove criminally underused to such a degree that you can’t stop dwelling on it.
Like plastic bottle discount whiskey, The Golden Circle just doesn’t go down easy. The first film did a lot of winking, this does a lot of prodding. You feel Vaughn and company returning to the well and trying to capture lighting in the same bottle but to what end? The Mark Miller comic book roots have never been clearer. Basically everything that works in Kingsman: The Secret Service has gone missing in this derelict sequel. The spirit of adventure, the well-crafted relationships, the well-timed humdingers. This is just a noisy cacophony of shouty laugh lines and gummy action. If The Secret Service succeeded as a campy and self-aware Bond spoof, channeling elements of old 007 and new, The Golden Circle comes out blazing as a half-mast Moonraker.
CONCLUSION: Stylized and silly with innumerable potholes to boot, there’s little beneath ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’’s gilded surface that warrants a return to the field. Mimicking the first film without adding anything new, and wasting what new talent came aboard, this second Kingsman proves quickly out of fashion.