When Kingsman: The Secret Service burst onto the scene in 2014, director Matthew Vaughn’s harmonious mix of James Bond and comic book culture captured the zeitgeist and delivered the goods in spades. A star making performance from up-and-comer Taron Egerton as Mini-Bond? Thank you, sir. A sexed-up action turn from the dapper Colin Firth? You’re damn right, may I have another? Samuel L. Jackson playing a heightened version of Samuel L. Jackson, with a LISP?! Ok, that last part was pretty awful. But everything else was like ice cream on a summer day; delicious.
Cut to three years later, and we finally have the first proper sequel to a now-franchise in The Golden Circle. Egerton returns as Eggsy, now dating Princess Tilde and top agent at Kingsman after the fateful loss of Firth’s Harry Hart in the last film. This time around, the Kingsman have been targeted by a delusional psychopath named Poppy (Julianne Moore), who just so happens to be the leader of a nefarious drug cartel. Poppy maintains the outward appearance of Mrs. Brady, she even holes up in a hidden compound completely accessorized with a ’50s diner and bowling alley. Yet anyone in her employ remains one broken act of loyalty away from a face-off with a meat grinder.
Destroying all known locales of Kingsman facilities, Eggsy hits the road with Merlin (Mark Strong) to seek out their only remaining ally, a US based organization known as Statesman. Based in a Kentucky whiskey distillery (and featuring stars such as Rooster Cog…sorry Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal and Channing Tatum), Statesman are far less coy, become exceedingly crass, and might wear hats larger than most monster trucks, but they get the job done just as skillfully. Bonded together over their mutual need to put Poppy down, the refined Kingsman join forces with the ridiculous Statesman for a fight that ultimately puts the fate of the world in their hands, yet again.
With expectations through the roof and Matthew Vaughn returning for another go, The Golden Circle hits the ground running. More accurately, it hits the pavement at 85 miles per hour, while Eggsy battles former recruit Charlie (Edward Holcroft) inside and outside of his chauffeured ride. The camera follows Eggsy in perpetual motion as though this entire set-piece was shot in one maniacally orchestrated take. This blistering opening positions the audience firmly in the passenger’s seat, as Vaughn’s unrelenting film refuses to break momentum for anything, least of all any semblance of common sense.
The utter joy of the first film was this heightened absurdity of everything at play, while maintaining a minor notion of plausibility with realistic stakes. Yes, it had a girl with blades for feet, but Eggsy’s plight was harsh and Harry’s death was an unexpected emotional punch to the gut. The Golden Circle, on the other hand, erases those hard-fought moments by forgetting how they were earned to begin with. Charlie returns from certain death, and in the worst kept movie secret in recent history, Harry escapes a bullet TO THE HEAD! Not only would his escape and ensuing amnesia be a stretch even for an ’80s soap opera, the efforts to get Harry back in action slams the brakes on the pacing just as this engine was ready to rock. And we, as an audience, are somehow supposed to believe we should still place our emotive eggs in Vaughn’s basket one more time as he dangles a few more character outcomes in our face? Bollocks, mate. You lost me.
The Golden Circle is what happens when a talented director achieves a certain level of success, and is turned loose on his own creation. It’s a toddler roaming free with reckless abandon in the streets of Disney World. While you still love that kid and he’s a blast to hang out with for awhile, there comes a time when you just need to drop his ADHD ass off at home and hit the nearest bar.
All of the chaotic action and intellectual retorts are here – and there is a hell of a lot of fun, make no mistake – but the spark the original held is only captured in the audience’s rear view, and it’s not as close as it appears. The cast is mostly in top form, with Mark Strong in particular livening up every scene he stumbles onto, and offers one of the greatest cameos in recent film history. So, to put my finger on what’s missing, I would harken back to those stakes I mentioned earlier.
Kingsman: The Secret Service gave us a bonkers world with a human touch, and while the sequel amps up the lunacy, retconning so many characters and forgetting to reel in its maestro eventually catches up to it. Manners might maketh man, but magic maketh movies. And The Golden Circle stretches that fine art of illusion one martini too far.
Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Pedro Pascal, Jeff Bridges
Screenplay by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman
Directed by Matthew Vaughn