Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service (very loosely based on the comic book series of the same name by Mark Millar) was one of the pleasant surprises of 2014: a stylish, anarchic, gleefully entertaining send-up of the James Bond series that succeeded by pushing the faux-formalism, gadget-driven absurdity and underlying carnality of the Bond series to amusing extremes. It felt relatively fearless by blockbuster standards (a sizable disclaimer, but still), serving up a plethora of "wait, did they really just do that?!" laughs and shocks. Unlike most big movies these days, it felt like a movie that wasn't holding anything back for a sequel. As such, it cleaned up at the box office... thus making a sequel inevitable.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn't a bad movie, exactly, but it's almost the textbook definition of a movie that doesn't really need to exist. The feeling that Vaughn and co. have already given us their best ideas for this series sets in early, as entirely too many moments feel like strained efforts to reprise the most memorable bits from the first. You hear the machinery of the film's plot creaking and groaning as the filmmakers awkwardly shift from go-for-broke recklessness to Franchise Mode. If the first film often felt like a giddily satirical riff on Bond movie conventions, this one tends to feel more like a mere variation on Bond movie conventions.
As the film begins, our hero Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (a stellar Taron Egerton, Eddie the Eagle) has fully settled into his new role as Galahad, one of the most prestigious agents of the secretive British spy agency Kingsman. Alas, he isn't given much time to revel in his success: a series of devastating missile strikes wipe out Kingsman HQ and almost all of its key staff members, leaving only Eggsy and steadfast fellow agent Merlin (Mark Strong, Body of Lies) to pick up the pieces and find the person responsible for the attack. Having lost most of their resources, the duo heads to Kentucky to seek assistance from their sister organization Statesman (which gives actors like Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Channing Tatum and Pedro Pascal an opportunity to bring different flavors of All-American swagger to the proceedings).
The villain they seek is Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven), the cheery head of a mysterious drug cartel known as The Golden Circle. The nature of her business requires Poppy to operate from a remote location in the middle of a Cambodian jungle, but homesickness has inspired her to turn her headquarters into a Happy Days-esque vision of American nostalgia (she spends much of her time in a charming little hamburger joint... just don't ask what the hamburgers are made of). Indeed, Poppy's fondness for civilized life is at the root of her grand plan: she wants the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood, doing his level best to depict a POTUS as grotesquely self-serving as the one we currently have) to legalize all drugs, thus allowing her to return to her home country and operate as a respectable businesswoman. To achieve this seemingly impossible goal, she has laced the drugs she sells with a poison that will ultimately kill hundreds of millions of people... and will only agree to release the antidote once the president has met her demands.
The Poppy scenes are some of the film's most entertaining moments, with Moore's chipper sitcom housewife of a drug kingpin serving as an effective replacement for Samuel L. Jackson's lisping Silicon Valley supervillain. Sure, certain elements feel like reheated versions of things we've seen before (particularly a global television broadcast that's ripped straight out of Tim Burton's Batman), but you sense that Vaughn and his actors (including Sir Elton John, who has been kidnapped by Poppy and is forced to perform nightly shows for her amusement) are having a good time in this whimsical, violent playground.
When dealing with the returning characters, however, the film struggles to maintain its creative spark. As the trailers have revealed, the film eventually leads to the return of Harry Hart (Colin Firth, A Single Man), who was violently murdered in the previous film. Harry was The Secret Service's best character, but the film spends so much time on the bland details of his revival (and ultimately gives him so little of interest to do) that I wonder if he should have been left in the grave. The fact that Harry initially returns as a significantly diminished version of his former self makes him feel like an accidental metaphor for Kingsman: The Golden Circle as a whole.
Vaughn is a talented director, and it's no surprise that his action sequences are slick and energetic. Even these, however, ultimately feel like a bit of a letdown: the movie seems to fall back on the same visual tricks over and over again, and the most blatant attempt to match the lunacy of the church scene from the first film is a flat-out failure (Sir Elton manages to be the best and worst thing about this sequence, providing both a kickass soundtrack cue and a depressingly lame gag). There's also no good excuse for the film's 141-minute running time: one imagines the film's failings would be easier to overlook within a tight 105-minute package, but instead we get something that feels overlong and somewhat shapeless. The film's conclusion promises further Kingsman adventures, but I hope Vaughn finds a more interesting creative goal before he presses on. The Golden Circle is a passable entertainment, but it's a little depressing to see something that started out on such a fresh note turning into just another formulaic franchise.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Year: 2017