Director Matthew Vaughn, who got his start working on early Guy Ritchie gangster pictures, has come into his own as a known entity in the film industry. Films like Stardust and Kick-Ass gained the director notoriety, and he ably handled a major franchise tentpole with 2011’s X-Men: First Class.
Vaughn’s biggest success to date, however, came in the form of 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, a hard-R rated spy movie send-up, based on a lesser known comic book and perfectly juxtaposed to open against Fifty Shades of Gray on Valentine’s Day weekend. The movie ended up being a major hit with audiences and a sequel was greenlit, which arrives in theaters this weekend in the form of Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
For the sequel, Vaughn very much adheres to the old adages of “bigger is better” and “sticking with what worked the first time”. The Golden Circle amplifies everything from its ungainly running time, overload of famous actors, completely ridiculous plotline and the gratuitous amounts of violence. More surprising (and blatantly spoiled from the film’s marketing campaign) is the return of Colin Firth as Harry Hart. Firth’s Hart was the main attraction in the first film, grooming young co-star Taron Egerton (Eggsy in the films) while playing the role with an effortless, gentleman-like cool. He was also shot in the head point blank by the first film’s main villain. The film explains this development away with an inarguable plot contrivance, but while Firth’s presence is welcome and performance is on point, his return causes the first installment to lose some of its weight.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle picks up where the first left-off, with Eggsy (Egerton) and girlfriend/Swedish princess) Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) enjoying their life together when the entire Kingsman organization, sans tech guru Merlin (Mark Strong, solid as always) and Eggsy, is destroyed by drug lord and 50’s nostalgia enthusiast Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore). Poppy wants the world to legalize all drugs so she can be seen as the super successful business leader she is, and she also does not want the Kingsman to stop her, apparently.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Eggsy and Merlin look to their next plan of action, which leads them to the Statesman, a super secret spy organization like the Kingsman. Instead of being Saville Row tailors, the Statesmans’ cover is that of a popular Kentucky distillery. There are several other kitschy differences, the Statesman agents are named after various liquors, they dress in traditional Western garb instead of as British gentleman, but the Statesman are not nearly as fully realized as the Kingsman. Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry all appear as members of the Statesman team, but all amount to overblown cameos. The Statesman we spend the most time with is the chauvinistic, lasso-wielding Whiskey, played with some pizzazz by Pedro Pascal.
The Statesmans’ portrayal suffers from an overstuffed plot that has Moore’s Poppy poisoning the entire world’s drug-using population, a plight that affects several side characters as well as the conniving President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood), who sees Poppy’s threats as an opportunity. Eggsy’s quest to prevent Poppy’s plan from succeeding take him to icy mountain ranges, sweltering rain forests, and, most controversially, Glastonbury music festival, where a tracking device that needs planted on a girl played by Poppy Delevigne provides the film’s biggest mouth drop moment.
Everything that made the first Kingsman work is in play here. There are moments of the the top violence, like a scene in Poppy’s Diner where Julianne Moore serves a special meal, sequences of hardcore action set to fun and well-known popular music, and self-awareness right down to an overlong Elton John appearance (as his most flamboyant self). Director Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman take pains to make sure everything makes sense, even when it doesn’t, and the film’s constant back-tracking and explaining of itself contributes to its sluggish pace.
This all said, audiences could certainly do a lot worse for a popcorn flick than Kingsman: The Golden Circle. The movie is sentimental and generally entertaining, and gleefully over-the-top. What is lacks in freshness it makes up for in effort, and, when the inevitable third installment rolls around, The Golden Circle leaves a (pre-credits) teaser that gives viewers something to look forward to next time around. In a world of an all-too serious James Bond, there is plenty of room for the Kingsman.