The sequel to 2015’s hit Kingsman: The Secret Service won’t make you feel the urgent need to take a shower and/or throw up, like the original probably did. Believe it or not, that’s not always a good thing. Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn’s follow-up to his brutal, joyfully degenerate adaptation of Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons's 2012 comic book, has been crafted to broaden the series’ appeal, to turn it into a legitimate franchise. So, it’s got more stars, more set pieces, more … stuff. The garish violence is still there, as is the profanity. Gone, however, is much of the creativity, the unpredictable, see-what-sticks depravity. The movie has its moments, but the bloat and the blandness take their toll.
The original posited that Kingsman was a group of uber-British secret-secret-secret service of dapper, debonair, high-tech spies who had long operated out of a society of Savile Row tailors. But for some reason, they only ever seemed to function properly as a team after most of them were destroyed or rendered ineffective. In the first film, the bad guys infiltrated Kingsman’s leadership. This time, most of the group gets destroyed early on, along with their headquarters. Left behind once again are Eggsy, a.k.a. Galahad (Taron Egerton), the mouthy young initiate hero from the first film, and Merlin (Mark Strong), who provides tech support — the Q of the organization.
Tracking clues, they find themselves in Kentucky, in the headquarters of Statesman, their good ol’ boy American counterparts, whose front is a distillery rather than a tailor’s shop. Statesman agents wear cowboy hats and leather boots and sport drawls, and are run by garrulous patriarch Champagne (Jeff Bridges); their members are named not after Arthurian legends but after drinks. There’s the shit-kicking, trash-talking Tequila (Channing Tatum), not to mention Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), the Americans’ answer to Merlin.
Also, locked away in a white cell, Statesman has Harry Hart (Colin Firth), Eggsy’s mentor, veteran super-agent and star of the first film. When we last saw Harry, he had been shot in the eye after spending a significant chunk of screen time shockingly and expertly slaughtering the entire congregation of a deranged, hate-spewing Southern church; that was the emotional denouement of the first movie (but not the narrative one), the electric moment when we realized the filmmakers were capable of anything. However, franchises need their stars, and Statesman, it turns out, has developed a way to save its heroes from fatal head wounds. Even so, Harry doesn’t remember anything of his Kingsman past; he’s convinced he’s a soft-spoken lepidopterist.
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I’m getting bored just typing all this. The Golden Circle spends a lot of time introducing us to the world of Statesman, and dealing with Harry’s amnesia. The first film, of course, spent a lot of time introducing us to Kingsman, but it did so in the context of a furious competition among Eggsy and other recruits for a spot among the elite agents; the world-building, in other words, was fortified by suspense, character development and narrative drive. Here, it’s more like orientation sessions with a bunch of boilerplate cowboy banter sprinkled in.
Luckily, things do gradually pick up. The villain here is a chipper, powerful drug kingpin named Poppy (Julianne Moore), hiding out in the Cambodian mountains, in a colorful, 1950s-inspired village she’s built for herself. She’s protected by robot dogs and cyborg thugs, and she has kidnapped Elton John, whom she forces to perform for her. Also, she likes to make her henchmen throw each other into meat grinders, then forces them to eat hamburgers made out of their colleagues. Anyway, Poppy’s got a plan to hold the governments of the world hostage by spreading drugs laced with a deadly poison, for which only she has the antidote. I’m still not sure how Elton John fits into all this, but, being Elton John, he can’t resist the bad drugs and almost dies.
Eventually, Eggsy, Harry, Merlin and the mustachioed Statesman Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), a Burt Reynolds look-alike who wields a retractable electric lasso, have to track Poppy down, and the film manages to deliver a couple of interesting fights and standoffs. Of course, the action theatrics are in line with those from the earlier movie, with their physically impossible, CGI-infused, single-take melees involving inventive uses of random props — fun, but no longer surprising. (I waited in vain for a single moment as inspired as the original’s throwaway slow-motion shot of a baddie being stabbed in the face as his own severed hand zoomed by him.)
The jokes, too, feel like retreads from the first film, so that even when they’re witty, they feel derivative: This time, instead of a heroine offering the hero, ahem, anal sex in exchange for saving the world, we get — spoiler alert — Elton John offering Colin Firth “backstage passes” to his next concert, with a wink. That’s funny, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere like the bizarre original gag did. One could say something similar about this whole movie: It jumps through a million hoops but doesn’t come close to achieving what the first film seemed to do so effortlessly.