Kingsman: The Secret Service, the 2014 British adaptation of the Mark Millar-Dave Gibbons comic book series, felt subversive because it didn’t feel like it was trying to be subversive. The follow-up, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, desperately wants you to think it’s subversive, even though it’s really just bigger, louder and bloated to the point where you wish minutes and certain cast members could have been carved out of this nearly two-and-half-hour exercise in excess. I don’t mean to imply that The Golden Circle doesn’t have its moments of genuine enjoyment and entertainment, but you have to wade through a lot of exposition, poor performance choices, and story elements that don’t always pan out to get to the good stuff.
In an effort to more or less begin with a clean slate, this second Kingsman installment opens with a quick update on Eggsy’s (Taron Egerton) day-to-day life inside the Kingsman organization (run by Michael Gambon’s Arthur) and at home with his mates and now-longtime girlfriend, the Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström, returning from the, um, back end of the previous film). After a fairly impressive opening car chase sequence to show us just what Eggsy is capable of these days, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, the first Kingsman movie) and his co-writer Jane Goldman blow nearly all of Eggsy’s life to piece with an attack on his home and business (as well as all other Kingsman locations in the country). He and his constant companion, Merlin (Mark Strong), are all that’s left of the secret, independent organization, and it’s up to them to figure out just who wiped everyone out and then find help to track down and kill the perpetrator.
There are a surprising number of new characters in The Golden Circle, and nearly all of them are American. Enacting a doomsday protocol, Eggsy and Merlin discover that there is a counterpart organization in the United States known as the Statesman, located in a whiskey distillery in Kentucky (of course) and led by a man named Champ (Jeff Bridges). Key members of this group include Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal of “Narcos” and “Game of Thrones”), and Ginger (Halle Berry). Eventually, the two teams uncover the name of a criminal drug-manufacturing cadre known as the Golden Circle, led by the very silly Poppy (Julianne Moore), a woman who surrounds herself with ’50s kitsch, Elton John music (performed by the real Elton John, being held captive by Poppy), and a pair of ferocious robot dogs that act as the best bodyguards money can build.
Poppy is going to spread a virus through her drugs that will kill people in a matter of days if the world’s governments don’t pay up. And in a bizarre subplot, the American president (Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood) decides that he’s okay having scum-of-the-earth drug users die by the millions. It saves him the trouble of trying to catch and jail them, and despite his Chief of Staff (Emily Watson) begging him to reconsider, he seems pretty happy to let Poppy and the American people think he’s going to pay up, when in fact, he’s procrastinating until everyone croaks. So it’s up the the Kingman-Statesman combo to save the world once again.
The real problems with The Golden Circle begin when Julianne Moore enters the picture. Before this movie, I would have told you she was capable of playing any role under the sun, even a genocidal maniac like Poppy. But her choices here are shockingly, consistently poor. She flits around like a spoiled princess, smiling as she plots, schemes and murders—manifesting her villainy so blatantly and without any sense of subtlety that you could almost forget she won an Oscar a couple years ago. It got to the point where I began to dread Poppy coming back on screen almost from the beginning. I suspect you will grow to loathe this character as much as I did.
The members of the Statesman fare better, especially Bridges, who can do this sort of thing with his eyes closed. For those of you who are fans of knocking a movie simply because it was marketed as one thing and turned out to be something else (whether the movie was good or not doesn’t seem to factor in), you’ll be happy to know that you can bitch freely about how much the marketing lets you think that Tatum is something of a co-lead in The Golden Circle, when in fact he vanishes for a great deal of the movie, only to return at the very end. And that’s actually a shame because this work could have used a bit more of his quirky charm and action-hero physique.
What almost does the job of taking his place is Pascal, who is a surprising gift to this movie as a hardass who still seems committed to getting done the job of stopping Poppy and unlocking numerous vaults around the world that contain the virus antidote. His character’s gimmick is his expert use of a lasso, which sometimes electrifies and can even cut a person in half when he turns his weapon into a lasso version of a lightsaber.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by mentioning that Colin Firth manages to return as Harry Hart, Eggy’s believed-to-be-dead mentor. I won’t give any details about his state of mind in the movie or how he survived (and he did survive; this is no clone or twin brother situation), but by the end of the film, it was something of a relief to have Eggsy and Harry fighting side by side once again.
Another problem with The Golden Circle is that there are far to few memorable action moments. There’s no tavern brawl (actually there is, and it’s meant to mirror key moments from the first film in groan-worthy ways) or church massacre or hundreds of heads exploding at once. There is a degree of scale and overblown sequences, but they don’t stick to the inside of your brain the way those in the first film did. Instead we get a staggeringly boring scene in which Eggsy has dinner with the king and queen of Sweden (his lady friend’s parents), which is played for laughs; as well as a truly icky sequence set during the Glastonbury Festival in which Eggsy must seduce a woman so that he may…insert a tracking device in her. It turns out she’s more game than he is to have sex, since he’s feeling guilty about potentially cheating on the princess, but that doesn’t forgive the intent.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a classic example of a sequel being given more money to play with and the filmmakers responding with more of everything, instead of concentrating on a better story that actually grows the characters as well as expands the universe. I still think Egerton has got “star” written all over him, and he could probably keep doing these films for years. But this film drags as often as it thrills, and in a work built on action, that can be deadly.