A Lukewarm Toddy

The original Kingsman was certainly an experience to behold, a combination of crass & cunning that achieved critical and commercial success, though not without some deserved condemnation of its subject material. The movie plays well as a direct satire and critique of the 007/James Bond legacy and imperialistic spy movies as a whole. On the other hand, it was also derided for having its cake and eating it too, addressing the problematic tropes of the genre while also reveling in them to its detriment. In this sequel, director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman seem less interested in wrestling with those concepts further and more concerned with the age old cinematic adage that “bigger is better.” As a result, Kingsman: The Golden Circle packs a wallop of spectacle that matches anything we’ve encountered in the somewhat lackluster blockbuster season just passed, but it never reaches the intoxicating heights of the first movie that took audiences by surprise.

Kingsman 2 immediately opens with our hero Eggsy (Taron Edgerton as the newly appointed Agent Galahad) being accosted by a specter from Kingsmen past (Edward Holcroft reprising his role from part 1 as Kingsman candidate flunky Charlie). What follows is a car chase/fist fight sequence that portends what is to come in the next 2 hours and 20 minutes; technically superb set pieces that don’t quite amount to much emotionally. After surviving the attack, The secret service begins their investigation into whats coming next, only to be decimated by a coordinated strike that leaves them in dire straits. The remaining Kingsmen end up partnering with their American secret agent counterparts, known as The Statesmen, and pursue their leads towards uncovering the plan of the evil masterminds bent on their destruction.

The new players in the franchise make for an entertaining and enjoyable addition to the British agent formula. Channing Tatum stars as Agent Tequila, a brash cowboy counterpart to Eggsy’s young buck super spy persona. Pedro Pascal stars as Agent Whisky, the elder Number 1 Statesmen agent. Jeff Bridges joins the proceedings as Champagne/”Champ”, a rustic take on the 007 “M” persona, while Halle Berry rounds out the crew as Ginger Ale, the logistic support agent that mirrors the Kingsman’s Merlin figure played by the stalwart Mark Strong.

As recreational drug users around the world become afflicted with a mysterious ailment, the unified agents eventually discern the endgame of the megalomaniacal Poppy, played by Julianne Moore who indulges in the chance to play an over the top comic book super villain. Poppy in turn holds a large percentage of the world hostage via a potent virus which only she has the cure for, and its up to the combined might of the Kingsmen and The Statesmen to save the world.

With cybernetically enhanced henchmen, robotic sentinels, an island fortress, and a globe hopping race against time, The Golden Circle tries valiantly to up the ante of its predecessor. Unfortunately, despite the larger scope and scale, the film somehow feels flat and not nearly as engaging as the original. Matthew Vaughn seems to grasp the importance of geography and timing in action sequences, but there is a certain x-factor that feel missing in this iteration. There were other films released in 2015 such as Fury Road, Creed, and Spectre that featured excellent action sequences, among which Kingsman still stood apart. This latest film now seems to be emulating its contemporaries in a desperate bid to catch up, with one-armed brawls recalling the tussle between Furiosa and Max, complex GunJitsu spin locks straight out of John Wick 2, and the dizzying camera choreography of the Korean action phenomenon The Villainess.

Gone is the shock & awe of the infamous church slaughter or the intimate viscerality of the bar room brawl, replaced instead by elaborate yet weightless set pieces and retreads of fight sequences from the first film. Everything feels like a video game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself; one recalls the over the top fun of 2009’s GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, another silly blockbuster spectacle also starring Channing Tatum that features an FX heavy chase sequence which somehow feels more consequential than both the gondola sequence or the climactic fortress battle that we see glimpses of in the Kingsman 2 trailer.

Speaking of trailers, you are probably be aware of a significant plot reveal shown in the advertisements leading up to this release. Just to be safe, *****this paragraph contains spoilers*****, so be forewarned. Near the end of the second act (the movie sprawls out enough to fit a full five act structure), it is revealed that Harry Hart is still alive, though afflicted with amnesia due to the serious injury suffered in the first movie. Colin Firth returns, bringing with him the much needed sense of gravitas and warmth that helped maintain a tonal balance within the first film. Much to my surprise, Edgerton really delves into the weight of their relationship and what Harry means to Eggsy, prompting several moments of tear jerking compassion between the advancing pupil and his master/father figure.

It was also interesting to see that the writer and director chose to keep the nominal love interest from the first film as an important character in the sequel, dismissing the hit it & quit it 007 template. Hanna Alström returns as Princess Tilde, who maintains a serious steady relationship with Eggsy that gets disrupted as the film progresses. There are all kinds of takes that have been made about the princess being the literal and figurative butt of a joke in the closing of the first film. However you feel about that scene, know that she is given much more importance this time around. That said, there is an even dirtier penetration joke midway through the film that tests their relationship and indeed the patience of any viewers who already had serious misgivings about the anal sex joke of the first film.

Despite a few brief moments of pathos, the rest of the plot twists and reveals feel like so much wheel spinning that one couldn’t be arsed to care about. Major character deaths occur that are surrounded by hefty amounts of pomp but an insignificant level circumstance. High yield explosions and swelling musical cues simply aren’t enough to engender empathy when the film forgets tragedy and severity as quickly as it presents it. Since I brought up musical cues, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the several needle drops from Prince, Cameo, and an….er, special cameo appearance by a famous musician all are certainly fun, but feel like inserts rewritten due to licensing rather than songs linked to the overall thesis of the film, such as it is. And yes, the legendary county musician John Denver is summoned yet again in a 2017 film, but this might be the weakest use yet. Hell, its not even the best use of John Denver music in a movie that features Channing Tatum this year.

For all the lambasting I’ve given this movie, I still enjoyed it in the end, though I put my expectations in check after early word of mouth indicated a less than stellar outing. I wonder if I would have been even more harsh on the movie if I went in completely cold, especially since I remain a big fan of the first film. In any event, there is certainly fun to be had and heart to be found in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, but it comes at the cost of a lowered bar and the acknowledgment of the fact that there are already better and more provocative action movies out this year.