Hey, Matthew Vaughn. How’s it going? I just saw your new film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and I had a question to ask you. What the hell happened? Seriously, what the HELL happened? Did you lose a bet or something? Because I’m wracking my brains trying to figure out how you managed to follow up one of the most enjoyable action films in recent memory with such an unremarkable and unweildy mess.
OK, so here’s the little bit of plot we have. Kingsman super-agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Kingman’s resident tech expert Merlin (Mark Strong) are the only surviving members of the spy organization after global drug kingpin Poppy (Julianne Moore) decides to blow them all up. Without a home base or allies, Eggsy and Merlin hook up with Statesman, their American equivalent, to track Poppy down and pay her back for her rude act of excessive violence. Stretch that out to 141 minutes if you can. Oh, and there’s something about Poppy lacing her drugs with a virus so that she can sell her users the cure, but there’s almost no reason at all to pay attention to that.
So. Damage report. Writer/director Matthew Vaughn and frequent writing partner Jane Goldman are responsible for a number of genre gems, including Stardust, X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, and of course, Kingsman: The Secret Service. By all accounts, The Golden Circle should have been a return to one of their most enjoyable films, a witty and sharp Bond-style spy/action film that satirized the trappings of Bond-style spy/action films.
But somewhere along the way, Vaughn and Goldman managed to drain nearly every bit of fun and personality from The Secret Service to produce what amounts to a generic, off-brand equivalent of the original. Much like how Kick-Ass 2 devolved into the empty-headed, mindlessly-violent mess detractors of the original accused it of being, The Golden Circle is a pale imitation of its predecessor, as superficial and incomprehensible as critics of The Secret Service said that film was. What makes it all the more disappointing is that Vaughn and Goldman had nothing to do with Kick-Ass 2 but are almost completely to blame for the failures on display here.
The film looks unquestionably cheap, with second-rate CGI and incoherent fight choreography; the film’s scope is twice as large as its forebear, but the budget was only about $20 million more. (And that’s still nowhere near adequate for a film this size.) There is nothing as transcendent as the first film’s now-iconic, 50-person church battle, even though Vaughn repeats every camera trick from that sequence ad nauseum in the all of film’s set pieces, which are scattered throughout a flat and shambling plot as if they were placed there by a random number generator. Vaughn barely waits for the one-minute mark to pass before launching into a high-octane car chase, all penetration and no foreplay.
To be completely and totally fair, there are elements of the film that are quite enjoyable, but they never compliment the final product. The total is nowhere near as great as the sum of its parts. A prime example would be Julianne Moore’s take on Poppy, a ruthless crime boss who literally turns traitorous underlings into hamburger, which she serves in a diner that’s part of her hidden jungle compound, which itself is decked out as a quintessential 1950’s main street. And that description is more interesting than what ends up on screen. Moore’s clearly having a lot of fun, effortlessly breezing through the role, hiding Poppy’s villainy behind an appealing, Leave It To Martha Stewart veneer of gentility.
As enjoyable as Moore is, however, she highlights the film’s Because Movie problems. Her character has no motive to preemptively wipe out Kingsman except Because Movie. Her robot-armed henchman is the first film’s disgraced Kingsman recruit Charlie (Edward Holcroft) Because Movie. The Kingsman survivors never heard of their Statesman cousins before this film Because Movie. Kingsman agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who was last seen in The Secret Service getting shot in the head at point-blank range, is still alive Because Movie. Hart’s presence itself is a retcon so sloppy and half-assed that I wouldn’t be surprised if the production team behind Terminator: Genisys sued Vaughn/Goldman for residuals.
The cast, at least, is mostly adequate even if most of them can’t elevate the material. Taron Egerton is still an appealing action lead, his boyish looks contrasting with his hyper-fighting action scenes. Words can’t express how welcome Colin Firth is, even if his character arc is unsteady and unformed. Mark Strong is likewise a comforting type of presence as Merlin, one of the actor’s most charming and most appealing roles to date, and he plays extremely well off of an understated but winsome Halle Berry as Statesman techie Ginger Ale.
The other Statesmen don’t fare quite as well. The agent with the most screen time, Pablo Pascal’s Agent Whiskey, is an underdeveloped and shallow character that Pascal himself can’t inject with enough life to be appealing no matter how hard he (or an out-of-left-field, third-act plot twist) tries. He handles the action scenes beautifully, though, which almost makes up for it. Channing Tatum, despite being heavily featured in the trailers and advertising, is reduced to little more than a glorified cameo, as is Jeff Bridges. But whereas Bridges makes the most of his time as Statesman’s leader Champ, easily lighting up any scene he’s in, Tatum only serves to drag down the film’s pace, his only significant contribution to the film being an underwear shot where he shows off a pair of absolutely gorgeous thighs and a very stately bulge.
Analyzing the film itself is both more than it deserves and exactly what it deserves. It’s definitely a brains-off, bits-out spectacle, and taken on those terms is quite enjoyable. But it’s nowhere near as smart, funny, or critical-hit-scoring as its predecessor. If The Secret Service was an expensive, meticulously-tailored suit, The Golden Circle is a cheap, off-the-rack costume. Tight where it should be loose, loose where it should be tight, and made of cheaper material, it’s just not as impressive. Here’s hoping the Kingsmen go to the tailors before the third film goes into production.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C