Review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

by Michael Henley

It is a strange thing about movie sequels that studio executives so often insist that more is more, when usually in the original movie, less was good enough. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a sequel (as you might have guessed) to 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, but while both movies are slick hyperviolent spy adventures, the first Kingsman was merely crazed, while this new one could be clinically diagnosed with mania. It’s an exhausting blowout of overcooked action-adventure tropes, stuffed with characters, stunts and conceits, all pitched at a frantic level. Not for nothing does this movie has as its MacGuffin a virus that causes people to dance until their eyeballs explode. Both movies are based on a Mark Millar comic book—maybe this time they decided to adapt every issue at once?

Is this a dealbreaker? Not exactly. That the movie works as well as it does is a tribute to director Matthew Vaughn, who knows how to stage ambitious, showy action sequences (like a three-handed brawl where the camera zips around a large room in one long take). Most of the set pieces exist mainly to be set pieces, but that is sadly true of most movies these days, and at least this one has the desire to entertain rather than pummel us. The storytelling is disorganized and cluttered but not exactly boring, and some of the better moments are when, like the first Kingsman, Vaughn seems intent on deconstructing spy clichés. We’ve all witnessed before the scene where the hero spy has to seduce a young woman who is either evil or evil-adjacent. The Golden Circle, however, gives us a hero, Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) who becomes morally constipated at the thought as he thinks of his girlfriend back home, causing an emergency phone call where he pre-emptively pleads for forgiveness. The scene that follows (including a revealing zoom-in shot) breaks several boundaries of good taste, but then, so do many of the Bond pictures, if you think about them, even though we pretend they don’t. Vaughn’s rubbing our face in it this time, which I suppose makes this technically count as satire. And also sexist. It can be two things.

Vaughn, no stranger to expensive fantasies (Stardust, X-Men: First Class), is a Briton, which means like all British directors he’s technically in the running to helm a future James Bond film, and why not? Between these two Kingsman pictures he’s already directed five of them.

The hero, like last time, is Eggsy, who in the last movie graduated from a grotty life of crime to being a member of the Kingsman, suave spys (operating out of a high-end Saville Row tailor shop) who are so rich with gadgetry and gimmicks that down the street Q must get the hand-me-downs. The theme of classism is alive and well: at a dinner with the parents of his girlfriend, a Swedish princess (Hanna Alström), there is much harrumphing around the table at Eggsy’s lower-class status, good money and clothing aside. These admittedly minor domestic concerns, though are interrupted, as they often are, by an enemy missile strike that levels Kingsman operations and kills all agents except for Eggsy and gadgetmaster Merlin (Mark Strong). Not even Eggsy’s pet pug, J.B. is saved by the devastation, showing that in a post-John Wick world, no one is safe.

The loss of the Kingsmen, however, opens the door for a mission to America to appeal to the colonial cousins, which head up a sister department called Statesmen (headquartered out of a massive distillery where the central building is a giant liquor bottle). Eventually one Statesman agent who hits the road with the gang, and that’s Whisky (Pedro Pascal), who swings an electric rope that is half-lasso, half-lightsaber. Also in the basement of Statesman headquarters is Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who was shot point-blank in the last movie, but comes back for an excellent reason: the studio demanded it. The in-universe reason has something to do with a rescue operation and mistaken identity and experimental technology…did I mention this is based on a comic book? Anyway, Harry, played again with aplomb by Firth, has amnesia, making Eggsy the elder statesman (err, kingsman) of the two and desperately trying to make Harry remember his past, which means this movie has more plot details in common with Men in Black 2 then its makers would probably care to admit

The Statesman operation, honestly, is kind of a disappointment. It’s run by always-welcome Jeff Bridges and staffed by folks like Channing Tatum and Halle Berry, but to be honest, they’re not in the movie very much, and seem more specifically placed to set up future sequels. Yes, even a spy adventure like Kingsman isn’t averse to the pitfalls of overly-eager franchise-building—does anyone ever enjoy it when a movie stops to essentially show you a trailer of a movie that might be a couple years away, if they ever bother to make it? Just asking. I’m just saying that a movie that wastes Halle Berry by giving her a subplot where she says she doesn’t have enough to do…is that meta or is that annoyingly smug? It can be two things. So there we are.

But of course there is villain, one with a tricked-out lair that speaks to the movie’s love of excess just for the sake of it. For Bond pictures the old standbays are hollow volcanoes, island fortresses and remote moonbases, but the villain here, the plasticly jubilant Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, having fun) houses her massive drug cartel operations in a South American ruin that has been converted into a Main Street-USA style salute to 50’s kitsch (called “Poppyland”), and she runs her operations in a diner where she grounds up disloyal employees into hamburger and serves them up with a smile (guarded by android assassins and robot dogs). There are nightly performances from a very famous and very talented celebrity I will not reveal, except to say what a good sport that person is to agree to a cameo that has no qualms about humiliating this person a little. This goes back to my first rule about cameos: make them work for it.

Oh, also, did you notice how I just glossed over the robot dogs? That’s the kind of movie this is.

Poppy’s plan is to flood the world with tainted drugs designed to kill the consumers with a messy, genetically engineered virus, unless the world legalizes it. With “it” being everything. Complicating her plan is that the President of the U.S. (Bruce Greenwood) is a moral weakling who sees her hostage attempt as a chance to both win the war on drugs and purge junkies from the country. It’s an odd bit of half-baked political commentary, which is kind of interesting, but as a statement it feels particularly callow given where we are in the world right now. No, it’s not Vaughn and Goldman’s fault that in the two years they spent making this movie the world changed into what it is right now. It’s also not my fault that at points their anarchic spitballs feel hollow. So there we are.

The movie ultimately has too many characters, too many plot points, too many action sequences that do the same thing, and sometimes a tendency to go too far over the top. Instead of threatening Eggsy’s loved ones once as a motivator, the movie does it five separate times. Instead of one fight with the Statesman, it gives us several, even one that’s pointedly unnecessary. There’s a lengthy sequence about retrieving a MacGuffin, and then that MacGuffin is lost, and I have a general rule about movie plots not feeling like treadmills. The fights between The Kingsman, the Statesman, Poppy and various double-crossing agents start to get wearing after a while, and the presence of an assassin with a bionic arm makes the whole enterprise feel vaguely like an R-rated, violent, smutty Spy Kids sequel. It’s not that I didn’t like it…it’s just that I reached my fill of it a little while before it had finished with me. The editor, Eddie Hamilton, probably should have wrestled control away from Vaughn for a while to make a few judicious cuts.

But the movie is ultimately fun and disposable, so I didn’t mind it so much. Well, maybe I minded a little, but I got over it quickly. So dedicated is the movie’s level of excess that it even extends into other movies. After Logan Lucky, this is the second blockbuster starring Channing Tatum this year to have a third act scene where a surprising character starts singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads.” Coincidence? Serendipity? It can be two things. All I know it: when it coems to musical choices in spy movies, there are far worse things you could do.