Kingsman: The Secret Service was the sleeper hit of early 2015. At a time when James Bond was in a very gritty phase, Kingsman allows for a light fun diversion that recalled more of the Roger Moore era goofy nature of the character, though with a bit more self awareness. Add in director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn‘s kinetic action sensibilities, an eclectic soundtrack & The King’s Speech guy having fun for a change and you have yourself a fun spy comedy. Now, Kingsman: The Golden Circle lets us dive right back into that universe and one can tell Vaughn is eager to expand about that world. Maybe a bit… too eager.
What made the first Kingsman such a delight is the goofier tone bouncing off a more dignified frame. Given the cover of them being tailors, the titular group of spies had a typical British sense of manners that made the over the top action a fun subversion. Kingsman The Golden Circle initially brings back these themes to remind us of the relationship between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Harry (Colin Firth). How the former learned the manners that helped disguise the inner badass from the latter. Yet, now that Firth has seemingly died in the first film, Eggsy doesn’t seem to have retained much of any of that gentlemanly training. He still acts like a chavish idiot, even what not visiting his friends. He’s back to being a boarish oaf rather than a mixture that he managed to balance in the first film, despite Egerton’s own charms still oozing through on occasion. His relationship subplot with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) is so unneeded, given she’s a shallow device to make the world changing stakes plot personal, but she still has about the same amount of character as she had when she asked Eggsy to have anal sex with her. Oh, put a pin in the female character writing department. There’s a lot to talk about with that later.
It’s a shame that Kingsman The Golden Circle diverges so much from the core relationship between Eggsy, Harry and Merlin (Mark Strong), who were the true heart of the previous film. The best scenes of the sequel involve Merlin and Eggsy trying to recoup after the fall of their beloved organization and comrades, while trying to bring a suddenly reappearing Harry out of amnesia. On paper, this whole bringing back Harry subplot is the most contrived idea, forcing Colin Firth to come back just because he was here the first time. Yet, that arc at least gives Eggsy a moment to come back to his senses and be a Kingsman agent with dignity. Plus, Firth’s slow realization back to his former self results in more than a few delightful subversions of what happened before for at least awhile… until it becomes more a convenient plot mechanism to have things go wrong. Strong even gets lost in the shuffle during all this, making a key moment of the climax feel like just another contrivance as emotional resonance whittles down to a bizarre musical number that feels especially familiar to films this year.
So, those central characters were shuffled around to make room for The Statesman, a bunch of boasting cowboy Americans equivalent that hides behind the facade of selling liquor. Sounds like a great concept to play off our British boys… until one thinks about it for a bit. The world building isn’t nearly as airtight as when we were introduced to the titular group last time around. The Statesman are just a bunch of drunken loud southern “Good Ole Boys” who drink. There’s no point where the cover subverts the image. It just plays along, meaning there’s no subversive fun like the Kingsman. There’s nothing clever to that. It makes their action beats far more flashy and soulless rather than stylistically hilarious. Even in interacting beyond the first meeting, they ultimately seem like an extension of the same organization without any intriguing sense of individuality beyond their hats and boots.
None of this is helped by how most of these actors are wasted. Channing Tatum has a propulsive introduction before being put on ice for most of the proceedings. Jeff Bridges does his Rooster Cockburn voice yet again. Halle Berry is… there. And has one of the worst attempted arcs of anyone. The only one with any life in them is Pedro Pascal who – even if overused – steals the spotlight with a rugged charm and some fanciful footwork during the action scenes. It’s honestly baffling that Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman bungled balancing an ensemble like this, given how well they managed to do it in not only the first Kingsman, but in previous efforts like Kick-Ass or Stardust. They’re just stuffing so much into here and not letting anything breathe, until they do stop… and the breathing room gives us lame duck character moments that just lay there. Packing a suitcase with too much, forcing the bottom to cave in under pressure as dirty clothes and used toiletries rain over the audience.
But speaking of shoddy workmanship, let’s talk about how Vaughn depicts women. In the past, his work hasn’t been known to be all that savvy in terms of depicting women as dimensional characters. The first Kingsman even ended with an anal sex joke that gave the James Bond schtick an extra layer of creepy. Yet, there was never an illusion that such a depiction was grander than that. So even while not expecting much, I at least expected a bit of growth. Yet with the second Kingsman, Vaughn tries to disguise the misogynistic leering not in a parody of older spy tropes, but in some kind of seemingly important sense of plot or character. There’s the previously mentioned problems of Berry and Alstrom, who are merely there to introduce motivation for male characters and briefly be referred back to without a single ounce of character. They somehow have about as much character as a dead wife who briefly appears in flashback and has her character relevance exposited to the audience later in the climax.
Yet, it gets so much worse when people like Roxy (Sophie Cookson) – a Kingsman operative with little development from the first film who at least did something and was a capable person – is unceremoniously offed early on along with the rest of the organization just to give Eggsy motivation after using her as a human Google to help impress his girlfriend’s family. Because competent women can’t even have a side plot to themselves, I guess? A side villain Clara (Poppy Delevingne) is literally just there for a double whammy fingering joke and plot contrivance for our heroes to go somewhere that’s ultimately pointless and wastes time for an action scene and developments that are repeated later anyway. Our villainess Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug cartel titan who feels like a copy of a copy of the type of 50s era satire that was played out by the mid 90s. She cooks and motherly condescends in ways that Moore tries to elevate, but ultimately result in her essentially playing a flat version of Mary Louise Parker on Weeds; a suburban mom who sells drugs and kills a few people. But much like Weeds, she overstays her welcome pretty quickly. All of them are underwhelming female roles that show less competence and individuality as much as they do supporting stereotypes for the sake of cheap jokes and motivations to keep this endless film going. She also introduces the weird political subplot that makes the ethics of original film look consistent by comparison.
Not even Vaughn’s direction can quite keep this afloat. A few action sequences show some technical craft of choreography. The opening scene as Eggsy faces off against a bionic former colleague Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in a cab and the big snow slope ski lift stick out. Yet, once the climax gets going, the second Kingsman puts so much flashing lights and call backs that mean so little into such a quick package that never means much. It divulges into a cacophony of noise that wants to be entertaining and satisfying, but just starts and stops so much. 40 minutes or so can be chopped out of this sloppy story and have it be a much tighter ride that balances fun characters with flash instead of just flashing us like a broken camera with no film in it. None of this is helped by how much we go back to the well of apparent hilarity that is Elton John’s cameo-turned-unwanted-50th-supporting role. Seriously, this film is as addicted to unnecessary supporting characters as the drug addicts who Poppy profits off of are to hardcore narcotics.
Ultimately, Kingsman The Golden Circle is a stark reminder of how bigger rarely means better. Sure, there’s more world building introduced. A new side of spies in this world we’ve never seen. Yet, that world is about as plentiful as a barrell of mediocre whiskey. Fine to get the job done of getting drunk, but lacking any flavor to savor. While pushing the old characters to the side, it gives more screen time to shove in dimensionless toothless characters that either identify with a skeevy type of male chauvinism or fade in the background to allow the former to thrive. While the first Kingsman gave us a world that both celebrated and satirized James Bond, this gives us more of a Die Another Day style shallow run through the cliches, thinking the winks and nods will be charming enough without any kind of subversion or new life. Kingsman The Golden Circle thinks the basic concept of these new ideas will be enough to charm, not wanting to put the work in like the lazy chav Eggsy used to be… and really still is thanks to a lack of forward momentum. While there are a few cool action scenes and a handful of fun character interactions, Kingsman The Golden Circle is about as half baked as some of the plot necessary stoners are. Then again, “half baked” might be too kind of a way to describe it. Perhaps “broiled over a stove until mostly diluted” would suffice?
Rating: 1.5 Out of 5 Endless Elton John Moments