“Manners maketh the man.”
There is no shortage of comedic spy movies in the world. Whether they’re labeled as a homage, pastiche or outright parody, particularly of the neverending Bond franchise, it’s not hard to find goofy, quippy, lighthearted spy romps. What made Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service so invigorating, then, was that it felt as fresh, energetic and maddeningly entertaining as it was — even with all its knowing cliches and formulaic storylines. In 2015, a year which produced at least half a dozen other bouncy, globe-trotting spy adventure films, Kingsman stood out for its mix of pulpy invigoration, winkingly crass humor, dazzling action sequences and garish, vibrant, delightfully bombastic violence.
It certainly wasn’t everyone’s spiked cup of tea, but for those audiences who craved something both a little familiar and a little distinctive, it was a sparkling cocktail of lurid insanity and silly, cheeky giddiness. A sequel wasn’t out-of-the-question; it was simply a matter of whether a sequel could recapture that crazy, randy, gleefully over-the-top mad-cap energy twice. This recipe for success could just as easily be a recipe for disaster. Does it fire on all cylinders once again, or is it shooting blanks this time? Well, it does both.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle doubles down on the good and the bad of its predecessor, never quite finding the same rapid-fire dexterity of the original while also not losing what made it so childishly fun. Bigger, bolder, wilder, wackier and longer than before, Vaughn’s rambunctious, ludicrously ridiculous sequel aims to please the fans with all its overindulgent extravagance, and I mean that favorably and not. The Golden Circle is packed to the brim with high-flying, smirkingly absurd nonsense. After a point, it becomes a bit too much. It’s not too graphic or too sophomoric, mind you, but rather too much movie for its own individual good. It’s excessively plotted, exceedingly fatter and prone to overstaying its welcome, losing that strong pacing and firm focus that made The Secret Service such a zippy delight. The Golden Circle is frantically, fitfully, eagerly entertaining, doing everything in its power to reproduce the same lightning rod excitement found in the first film, but the meta jokes aren’t quite as sharp and the action sequences are too CG-heavy. It’s overkill, quite frankly, just as it should be and it really shouldn’t be.
Eggsy (Taron Egerton), better known these days as Galahad, continues to live the life of a Kingsman. There’s hardly a dull day when you’re fighting your old school nemesis Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and his new robotic arm in a fast-moving car in the middle of the busy street, or when you’re driving below the creek in your super spy car to escape the police, or when you’re swimming through some unsavory waters in order to meet your girlfriend, Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom). But just as Eggsy and his fellow newbie Kingsman, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), settle into their newfound life of spydom, they’re met with unexpected disaster when villainously smiley Poppy (Julianne Moore) — a powerful, isolated madwoman with a devious love for gold, robots, Elton John and ’50s nostalgia who wants to take control of the world through legalizing drugs — obliterates the Kingsman organization totally and completely, leaving only Eggsy and his trainer/colleague Merlin (Mark Strong) left in the rubble.
With their options limited, the remaining Kingsman turn to their only hope: the Statesman, their U.S. equivalent, based in the heart of Kentucky. Priding themselves on whiskey instead of tailored suits, and preferring lassos and whips instead of handguns and bulletproof umbrellas, they’re louder, drunker and rowdier than the Kingsman, but that doesn’t make them any less capable of saving the world. Yee-haw!
Their new allies include Champagne (Jeff Bridges), the leader, Tequila (Channing Tatum), his righthand man, Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), the quartermaster, and Whiskey (Narcos‘ Padro Pascal), the most lethal agent. And the surprises don’t stop once the Kingsman enter the United States. It’s not long before they’re shocked to discover Harry Hart (Colin Firth), the super spy who mentored Eggsy into the Kingsman organization before dying in their last world-saving mission, is alive and suffering from a terrible case of amnesia, regressing back to a younger, more innocent state of mind before he became Galahad. It’s a plot point they might’ve borrowed from Men in Black II. Together, they’ll need to save the world again, especially with political figures like the President of the U.S. (Bruce Greenwood) unwilling to help.
It’s all about upping the ante, diving deeper into the playful deliriousness. But this time, it feels a bit tired. The Golden Circle doesn’t necessarily rehash from the first. The set pieces are distinctly different, the stakes aren’t necessarily bigger but they’re just as extreme, and the character dynamics are likably changed. But this sequel feels weighted, ballooned by the need to add more and more and more but never reaching the same demented heights of the original. The Golden Circle is even more colorful, visually and violently, and it’s even more profane, but it’s not nearly as fluid or charming. The competently-handled, hyper-cartoonish action grows unexpectedly repetitive, and the abundance of characters and plot in this bloated, 140 minute-long hyper-stylized blockbuster makes you miss the cheeky efficiency of the last one, even if it were a staggering 130 minutes itself. The first film didn’t feel that long; this one does.
Vaughn and fellow screenwriter Jane Goldman understand the challenges presented in making a sequel. They’re no strangers to Mark Millar’s work, but they know the pressure is on to make something as explicitly entertaining and endearingly foul-mouthed as their surprising original hit. That might be one crucial reason why they didn’t return to make Kick-Ass 2. And that’s understandable. Vaughn’s sequel does everything it can to provide the fans with what they’d want and expect, though it’s ultimately an uphill battle. Spy comedies are hard to keep fresh, and even Vaughn and Goldman can’t make their sequel as vibrant as their original. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is exhilarating and exhausting, with a lot to love (Sir Elton John arguably makes the best extended cameo appearance of the year) and a lot to not love (geez, is it too much to ask for some good female characters in these movies?). It’s not the same radiant blast as the first film, but at the same time, there’s enough joy to found in this sequel to suit the fans well.