As revealed in literally every single Kingsman: The Golden Circle trailer, the idea this time around is to ditch the Britishisms and pure 007 homage/parody of the first film (The Secret Service) in favor of a more transatlantic approach, torching the Kingsman spy organization in the first act and sending our surviving heroes – just Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) – across the pond to partner with their counterparts in America. How will our stiff upper lip heroes ever get along with their hickish new partners in Kentucky? How will Eggsy react, remembering, of course, he should be the last person to judge since the first Kingsman dealt with the class warfare of him coming from a lower class and competing with a bunch of blue bloods? Oh, I can’t wait for the culture clash comedy and of-the-moment snapshot of how the world views America post-Trump. Or, at the very least, I look forward to some genre satire, perhaps mixing in digs at American action movies with all the spy stuff.
The Golden Circle doesn’t do any of that. Apart from offering up Jeff Bridges mumbling his way through a southern accent (as is his way), Channing Tatum delighting as a rodeo-clown-turned-spy, Halle Berry as a female, American Q and Pedro Pascal decked out like a modern day Burt Reynolds, The Golden Circle doesn’t do a damn thing with the potential of its new narrative set-up. Heck, Channing Tatum is only in maybe three scenes, four tops, and there’s little Halle Berry does that Mark Strong’s character couldn’t have already done by himself sitting in front of a keyboard and looking up at a screen.
It’s clear Matthew Vaughn – who directed and co-wrote the script with Jane Goldman – is trying to say something about America. Because in addition to switching from the UK to USA as the primary setting he’s also thought up a drug cartel-leading villain (a delightfully unhinged, but underused Julianne Moore) who happens to be American and is so homesick in the jungles of Cambodia that she has turned her headquarters into a shrine to 1950s America, with diners, bowling alleys and old movie theaters dotting a makeshift main street. Plus, a George W. Bush-esque U.S. President (played by Bruce Greenwood) emerges as a thinly drawn secondary villain who’d rather let drug users be wiped off the face of the Earth.
But Vaughn appears to be at a loss for what to do with all these ingredients. So, he ultimately settles for a rather blunt commentary on the reckless and outmoded war on drugs.
On the one hand, that’s okay. After all, you don’t really expect a movie like The Golden Circle to have a well defined point of view. You just want it to be a fun action movie.
On the other hand, it’s enough to leave you wondering why the heck Vaughn bothered to instantly erase the mythology he worked so hard to build up in the first film if he didn’t have some really good ideas for what to do with the concept of an American version of the Kingsman, other than “they like whiskey, not fashion, and are codenamed after alcoholic drinks.” Frankly, by the end of Golden Circle I felt the franchise would have been better served by a sequel that simply continued on the trajectory of the first film, leaning even further into the British and 007 of it all.
Moreover, I would have preferred to have seen Sophie Cookson’s Roxy (Eggy’s quasi-partner and best friend) given more to do. Instead, [spoiler] she’s killed off almost immediately, and that Swedish princess (Hanna Alstrom) who existed in the first Kingsman for the sole purpose of setting up a juvenile anal sex joke is a full-fledged love interest here, given an inordinate amount of a screen time in a film which is at least 20 minutes too long (its final run time is 141 minutes).
Yet I’m starting to make it sound like The Secret Service is some masterpiece and The Golden Circle a grand disappointment. The truth is somewhere in the middle. There is an unrelenting laddishness to Secret Service’s sense of humor which I find remarkably offputting, and its literally head-popping finale always leave me rolling my eyes. However, I can’t deny that Vaughn really knows how to do the whole “let’s train a bunch of young people in a remote location” thing (ala his X-Men: The First Class), and the dude can arrange the hell out of an action scene. On top of that, the Secret Service script he put together with Goldman at least has the class warfare underpinning and hook of not only “What if young James Bond was a chav?” but also “Here’s Colin Firth kicking ass!”
By comparison, The Golden Circle has a story hook (America or bust!) it doesn’t know what to do with, and a bunch of different storylines going on at the same time – Eggsy’s commitment issues and ongoing rivalry with failed Kingsman applicant Charlie (Edward Holcroft), Colin Firth’s improbable survival and resulting mental problems, Halle Berry’s fight against workplace discrimination, Julianne Moore’s scheme to legalize all drugs worldwide – that fail to ever truly come together. On the bright side, though, the laddy humor has been tramped down considerably, mostly consigned to one love-it-or-hate-it sequence involving fingering and an extended, mostly unfunny cameo from Elton John, and the action sequences are all top-notch, even if the surprise factor is gone after Secret Service introduced us to the franchise’s extreme violence and signature camera ramping.
So, really, both films in this young franchise are flawed, just in different ways. The Golden Circle is less of an abrasive assault on good taste, but it lacks the narrative cohesion of its predecessor and suffers from the narrative loops it has to jump through to re-integrate Colin Firth’s character (who, come one, should still be dead). I saw it last night thanks to my MoviePass, which costs me just $10 a month. Everyone around me, though, likely paid the full $16 for the ticket. If I’d paid that much I would have been upset. To be fair, the film never really lags. Julianne Moore is having a ball camping it up, and Colin Firth and Taron Egerton remain a compelling quasi-father-son duo. So, The Golden Circle is watchable, but it’s not $16 watchable.
Spoilery note for any dog people out there: That adorable pug from the first film dies when Julianne Moore blows up all of the Kingsman buildings in the first act, but don’t worry – Eggsy’s girlfriend buys a pug puppy as a replacement a couple of scenes later. And, yes, it’s too adorable for words.
Your Fox News is showing: Be prepared to be taken out of the film just a little bit when Julianne Moore finally reveals her grand plan to the world, and we are treated to an onslaught of Fox News talking heads discussing the events since this is a movie made by 20th Century Fox and, ya know, synergy.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a sequel which oddly overcorrects for the perceived sins of its predecessor, and then maddeningly fails to do anything interesting with its new set of ideas.
ARE THERE ANY POST-CREDITS SCENES?
No. Don’t reach too much into that, though. Despite the lack of a post-credits scene, Matthew Vaughn has stated there is much in Golden Circle which is meant to lead into a third film. And, to be fair, the final cliffhanger-lite scene of the film is so disconnected from the preceding scenes that it feels like it might have originally been intended to be snuck in after the credits.