Review: 'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' Is Brash And Stylish As Before, Minus The Staying Power

Kingsman: The Secret Service was a thrill in the way every adaptation of a Mark Millar comic is. From Kick-Ass's takedown of the comics industry, to Wanted's subversion of the action movie, the film was a sucker punch to the tired old spy movies of James Bond and John Le Carre. Directed by Millar's pal Matthew Vaughn it boasted a visual flair and cheeky British stylishness that was undeniably fun. But does that feeling last all the way through its sequel, Vaughn's first ever sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle? Well...yes and no.

I've often said that any Millar story is fleeting, in that they make a broadsided point about the target genre and then there's nothing left to say. Well, Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn't have anything to say, except for maybe a half-hearted point about ending the war on drugs, but it also doesn't need one. The garish attitude, sophomoric humor, and mind-blowingly daffy action sequences are all there. You will have a blast, that's for sure. But at 2 1/2 bloated hours that feeling is tough to hold on to.

There's no wasting time as things pick up with Kingsman agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton) jumped by a former member and taken on a high-speed Terminator 2-esque chase to the tune of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy". It's a singularly Kingsman style action sequence; there's so much logic-defying stuff going on at every corner of the screen that the senses overload, until the whole thing ends in an explosion of some kind. Eggsy's no longer the rookie we were introduced to before. Now he's their top agent, leading a double life in which he's shacked up with Tilde (Hanna Alström), the...*ahem* backdoor princess he saved at the end of the last movie. That they brought her back at all and in a more dignified manner I assume is to quiet those who found her first appearance particularly grotesque. Don't worry, there will be fresh offenses for the other few women who appear.

Eggsy's still close to all of his pals from home, as well as Kingsman's resident weaponeer Merlin (Mark Strong) and best friend Roxy (Sophie Cookson), but just as things are getting too normal everything is quite literally blown to bits. A series of missiles targeting every Kingsman stronghold around the world will do that. Off Eggsy and Merlin go to America, where they uncover their stateside counterparts, the Statesman, run out of a whiskey joint...with a headquarters that looks like an actual whiskey bottle, and complete with a team of rowdy southern agents. Jeff Bridges is their gazillionaire leader, with Channing Tatum as shotgun packin' cowboy Agent Tequila, Pedro Pascal as whip-wieldin' badass Agent Whiskey, and Halle Berry as their tech genius, Ginger Ale. Oh, and another surprise: they're holding on to Eggsy's former mentor, the assumed deceased Harry Hart (Colin Firth), in one of the more ludicrous "returns from the dead" scenarios ever put on screen. Then again, making ludicrous look cool is what these movies do.

Unlike its predecessor, 'The Golden Circle' isn't set out to parody other espionage movies. Its aims are less focused even as Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman broaden their ambitions with a bigger budget and more starry cast. If there's satire to be found it's in the villainous character of Poppy, played by Julianne Moore in what I can only think is an homage to her '50s housewife characters in Far from Heaven and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Poppy is a world class drug dealer, but cheerful as all get-out as she leads her criminal organization The Golden Circle from a hidden jungle HQ called "Poppy Land". She's fashioned it with jukebox diners and candy-striped barbershops, the whole 1950s deal.  Of course, there are also weaponized attack dogs and legions of armed goons who will do literally anything she asks. Poppy puts on quite the meaty display of her power pretty early on, showing that her wholesome disposition hides a psychotic streak. Her malevolence goes global when she infects hundreds of millions of drug users with a deadly disease, holding the cure hostage until the U.S. President (Bruce Greenwood) makes all narcotics legal.

The plan got a round of applause at the screening I attended, apparently with a bunch of potheads. Actually, it shows the murky moral ground the film walks on because a lot of people may not see Poppy and her extreme methods as "evil". But then, there are people out here who would probably welcome The Purge as a real thing, too.

For what it's worth a greater emphasis is placed on Eggsy's relationships with others, and the costs they pay for his being a member of Kingsman. The key one, of course, is with Harry who has suffered a form of amnesia that has him studying butterflies rather than kicking evildoer butt. Without Harry saving him, Eggsy would still be just some low class street punk, and a large part of the film is whether Harry will become his old self again. There's also the question of how far Eggsy should put his faith in Harry to return from his injuries, especially when the world is at stake and all. Also, Eggsy repeatedly finds himself in hot water with Tilde due to his ridiculous mission parameters. One, that I'm sure is going to have some women up in arms, has him implanting a tracking device in a hot suspect he encounters at the Glastonbury Music Festival. Note I said "implanting a tracking device IN" and not "on", with the subsequent first-person perspective sure to get snickers from adolescent boys everywhere.

Kingsman is as brash and cocksure as ever, and it's hard not to get wrapped up in its swagger. The cast have adopted that attitude for their roles, too, which only makes these films more fun to watch. Firth and Eggsy get considerably more to do this time around, at least on a character level. They're not just beating up lowlifes in bars (that happens again) or fighting bad guys with all sorts of odd gadgets (that happens in spades), but their characters have actual arcs to roll through. Pedro Pascal is dead-on perfect as Whiskey, who has a better whip game than Indiana Jones or anybody in Fifty Shades of Grey. While Tatum, Berry, and Bridges don't get nearly enough time, at least Tatum gets to dance so that's a plus. Moore is a little too spot-on as Poppy, and Strong is basically the franchise's Mr. Reliable. He should be leading his own spy movies, but he's developed a great rapport with Egerton as Eggsy's right-hand man.  There's another role that really defies any kind of explanation and that is by Elton John, playing himself as a grumpy Poppy Land captive. There's too many laughs in it to give anything away, but I've never been a fan of the feather boa'd rocker before and suddenly I'm humming the tune to "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)." Chances are you will, too.

As Vaughn's film moves from one international set piece to the next, you begin to feel that epic runtime weighing it down. Cockiness and cool factor can only go so far. Hopefully when the inevitable third Kingsman film happens, it'll pack the same energy and bravado in a package the size of a shot of whiskey.

Rating: 3 out of 5