Prior to the release of 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, the spy genre was in a dark place. While that might be par for the course when adapting John Le Carré novels, there is something to be said about having a James Bond who enjoys his fast cars, faster women, and the fastest of all shaken martinis. Yet after a decade of Daniel Craig brooding and Jason Bourne running, the pulpy roots of the original big screen spymania seemed as retro as the Cold War itself. Hence the fresh air brought about by Kingsman, which featured Colin Firth in Harry Palmer glasses and Sean Connery bespoke suits, all while channeling the campiest of 007 adventures.
The result was the wildest spy film in ages, one that’s best described as if Roger Moore had been dropped into a total slaughterfest. A delightfully depraved diversion, it was also a surprise hit that proved blockbusters could open in February and paved the way for Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel that arrives two years later and into a world where the Cold War is also on the rebound.
As reality becomes so comical that it might be impossible to dramatize, it’s increasingly clear we’re all living in Matthew Vaughn’s nutty world, and he’s responded by doubling down on the camp, the violence, the gadgets, and even the cartoonish, yet prescient, commentary on hot button social issues. Thus here is a bigger and sillier movie, albeit one not nearly as clean and well-structured as 2015’s My Fair Lady by way of axe-wielding superspies. With so much madness stuffed into its sizeable 141-minute running time, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a little manic itself. Still, that just means you’ll be cackling too by its gloriously gonzo finale.
Set about one year after the events of the original film, The Golden Circle picks up with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) having settled perfectly into his role as Agent Galahad at the posh tailor shop in Mayfair. By day he battles cyborg enhanced henchmen, and by night he lets his hair down in his East London baseball cap while living with the returning Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). Merlin (Mark Strong) is still there as Eggsy’s Q-like sidekick, and Roxy/Agent Lancelot (Sophie Cookson) watches his back.
But then everything goes to hell when most of the Kingsman facilities are wiped out by a new American egomaniac. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is an international drug dealer with a sickeningly sweet nostalgia for 1950s Happy Days-esque Americana. She’s also not against cannibalism or utilizing her razor-toothed robotic attack dogs on disloyal employees. She has a sinister plan too ridiculous to give away in this review, but suffice it to say that it is a threat so major, the surviving Kingsman will be forced to team with their American counterparts, the Statesman. Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, and Pedro Pascal all get to ham it up to high heaven as cowboy hat-wearing, bourbon-distilling, and lasso-swinging good ol’ boys (and women).
Together, they’ll side with Eggsy and chase Poppy through German concerts, Italian Alps, and even her Cambodian lair which looks suspiciously like the set of Grease. If that doesn’t sound nuts enough, wait until you find out how they bring Harry Hart (Firth) back from the grave!
If the original Kingsman movie felt like a cocaine-fueled Roger Moore adventure, The Golden Circle is straight up the franchise’s equivalent of Moore’s most preposterous and decadent male fantasies. While no Kingsman will be going to space (yet), there certainly are submarine cars, lightsaber lassos, and an Elton John cameo that’s exceedingly bizarre (and fantastic).
The sequel is so eager to surpass the zaniness of its fairly outlandish predecessor that one senses Vaughn and screenwriting collaborator Jane Goldman struggle to corral all the pieces into the narrative’s pen. This is most noticeable in the first act, which like so many sequels, feels a bit top-heavy in attempting to continue storylines that were neatly concluded in the previous installment.
As a consequence, the filmmakers elect to more or less detonate the world they built in the first film, which may dissatisfy those most invested in the most sincere elements of this universe. Nevertheless, it grants the movie and its filmmakers freedom to start from scratch, and once Eggsy and Merlin hit the road for Kentucky, The Golden Circle really comes into its own like a bandit who’s escaped south of the border.
In this vein, the Statesman are a wonderful inclusion, personifying just about every stereotype (both positive and negative) an erudite English gentleman may have about their rowdy, colonial cousins. There is likely not a scene in which Bridges’ Agent Champagne isn’t breathing whiskey onto the camera lens, and Channing Tatum gets to play his own version of Lt. Aldo Raine. Pedro Pascal, meanwhile, plays a pretty authentic Western rogue and a solid foil to Egerton’s ever endearing hero. Indeed, after finally finding himself comfortable in a foreign aristocratic culture, Eggsy is yet again a stranger in a strange land.
The Statesmen also give Eggsy the resources to pursue a third act that is positively demented and might even surpass the explosive climax of The Secret Service, if only in its level of wackiness. This is of course aided tremendously by a very game Julianne Moore, who chews her scenes with a gee-whiz insidiousness. And yet, the surprising MVP of the movie is Mark Strong’s Merlin. An unsung hero in Vaughn movies who’s been as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar in previous collaborations like Stardust, Kick-Ass, and the first Kingsman, Strong is gifted here with a peach of a scene by Vaughn and Goldman that he absolutely hits out of the park.
As a whole, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a genre-bending romp that has too many on-point gags and action scenes that work to be anything less than entertaining. Keep an eye out for a scene involving a runaway ski lift as a particular showstopper. But even with these grin-inducing moments, Vaughn and Goldman’s knack for juggling tones and aesthetics with a laser-focus on plot and characterization might have finally reached its limit. While they still keep all the balls in the air, there were moments where you might begin to wonder in spite of all that cinematic confidence.
The Golden Circle is a giddy ride, just be prepared for it to get a little dinged up along the way.