Hollywood’s love affair with spy thrillers goes back all the way to it’s early days. Pioneered largely by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, espionage and undercover mysteries have given the genre fertile ground to mine for many years. With the onset of World War II, the spy thriller also became an important part of conveying the work being done to gain an intelligence advantage against the enemy to a broad audience. After the war years, spy movies entered a new phase. As the Cold War changed the spy game once again, and turned it more covert and mysterious, the idea of the spy took on more mythic qualities and we began to see the emergence of the “super spy” archetype. No character better exemplified this than James Bond. In his 50-plus years of existence, Bond has become cinema’s most famous spy; an international man of mystery, who wears the finest clothes, drives the fanciest cars, sleeps with the most beautiful women, and has a licence to kill. And while most of the Bond films hold up as great escapist entertainment, some of the movies do slip into the absurd once and a while, and that opens the image of the “super spy” up to ridicule. The genre was most famously lampooned by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers trilogy. With Austin Powers, we saw the genre reexamined through the eyes of generation raised on the myth of the “super spy,” but living in a post-Cold War era, and recognizing the absurdities within. But, with the recent resurgence of the Bond franchise and intelligence gathering becoming more of a priority in a “cyber spy world” the genre needed something to reflect the absurd conventions that have built it up, while at the same time standing on it’s own as an action film.
Thus we got Kingsman: The Secret Service. Based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar, Kingsman was refreshing departure for the spy genre, mixing the hard edge action of James Bond with the silly, over-the-top absurdness of Austin Powers, with a little John Woo thrown in for good measure. What resulted was one of the best action films of recent memory. Kingsman even managed to stand out in a banner year for spy films in 2015, which also saw the big screen debut of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from Guy Ritchie, as well as new entries from genre mainstays like Mission: Impossible (Rogue Nation) and even James Bond (Spectre). Directed by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass), the film perfectly mixed all the ingredients of the genre together that stood well on it’s own as both an action thriller and as a comedy. Not only did it deliver some incredibly well choreographed action set pieces, but managed to be laugh out loud hilarious as well. There was something just so perfect about seeing Bond-esque fight scenes performed by what essentially look like stereotypes of stuffy upper-class British aristocrats. They are her majesty’s secret service looking always ready to meet her majesty. And the very archetypal Britishness of the whole thing helped to make the film feel unique and fresh. It was also very self aware of audience expectations and managed flip a lot of genre conventions on it’s head. For one thing, who would have ever expected seeing Oscar-winner Colin Firth in a finely tailored suit slaughtering a whole bunch of redneck thugs in a church with samurai like skills. There was a whole lot to love about Kingman: The Secret Service and it promised us a whole new world worth delving into in an expanded franchise. We didn’t have to wait long as Kingsman: The Golden Circle presents the next chapter in the Kingsman saga. But, is it a mission worth taking or did it self destruct on it’s own?
Kingsman: The Golden Circle picks up not long after the events of The Secret Service. Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has settled into his new role as one of the elite Kingsman, taking over the designated title of Galahad from his deceased mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who was shot in the head in the previous film. While maintaining his new career as an expertly trained spy, Eggsy is also engaged in a loving relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) of Norway, who would like to see her boyfriend make an even deeper commitment to their love life. While Eggsy is away meeting his girlfriend’s parents, the King and Queen, the Kingsman organization falls prey to a coordinated attack which destroys the entire organization and leaves all members dead, except for Eggsy and the Kingsman’s skilled quartermaster and technician, Merlin (Mark Strong). With nowhere to turn, Eggsy and Merlin seek out their doomsday scenario options, which leads them to a whiskey distillery in Kentucky. There, they discover a secret organization of spies not unlike their own, made up of cowboy styled super agents known as the Statesman. The are welcomed in Statesman Tequila (Channing Tatum) who introduces them to their resident technician Ginger (Halle Berry), as well as their superior Champagne (Jeff Bridges), or Champ for short. Eggsy and Merlin learn from them that their organization was destroyed by a drug syndicate called the Golden Circle, which is run by a nostalgia obsessed kingpin named Poppy (Julianne Moore). Not only that, but Poppy has concocted a master plan to poison the world’s population by lacing her drug supplies with a lethal disease and demanding a ransom for an antidote. Eggsy teams up with another Stateman agent, Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to get to the bottom of Poppy’s organization and find the antidote before it’s not too late. And to complicate things even more, Eggsy finds another surprise in the Statesman’s lair; an alive but amnesiac Harry Hart.
In many ways, Kingsman: The Golden Circle delivers on everything that a sequel should do. It stays true to what it’s predecessor has set up and continues to expand on the world that it’s built up. But, at the same time, The Golden Circle also falls into the same pitfalls that a lot of other sequels do after the success of their beloved predecessor. The big problem that befalls this film is that it feels more bloated. The first Kingsman was a swift, fast-paced adventure that managed to balance the action and the laughs perfectly. Golden Circle runs for nearly two and a half hours, and unfortunately this longer run time leads to a lot of padding, which spoils some of the momentum. I get the feeling that Matthew Vaughn and his co-writing partner Jane Goldman perhaps had too short a turnaround between features, which led to a script that featured a lot of neat ideas but not enough focus to make them all work. The first film may have had an absurd premise, but it at least kept it focused and cohesive to a point where you could stay engaged. Here, plot points meander from scene to scene, seeming to only be there as a way to glue action set pieces together. That’s not to say that the movie is an unwatchable mess. Vaughn and Goldman still manage to entertain with a lot of clever bits throughout. But, when compared to the first feature, the pieces here feel more undercooked. My take is that the movie could have used a fair bit of editing to smooth out the more unnecessary bloat that hampers the movie; like maybe 20 minutes or so. That way you have less time wasted on Eggsy awkwardly trying to balance his professional and love life (a plot point that goes nowhere) and more time devoted to learning more about the underdeveloped Statesman. The common misconception with sequalizing a new popular film is thinking that more is better, and that filling a movie with more stuff makes it feel more epic. It’s a level of excess that ended up diminishing the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as well as Transformers, and sadly Kingsman has fallen down that same hole.
What bothered me most about The Golden Circle’s lack of focus is that it doesn’t devote the right amount of time to building up the plot and characters. It almost seems that Vaughn and Goldman spend way too much time building up to punchlines that are not worth the effort. The reason why the humor worked so well in the first movie was because it was so punchy and unexpected. With the sequel, we already know what to expect, but the writers seem too concerned with making things connect that they lost the ability to just let things flow. The movie does have some laugh out loud moments, but they diminish the longer that the movie hangs onto them. There is a cameo by a legendary pop star that starts off funny when we first see him, but as the movie goes on, the cameo turns into a full on supporting role, and by then the novelty has worn off. There’s also the unfortunate aspect of the underwhelming threat that the Kingsman and Statesman face. Julianne Moore’s Poppy is unfortunately a very disappointing antagonist. While she is a great actress, she looks lost in this feature and I think that it’s due to the fact that like most things in the film, her character was not very fleshed out. She’s made up of ideas that could be turned menacing, but end up just being gimmicky. The first film’s villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson, was a perfect blend of how to make character that was both threatening and absurd. Here, Julianne Moore only has the one note to play, and try as she might, it still just remains one note. While I understand that Vaughn and Goldman want to delve deeper into story-lines carried over from the first film, particularly with Eggsy and Harry, it undermines their attempts to expand their world, especially with the Statesman, who sadly are not given the full development that they are due.
One thing that does carry the film, however, is the cast itself. Taron Egerton remains the heart of the series, and he still is enjoyable to watch as the film’s charismatic lead. He even more so is in command of his persona here, and it’s a joy watching him go from sincere, to comical, to fiercely intimidating with great ease. It’s also a pleasure to see Colin Firth brought back into the fold and his resurrection in the film makes some sense (though is a tad convoluted). Firth in particular was born to play this kind of role; suave and sophisticated, but with lethal killer instincts. Before Kingsman, Firth was seen as the quintessential British every-man in Hollywood, excelling in roles ranging from Love, Actually (2003), to A Single Man (2009), to The King’s Speech (2010). Kingsman flipped his already established persona on it’s head, and showed that he was equally adept as an action movie star, without loosing any of his sophisticated appeal. He’s still endlessly entertaining here, and while his presence is kind of unnecessary, since his “death” scene in the first film was such a pivotal motivating factor (which is sadly now diminished), he still manages to remain a hero worth rooting for. The Statesman are sadly given too little time to leave an impact, but they still are welcome additions to the franchise. Jeff Bridges is more or less just playing a version of himself, and that for the most part fits his character well. Channing Tatum uses his brief screen-time effectively, as does Halle Berry, giving a nice reserved performance here. The standout of the Statesman, however, is Pedro Pascal as Whiskey. The former Game of Thrones star steals every scene he is in as the lasso twirling hotshot Statesman, and embodies the fullest aspect of what Matthew Vaughn imagined for the State-side band of super spies. Even if he is portrayed as a stereotypical cowboy, he still has enough charisma to carry it through and as a result he is certainly the highlight of the film’s newcomers. My hope is that if there is ever another chapter given to this franchise, that more emphasis will be given to this second team, and not have them relegated to a sideshow of the franchise’s larger plot.
The other good thing that I’ll say about the film is that while the writing suffers from a lack of focus, Matthew Vaughn’s direction still is just as sharp as ever. Vaughn continues to show his skill behind the camera with well-executed sight gags and kinetically charged action set pieces. In fact, it’s when the movie ends up getting to the action bits that it finally comes alive. There’s a spectacular car chase with a taxi at the beginning that showcases some flashy camera and stunt-work that immediately plunges us right back into the Kingsman’s world. There’s another outstanding action scene with a cable suspended sky cabin, which involves one of the most ridiculous and thrilling escape attempts seen in this series to date. There is unfortunately nothing in this film that quite lives up to the now iconic church massacre from the first movie, where Firth’s Harry takes out an entire congregation of right-wing extremists all by himself. Still, the movie does remain expertly crafted, with action scenes that still are above the average in the industry. There are some very clever visual touches thrown into the movie too. The Statesman’s headquarter’s is a wonderful mix of the rugged and the state-of-the-art mixed together. The villain’s lair is also a nice reworking of a genre cliche. The movie takes the idea of a secret fortress built into a remote hollowed out mountain (popularly conceived through James Bond’s arch-nemesis Blofeld) and adds a retro-50’s kitsch to it, complete with a deco-infused diner as it’s centerpiece. It doesn’t make much sense why it looks like that, but then of course that’s part of the Kingsman’s appeal. It’s a series built upon flipping genre conventions on it’s head, while still indulging in the things that make the genre work in the first place. And while a lot of it was done better in the first movie, the series as a whole continues to stand out as a unique blend of the thrilling and the absurd thanks to Matthew Vaughn’s own assured vision.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is still far more clever and thrilling than most other action films today, but I’m sure that most people like myself will come away with a slight bit of disappointment after seeing it. The plot is too unfocused to ever remain engaging, and most of the clever ideas end up getting diminished in a movie that takes too long to deliver the goods. Perhaps part of the problem is that the expectations were too high based on the success of it’s beloved predecessor, but I think the problem lies more in the fact that we got this movie before it could be ready. I think another draft of the script could have smoothed out some of the pacing and helped to make this movie flow a lot better, but Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman weren’t given the time necessary for pulling that off, and instead we find them here quickly trying to scramble together something that could pass for a sequel. Some good things have come out of it, like the reintroduction of Colin Firth back into the series, and the establishing of the Statesman organization, but I just wish that more time wasn’t wasted on gags and plot threads that go nowhere. If there is to be any more of these films, they need to have a more menacing threat for one thing, and not a villain that comes across as more gimmicky than anything else. It’s a disappointing sequel, but not one that crushes the franchise as a whole. There could be plenty of more worthwhile adventures still waiting for this franchise and hopefully they learn from the mistakes here as they go forward. Until then, if Kingsman: The Secret Service feels like a loving homage to the best of James Bond, absurdity and all, The Golden Circle feels like one of the lesser Bond movies; works fine as part of the hole and important as a continuation of the franchise, but something you’ll probably never revisit again in the same way. It’s the Kingsman’s equivalent of Quantum of Solace (2008); fun, but hard to love.