In 2014, director Matthew Vaughn blew minds (figuratively and literally) with Kingsman: The Secret Service, his and Jane Goldman's loose adaptation of Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons' comic book The Secret Service. Vaughn introduced audiences to a dapper batch of British gentlemen in bespoke suits who represent an independence intelligence agency that swings into action when an American billionaire decides to rollout a genocidal scheme. Now, Eggsy and his gang are back to take on a similarly unhinged American CEO in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
For the sequel, Academy Award winner Julianne Moore joins the fun as Poppy, the world's most successful drug dealer, who's ready to go legit -- well, in that she means to take a large part of the population hostage in order to push world leaders into making all her products legal. Or as her perky ransom presentation tag lines: Stay Alive. Legalize!
Once again, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) leaps into action to save the world, but an explosive first act robs him of most of his Kingsmen colleagues and gadgets, so he and tech-whiz Merlin (Mark Strong) seek help from the American cousins, The Statesmen. Whereas the Kingsmen are a playful extreme of the British gentleman-spy stereotype, the Statesmen are gun-spinning, lasso-whipping, whiskey-drinking cowboys who spit country idioms like chewing tobacco. ("I feel like a tornado in a trailer park!")
Their front is a distillery in Kentucky, and there Eggsy crosses paths with the impulsive agent Tequila (Channing Tatum), the swaggering Whiskey (Game of Thrones's Pedro Pascal), their boss Champ (Jeff Bridges) -- short for Champagne -- and their Merlin, Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Together, the two eccentric agencies travel to far-flung mountaintops, music festivals, jungles and bowling alleys to topple Poppy's evil empire, the Golden Circle.
There's a lot of fun to be had, and Kingsman fans should be satisfied. Vaughn kicks things off with a rollicking fight scene that folds in a whiz-bang car chase, an intimidating robot arm, and a ghastly gross-out gag. And there are plenty more fights, escapes and sci-fi tech-fueled mayhem; at two hours and 21 minutes there would have to be. So the spectacle is good, and likely the callbacks to the first movie -- from literal replays of its climactic head popping scene to a major retcon -- should please. But the problem with this suped-up sequel is that in the end, it's overlong and overstuffed.
At nearly two and a half hours, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is not a sleek and fast-paced thrill ride, but rather a clunky tumble through action-scene set pieces that rumble on and on, followed by clattering exposition dumps that attempt to make sense of a convoluted plot. There's a clutch of new characters, colorfully introduced in showy -- and often violent -- scenes, only to be sidelined or killed off in other elaborate scenes in order to hit some minor plot point. There's a cavalier casting off of some of the film's most likable characters in favor of bending over backward to reintroduce not only the previously-headshot Harry (Colin Firth), but also sneering elitist Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft). Forgot about him? Don't worry, there are several flashbacks to jog your memory.
Then there's the Poppy plot, and all the Statesmen introductions, and a subplot about a craven U.S. president, and another about Eggsy's relationship with Princess Tilde, a throwaway finale joke grown into a tedious romance thread. (Perhaps all the heat Vaughn and Goldman got over that anal sex joke last go-round encouraged them into a bizarre combination of mea culpa and doubling down? Who knows, but it's lackluster and takes up too much screentime.) That all means there's little flow to the action, which is especially shameful in a year that gave us the musicality and graceful action of Baby Driver. If you're just looking for a loud, wild ride, The Golden Circle is that, no matter how bumpy, but the film's greatest sin of all is how the story overlooks its greatest assets.
Egerton and Firth are once again fun. Strong is even better than before, offered more comedy and a fantastically absurd yet beautiful moment of heroics. And like the first film, there's plenty that makes this feel like a wonderfully ludicrous live-action cartoon. But the very best bits are Moore's Poppy and Pascal's Whiskey. Regrettably, Tatum and Bridges are little more than glorified cameos here, and Berry is about as thrilling as she's was in the X-Men franchise, which is to say as exciting as trimming your toenails.
Pascal, on the other hand, befits the name of his secret agent, exuding a sexy smokiness, bold machismo and an all-American wallop. The best fight bits are all the ones featuring his character, double-fisting pistols and spinning an electrified lasso that can just as easily settle a bar brawl as it can slice a man in two. Watching him smirk and battle, quip and flirt, I was transported back to King's Landing before the crushing defeat of the sensual champion of Dorne. Imagine Oberyn Martell as a cowboy, snugly slipped into jeans and boots and a cowboy hat. On the big screen, this fantasy is even better, more badass and sexy than you can imagine. But rather than running with it and poising Whisky for a Statesmen spinoff, Vaughn keeps kicking him to the fringes so Harry and Eggsy can retread beats from the first movie in a new location. Chase the laptop that has the button to press in order to save the world. Sigh.
Poppy's shtick borrows heavily from Richmond Valentine's in Kingsman: The Secret Service, from the general genocide ploy and the metal-appendaged sidekick to the McGuffin and her appreciation for a burger. But Moore brings a distinctive menace to her retread character, swirling around in vibrant '50s-style dresses, speaking with a girlish whimsy, and plastering on a smile so big it feels like a threat. She lays out cheesy jokes her minions must laugh at or else face her meat grinder-mouthed robot Rottweilers. "They're crumpets!" she shouts about a blow against the Kingsman. "Like toast, but British!" And the joke works, not because it's funny, but because Moore's delivery is manic, deranged and delicious. However, when it finally comes down to fighting her, let's just say the Kingsmen opt for an anti-climactic solution.
All in all, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a mixed bag. There are outrageous gags, insane action, and a plethora of colorful characters. But there's also a lot of bloat with uninspired plot thread, retreads and retcons. Part of the rush of the first film was that its irreverent yet chic style and igonzo action felt fresh and unpredictable. In trying to hewn so closely to its recipe for success, the sequel is similarly amusing, but nowhere near as surprising or exhilarating. The thrill is gone.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle opens Friday nationwide.