If you know me, you know I’m a big fan of Matthew Vaughn as a director. He successfully revived the X-Men franchise with X-Men: First Class (2011) and deconstructed the superhero genre with Kick-Ass (2010) before giving the same treatment to the spy genre with Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). The first Kingsman shows Vaughn’s ability to recognize genre tropes while also providing an audience with characters worth rooting for. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a near-flawless film, save a few instances of misogyny that an optimistic person could chalk up to commentary on the old Sean Connery Bond films. The church scene is a blast, but the internet fanboys decided to take that one too far and deify it. With Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), Matthew Vaughn returns to direct what will be his first sequel ever to his own film (Jeff Wadlow would go on to direct Kick-Ass 2 (2013), while Bryan Singer returned to X-Men for First Class’ followup X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)). Vaughn’s style and lovable characters certainly return to the spy franchise in spades, but the sequel lacks originality and can’t decide what direction to take the plot in the half-hour-too-long runtime.
The spy sequel starts on the right foot with Eggsy (Taron Egerton), now as a full-blown Kingsman, in a high speed pursuit. Afterwards, the meat of the plot unravels as drug lord Poppy (Julianne Moore) wipes out all of the Kingsmen, leaving Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) to flee to the good ole U.S. of A to make contact with Statesman, basically their American counterpart. There, they find a still-living Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and discover Poppy is planning to blackmail the government to legalize her drugs so she can be rich and come out of hiding. It’s not really a spoiler to mention that Harry is alive, due to the fact that the trailers use this plot-point to bring audiences to the theaters – probably because the plot itself is too convoluted to do so. With the Statesmen come Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), who aid Eggsy and Harry with discovering an antidote for Poppy’s drugs and saving the world.
What bothers me the most about The Golden Circle is its inability to find a plot and focus on it and bring these wonderful characters together for the sake of a strong story. Channing Tatum and Pedro Pascal are standout, but Tatum is criminally underused to the point of his character being near-irrelevant by the third act and Pascal has some great action scenes but that’s about it. The first Kingsman flowed almost euphorically, with two plot lines paralleling each other: Eggsy training to become a Kingsman and Valentine’s master plan. Colin Firth’s Harry acts as a bridge between the two as he mentors Eggsy and investigates Valentine, but in The Golden Circle, Firth is only there to give Statesman a reason to be in the movie. Between that, the politics of Poppy threatening the U.S. President (Bruce Greenwood), and Vaughn juggling new characters with some semblance of an A-plot, the film feels more bloated than it should. The Golden Circle is only ten minutes longer than its predecessor but it honestly feels like an eternity from start to finish.
That’s not to say the movie is awful. The action scenes are as cartoony as you can get (in a good way, when it comes to Matthew Vaughn’s style) and Mark Strong’s Merlin gets his due after being essential in the first movie. There are some great spy-gags such as the roundabout way Eggsy plants a tracker on a prime suspect and Halle Berry serves as a great Statesman counterpart to Merlin. But where Kingsman: The Secret Service effectively tip-toes that line between comic and absurd, The Golden Circle crosses that line gleefully with things like rabid mechanical hounds and an Elton John cameo that doesn’t come close to Mark Hamill’s in the first and overstays its welcome, just for an excuse to have an action scene set to ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.’ Jeff Bridges is in the movie as well and like Tatum, he is far too underused and to be honest, Bridges in a cowboy hat is getting a little old for me. What makes Statesman work in this movie are Tatum and Pascal. However, one is underused and the other’s character doesn’t really have a purpose until the end of the movie, save some great action scenes with a lightsaber/whip.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle suffers from a bit of sequel-itis just like anything these days. I really try to approach sequels with cautious optimism because from a marketing standpoint, it makes sense to use what worked in the predecessor – and film is a business. But there are ways to go about enriching what works in a first attempt. A great example that comes to mind is John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), where there are influences from the first film that make the story feel like a continuation while remaining original in its own right. What makes the church scene in the original Kingsman so great is the style in which it was shot, but almost every action scene tries to recreate that in this sequel. Like I mentioned above, the action is great, but I have to call a spade a spade. Julianne Moore’s Poppy is also unbearable for me. A lot of people have told me they love her characterization and can get behind her motives and there’s no other way for me to put it other than she just doesn’t click for me. Samuel L. Jackson’s villain-character Valentine from The Secret Service serves as a clever commentary on the spy-villain trope of world domination. For Moore’s Poppy, I feel it’s far too forced, much like Colin Firth’s presence throughout the entirety of the movie (not to mention Firth’s plot follows almost to-the-letter the plot of Men in Black II (2002), of all movies).
If you enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service, it’s certainly worth checking out the sequel. There’s plenty of action and new characters to love, but director Matthew Vaughn falls short of bringing everyone together for a coherent cause. Maybe Vaughn was right to steer clear of sequels to his own movies. However, he’s already slated to return for the eventual Kingsman 3, so perhaps there’s a way for him to bring the trilogy together.
PS I’m still raving about Eggsy’s orange tuxedo jacket.