When the first Kingsman movie came out, I got a free ticket to an early screening and enjoyed it so much that I went to see it again with some friends. I did that so I could give money to the filmmakers, hoping to see more of this brand of insanity. Well two years later has passed and we have Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a film with high expectations… that just doesn’t live up to its predecessor.
Set a year after the first film, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is now a full-fledged Kingsman agent, in a relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) and living in Harry’s (Colin Firth) old home. Out of the blue Eggsy is attacked by Charlie (Edward Holcraft), one of the rejects from the first film who was last seen in Valentine’s bunker, now back with a robotic arm, and a really pissed off mood. Eggsy escapes, but Charlie is able to hack into the Kingsman servers, allowing drug baroness Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) to obliterate the Agency leaving Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) as the only survivors.
With no other plan of action, Eggsy and Merlin initiate the ‘Doomsday Protocol’ which leads them to The Stateman, the American branch of their agency that is unaware of the Kingsman’s existence. After confirming their allegiance, the Statesman agree to help Eggsy and Merlin not only with stopping Poppy, but also with helping restore the memory of an alive and well Harry Hart living under their care.
I won’t go into too much detail of Poppy’s plan, much like Valentine’s her overall plan hasn’t been revealed in the trailers, so I won’t spoil it here, but it involves the drug trade. Where Valentine’s plan had a point about the state of the world and of humanity’s place in it, Poppy’s just felt like Vaughn and company started working with the drugs angle, but couldn’t think of anything interesting or original to say about it. The end result is something that lacks the insanity of the first one by being too heavy-handed with its subject matter. There’s an subplot involving the president that just felt too crazy and too mean-spirited to be funny.
On the whole, the story’s serviceable, but lacks the first film’s charm and knowing wink to the audience about it’s aping of the Bond franchise. To put it another way, the first film was a Comedic James Bond, this one is a James Bond with comedy, if that makes any sense.
One of the film’s biggest issues was how it handles its new characters, there are four new Statesman and three of them are glorified cameos. Pedro Pascal comes out on top as Agent Whisky, a charming bad-ass with a lethal electric lasso, his place in the set-pieces of the second act were a lot of fun and offered a more cowboy style to the spy movie formula. However, they try to add too much depth to his character in the finale, but it ends up feeling rushed with very little pay-off. The others though definitely come up short, despite his frequency in the trailers, Tatum’s Tequila drops out of the film after two scenes. Jeff Bridges’ Champagne, Head of the Statesman, just delivered exposition and drank whisky. Halle Berry’s Ginger could’ve stood in as a counterpart to Merlin, but they don’t use her enough and the conclusion of her arc felt unearned.
We might see more of some characters in Kingsman 3, but at near 2 and a half hours – easily too long – not having the time to build up the new characters just feels like bad writing. As much fun as Eggsy, Harry, and Merlin are we’ve already seen them and enjoyed them, so the spotlight was open for someone else to come in, but nobody took it. Julianne Moore felt like she could’ve used the extra time to highlight Poppy as the film’s insane villain, and to her credit Moore looks to be having a ton of fun with the role. But she’s too similar to Valentine and as previously mentioned her plan was too heavy handed to work in this universe.
The one new character who came out shining was Elton John playing Elton John, a foul-mouthed, pissy version of himself who pretty much stole the entire film. Watching Elton karate kick a man in the face in slow-motion wearing a muti-color feathered suit is something I didn’t know I needed until now.
Mark Strong’s Merlin is still the Kingsman’s man behind the curtain and one of it’s grounding elements. In opposite to the first film, his role expanded as the film went on, I felt like Merlin actually had less screen-time as the film went on. His friendship with Eggsy was fun and revealed some funny character traits including a surprising love of John Denver and his attempts to help Harry were some of the most genuine scenes in the film. Once Harry was back in the picture, Merlin felt sidelined which is a shame because I really liked the character and Strong made his presence known across both films.
Speaking of which, Harry’s back, yes Colin Firth returns as Harry Hart having survived – barely – getting shot in the head in the first film. Normally I’d call foul on them bringing back a dead character since it lessens the impact of their death, but since it’s Harry I’ll give them a pass. Plus they actually make use of him taking a bullet to the head, his amnesia keeps him out of things for a while, but even once that’s cured he still suffers from lack of muscle memory and the occasional lapse in judgement. It keeps you wondering if the character really is back or if he’s too far gone and Firth plays it effortlessly.
Finally we had Taron Egerton return as Eggsy and proving that the first film wasn’t a fluke with making Eggsy as likable and charming, but still rough around the edges. It’s a great dichotomy for Eggsy and Egerton plays the character incredible well to make the whole creation work. On the surface, Eggsy is loud, brash, and foul-mouthed, but underneath that he’s smart, friendly and loyal. One of the key parts to his character in this film is his relationship with Princess Tilde. I’ve seen some complaints of her involvement feeling forced, but I liked it because it subverted two spy tropes. The first of the spy always getting a new girl in every film and the second of the spy having to hide his secret life from his partner by having Tilde already know about Eggsy’s work. Seeing Eggsy journey in the first film was fun but now seeing him all suited and booted made it all worthwhile.
Matthew Vaughn also returns for the first sequel in his directing career and I fear that it shows. I don’t think Vaughn ever expected a sequel and wasn’t sure how to approach this because while it is bigger, it lacks some much of what made the original film work. It’s not as charming, it’s not as witty, it’s not as funny – I legitimately belly-laughed multiple times last time, here the best joke I got was an old man shitting – and it’s not as insane leaving the whole thing feeling like a step-backwards. There’s two key elements that Vaughn gets wrong here, first he lets scenes go on way too long, a Glastonbury aside goes on longer than is comfortable and only serves for the film to have a fingering joke – in as about as explicit a scene you can get without nudity. While the second acts set-piece in the Italian mountains consists of about two or three smaller set-pieces that ultimately end up amounting very little for all the effort put into it.
Perhaps the most damning of all, Vaughn fails to make many of the film’s biggest moments feel earned. The third act reveal feels out of left-field with character motivations never seen before now. Poppy’s whole plan to kill off the Kingsman doesn’t make sense because we never see how she and Charlie know each other, why she would help him when she’s made it clear she has no qualms about feeding people to her robot dogs, or grounding people into burgers and feeding them to her henchmen. Unearned cannibalism is the worst kind of cannibalism. The biggest offender is a death scene in the final act which the film actively goes out of its way to have not happen, then it happens anyway, and it just felt like a cheap way to kill off the character. Harry’s death in the first film was a shock, but it felt earned with Valentine’s plan and the subversion of the genre, but this just did not work.
To end this review on a high note, let’s focus on what Vaughn gets right. Mainly the entertainment factor, the film is still a lot of fun to sit through and when it’s working you can see the same DNA that made the first film work so well. The film almost literally opens with a car chase where Eggsy fights Charlie and we’re thrust right back into the swing of things. Pascal gets a couple standout moments for himself where he proves himself as The Statesman’s best, first in his own bar-room brawl where he puts his lasso to good use, and secondly in a one-man shootout in the snow bringing in that cowboy style I mentioned earlier. Once inside Poppy’s compound, the film comes the closest it’s ever been to the Church scene with Eggsy and Harry teaming up to take down Poppy’s men, while Saturday Night’s “Alright For Fighting” blasts on the soundtrack. We see the surrogate father/son teamwork to an extent that we never got in the first film, which then breaks off into two separate battles of Eggsy vs Charlie and Harry vs Robo-Dog before coming back around for a final boss fight. As mentioned earlier, it’s not as insane as before but there’s no denying Vaughn knows how to have fun.
I think The Golden Circle’s biggest issue is that the whole film can be summed up with the word ‘But.’ The story’s decent, but is too heavy-handed with its message and too similar to the first. The returning characters are all great, but the new arrivals don’t have time to shine – except for Elton John of course, and the action is as fun as before but the sly wit and well-earned emotional beats aren’t present anymore. I knew going into this film that it wouldn’t be as good as the first and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with The Golden Circle, the series has gone from a film I watched twice in the cinema, to a film that I might watch again if it’s on Netflix at some point. And that’s a significant drop-off in quality that I was not expecting.
I am giving Kingsman: The Golden Circle a 3 ½ out of 5 Hairpieces!