When Kingsman: The Secret Service landed in theaters two years ago, it was a surprising, if modestly guilty, pleasure. For more than 30 years—going back at least as far as Never Say Never Again—James Bond had been derided within his own franchise as a “dinosaur,” for his tailored suits, sexist attitudes, and proclivity for violence. Kingsman thus served as a kind of Jurassic Park for the Bondian gentleman spy, resurrecting him from prehistoric Connery DNA discovered in fossilized amber somewhere. It was, as I noted at the time, “reactionary bordering on retrograde bordering on reprobate [but] also a tremendous amount of fun.”
Pulling off such a satirical feat once was hard enough, and it seemed unlikely that the movie’s director, Matthew Vaughn, could manage it a second time. He doesn’t—quite. But Vaughn’s new sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, while not as fresh as its predecessor, is nonetheless better than one might expect: a goofier, more over-the-top treatment of a premise that was pretty goofy and over-the-top the first time around.
Kingsman, you see, is the name of a discreet and oh-so-very-British private intelligence service. (Its headquarters is accessed by way of a luxury tailor on Savile Row.) In the first film we watched the impeccably dressed, umbrella-wielding superspy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) take a young hooligan nicknamed “Eggsy” (Taron Egerton) under his wing and make him into a Kingsman—essentially a killing machine in vest and tie. Alas, before the final reel, Harry himself was shot dead.
Or was he? The trailers for The Golden Circle have not been coy on this point, so I won’t be either. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, Harry is revealed to have survived, even if he’s dealing with a certain degree of amnesia. (In related news: Finally, Warner Bros! As if anyone ever believed Superman wouldn’t be brought back to life for Justice League.)
But if Harry is still kicking, the same soon cannot be said of most of his fellow Kingsmen. Early in The Golden Circle, their HQ is blown to smithereens, leaving only Eggsy and support staffer “Merlin” (Mark Strong) in one piece. (A post-Hogwarts Michael Gambon gets to play “Arthur,” the head of Kingsman, for mere seconds before meeting his maker.) So Eggsy and Merlin crack open the organization’s only-in-case-of-supreme-emergency safe and discover ... a bottle of bourbon? About the time they reach the bottom of it, they recognize it to be a clue and make their way to the Kentucky distillery whence it came. (Aficionados will recall that Kentucky was also the location of the bigot-filled church in the first movie, and thus appears to be the franchise’s stand-in for America as a whole.)
When they arrive at the distillery, Eggsy and Merlin discover a parallel American agency, Statesman, founded at the same time as their own. Replace Kingsman’s bespoke suits with cowboy-wear, their Arthurian codenames with ones based on varying types of liquor, and—well, you get the idea. It’s worth noting here that, although Channing Tatum (“Tequila”) and Jeff Bridges (“Champagne,” or more colloquially, “Champ”) feature prominently as Statesmen in the film’s trailers and other marketing, their roles aren’t much more than cameos. More notable among Kingsman’s “American cousins” are Pedro Pascal (who was marvelous as Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones) as “Whiskey” and Halle Barry as support agent “Ginger Ale.”
Once again, a capitalist villain has launched a plan for global genocide transmitted by means of an addictive consumer product; this time, though, it’s drugs rather than smart phones. The villain in question is Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a vice merchant who has outfitted her jungle lair like a faux 1950s diner—Dr. No by way of Johnny Rockets.
The story proceeds from there pretty much as one might expect. Kingsmen and Statesmen unite to tackle the Poppy problem, double crosses ensue, and numerous action sequences take place that are cleverly choreographed, comically violent, and spatially impossible without abundant CGI assistance. Heroes and villains alike deploy the kinds of gadgets that the Bond franchise grew appropriately embarrassed about long ago—cars with machine guns, cars that turn into subs, robot arms, robot dogs—and there are gags concerning John Denver and the war on drugs. We witness the eating of an exceptionally revolting hamburger and the placement of a diabolically naughty tracking device.
The returning cast is solid, but while Firth and Egerton don’t have quite the twinkle they showed in the previous outing, Strong throws himself fully into Merlin’s delightful brogue. Moore shows off her comic chops as the Happy Daysified supervillain, and Pascal is a charismatic onscreen presence even if his Texan accent occasionally falters.
Which brings me to the extended cameo by a generationally famous pop icon playing himself—I won’t say whom—which begins relatively understated but becomes considerably more gonzo as it progresses. Is it a rather cheap and cheesy bid for audience amusement? Of course it is. But it is nonetheless an effective one.
That is, in fact, a reasonable summary of The Golden Circle overall. Whereas the first Kingsman was a relatively focused spoof of the Bond genre, the sequel goes farther afield for its humor. (There is, after all, no real history of American cowboy-spy movies for Statesman to parody.) The movie is too long, too violent, too silly—too everything. Yet for those who enjoyed the original Kingsman, it is a more than adequate second act. To put it another way: first time satire, second time farce.