Starring: Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Mark Strong (Kick-Ass), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball), Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), Elton John (The Road to El Dorado), Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky), Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
Director: Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class)
Writers: Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) & Matthew Vaughn
Runtime: 2 hours 21 minutes
Release Date: 20 September (UK), 22 September (US)
Kingsman: The Secret Service was a breath of fresh air when it came out in 2015, bringing over-the-top fun back to the spy movie and being the best of its genre in a year that saw the release of both a James Bond picture and a Mission: Impossible flick. That is no easy feat, and with its success came the promise of a bold new franchise with all sorts of original directions to go in. Unfortunately, and it really pains me to say this, but Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn’t the sequel it could have been.
In certain ways, The Golden Circle follows the same formula as its predecessor. No, scratch that. The Golden Circle follows to a T the formula of the first movie, just with all of the training scenes replaced with the Kingsmen having to start from scratch again. There are already a lot of callbacks to the first film, but then the film goes out of its way to revert the status quo or outright remove puzzle pieces for no good reason other that plot convenience; it’s like Men in Black II all over again. That’s already frustrating enough, but the film’s ramshackle structure and inconsistent pacing make the two-hour-plus runtime really hit home. The first act starts at a good clip, quickly throwing you back into the action, but once the plot gets rolling it’s a swerving maelstrom of subplots from there. When the final act finally arrives, it’s like a breath of fresh air that reminds you of why you loved the first film, which unfortunately has the side effect of clarifying for you why this one doesn’t ultimately work.
The film can’t even keep a solid theme going. Compare that to the clear, streamlined focus of The Secret Service. That film was about the haves and the havenots, and how the circumstance of your birth does not affect what you can achieve; everything linked back to that idea in some way. The sequel carries some of that on, but it’s also about the tumultuous relationship between Britain and America, the questionable motivations behind the war on drugs, and a not-so-subtle attack on the Trump administration’s approach to crime, healthcare and foreign policy. None of these ideas are inherently bad themes, but none of them have enough focus and none of them link neatly back into the characters. That is just sloppy storytelling.
The Golden Circle has assembled a wonderful cast of returning players and prestigious newcomers, but the film doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with them, and that is nowhere more egregiously noticable than with protagonist Eggsy (Egerton). After transitioning from streetwise geezer to debonair spy in the first film, the filmmakers seem to have no idea where to take the character. Eggsy has no real character arc in the sequel, and instead he gets a relationship story with Princess Tidle (Hanna Alstrom) that is tedious and generic. The film goes through several hoops to bring Colin Firth’s Harry Hart back into the film, and at first there seems to be a lot of potential for growth and introspection, but it ultimately goes nowhere. Mark Strong’s Merlin seems to be the only reprising character who gets away unscathed at first, but come the third act the film suddenly runs out of things for him to do too. And don’t even get me started on what they’ve done to Sophie Cookson’s Roxie. After what happened when Matthew Vaughn left Kick-Ass 2 at the wheel, you’d think he’d learn from those mistakes.
In terms of the new cast, nobody does a bad job, but none of them are given enough to do. Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges as Tequila and Champ respectively get introduced and then are almost immediately sidelined, and Halle Berry’s Ginger Ale is basically just a copy of Merlin but without the personality and a half-assed “women in the workplace” subplot. Pedro Pascal’s Whiskey fares a lot better mainly because he is afforded more screen time and charisma, but ultimately his character comes off a little muddled. The two new faces that ultimately steal the show are Julianne Moore as the big bad Poppy and, of all people, Elton John as himself. Moore is clearly having a blast playing a supervillain and her sickeningly sweet personality, along with her fetish for kitsch Americana mashed with deadly robots, make her a delightful and memorable antagonist. As for Elton John, he’s basically just an extended cameo with little bearing on the plot, but he gets to deliver some of the film’s best gags, so I’m glad he’s there.
On a technical level, The Golden Circle is about on par with its predecessor. The action is a lot of fun with some really inventive sequences and cool new gadgets, but the film’s aforementioned slog of a second act is lacking in this; pretty much everything cool about the movie has been shunted to the bookends. There’s some cool production design in the looks of both the Statesmen headquarter and Poppy’s tacky lair, and the music is on point with the John Barry-inspired spy tunes and some strong soundtrack choices. However, whereas the film’s visual effects edged a little too close to the sun in terms of their use, the effects here too often serve as a crutch. The film is highly stylized and over-the-top, but compared to the quality of the presentation otherwise it really sticks out as subpar.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t feel like a direct sequel to its excellent predecessor. It feels more like the tired fourth or fifth instalment they made after they ran out of ideas. There are sparks of inspiration here with some fantastic action set pieces, and the entire cast is clearly trying in spite of the undercooked material, but it’s hard to recommend this film otherwise. It is simply too cluttered and unfocused to be consistently enjoyable, and that only makes its overlong running time that much more noticeable. In the midst of all the wacky ideas and gags, the filmmakers seem to have lost focus on the characters and let them run on autopilot, and if this franchise is to be salvaged then Matthew Vaughn and co need to think hard and refocus their efforts.
FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10