‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Review: More Retro Spy Shenanigans With the Secret Service
What is it with megalomaniacal bad guys and gold? There was Goldfinger, Goldmember, and now there’s Poppy Adams, the perkily fiendish leader of the drug cartel known as the Golden Circle. As part of the Circle’s initiation, each new member gets a loop of real gold tattooed onto their chest. When you have as many goons as Poppy does, this is a really pricey affectation.
Like a lot of stuff in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, its villain’s metallurgical fetish is a callback to old-school James Bond movies. This sequel to 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service continues its predecessor’s colorful reinvention of campy ’70s Bond tropes, and broadens the franchise’s mythology to introduce a whole new group of spies, an American intelligence agency known as Statesman. The new characters and concepts don’t add a whole lot to a film is way too long and plodding in its middle act, but the returning heroes and giddily vulgar comedy and action are still good for some solid laughs and thrills.
The Kingsman concept started as a comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, but the movies, co-written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, are largely their own thing, much jokier and more indebted to Roger Moore’s 007 and the notion of an exceedingly refined gentleman saving the world in a crisply tailored suit. The central figure is Eggsy (Taron Egerton) a working-class bloke who was plucked from his humble life by Kingsman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) in The Secret Service. When Harry died saving the world, Eggsy replaced him as Kingsman’s top agent and carried on saving the world in high style — at least until Poppy (Julianne Moore) shows up and destroys every Kingsman facility as part of plan to take over the international drug trade.
The survivors of her attack retreat to America, where they find the Statesman, essentially their louder, drunker, less refined cousins. (Why the seemingly all-knowing Poppy doesn’t also try to destroy Statesman is not addressed.) Statesman is secretly housed beneath a whiskey distillery, and its members are named after various beverages: Their leader is Champagne (Jeff Bridges), his right-hand man is Tequila (Channing Tatum), their quartermaster is Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), and their best agent is Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). Statesman spies dress like cowboys with fancy high-tech versions of old-fashioned frontier weapons like lassos and bullwhips, which seems like an impediment to a secret agent’s covert activities. Maybe they do a lot of undercover work at rodeos or something.
Statesman is a cute idea, and a reasonably effective commercial for whiskey (get your special edition Old Forester Statesman bourbon on sale now!), but setting up a whole new cast of characters almost an hour into the film grinds what had been a peppy little thriller to a screeching halt. Even worse, almost none of the American characters have an impact on the rest of the movie; Bridges and Tatum’s performances are so brief and irrelevant you can’t even call them glorified cameos. (The freaking whiskey plays a more important role in the story than Tatum and Bridges.) Berry fares a little better as a tech expert who dreams of becoming a field agent, but that concept worked a lot better as the premise of Spy. This whole sequence moves slower than the barrel aging process for hard liquor.
That’s frustrating because The Golden Circle’s first act is as carefully constructed as a bespoke sports coat. It’s particularly impressive how Vaughn and longtime collaborator Jane Goldman’s screenplay carries forward many of the dangling threads and subplots from the first Kingsman. Eggsy’s disgraced former rival (Edward Holcroft) returns as Poppy’s chief henchman, this time with a Bionic Commando arm that’s deployed in all kinds of cool ways during The Golden Circle’s action scenes. The beautiful Swedish princess (Hanna Alström) Eggsy bedded at the conclusion of the first film is now his girlfriend, and his job is causing major friction in their relationship. Vaughn and Goldman even find a plausible way to bring Colin Firth’s character back from the dead, and to complicate Harry and Eggsy’s relationship over the course of the film. (Plus Harry gets a swanky eyepatch as a nod to the original one-eyed super-spy, Nick Fury.)
Vaughn and Goldman also manage to pull off the tricky feat of topping their first memorable villain with another. Samuel L. Jackson was one of the highlights of Kingsman as the sinister, scheming tech billionaire Richmond Valentine, but Julianne Moore blows him out of the water as the bubbly, terrifying Poppy. She lives in a classic Bond villain hideout, a mountain fortress inexplicably decked out to look like an American small town from the 1950s, and has Elton John (as himself) perform nightly for her pleasure. She’s a better Bond villain than all but four or five actual Bond villains.
The final battle between Eggsy’s allies and Poppy’s minions is impressive as well; Vaughn knows how to bring choreographed mayhem right to the edge of incomprehensibility without going too far; his fight scenes are intense and chaotic but not unclear or convoluted. Although Egerton sometimes gets shoved to the sidelines because of Kingsman’s massive supporting cast, he is still a huge asset as Eggsy; charming and likable, even when the responsibilities of his job force him to do unsavory things for Queen and Country. Between him and Firth, the movie has more than enough star power; it doesn’t need all those extra Statesmen guys, who just wind up bogging things down. (At 141 minutes, The Golden Circle is at least 20 minutes too long.) This isn’t quite solid-gold filmmaking. But it might be gold-plated.