From the hero’s luxe orange tuxedo jacket to the villainess’s Valentino Rockstud pumps, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” oozes style (and even offers it for sale). But the visual pleasures don’t end there; for his sequel to “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” director Matthew Vaughn continues his reign as a helmer whose obsession with the look of a film pays off for the audience. However, despite all the beauty, elegance and energy seen on screen, “The Golden Circle” has all the endurance of an Instagram post. Its predecessor was a blast in the moment, and this follow-up has the same fun but fleeting footprint.
After saving the world in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is deeply enmeshed in both the Kingsman spy agency and his serious relationship with Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), but an attack on headquarters from the mysterious Golden Circle leaves him scrambling for safety and new allies. He and Merlin (Mark Strong) travel to Kentucky to meet their American counterparts at Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and an absolutely perfect Pedro Pascal). Together, they work to fight the devious plot hatched by the Golden Circle and its leader, Poppy (Julianne Moore), that threatens millions around the world as well as individuals they love.
The theme of the personal sacrifices a secret agent must make drives “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Writers Jane Goldman and Vaughn use it in both comic and serious ways, from putting Eggsy in trouble with Tilde over seducing an asset to the lingering traumas that haunt these agents. But similarly to the first film in the series, this outing is philosophically murky. Depending on your personal politics, Poppy’s ultimate goal isn’t such a bad thing, but her methods to getting there are…questionable. We’re all for a world that isn’t always black and white, but ‘The Golden Circle’ isn’t just telling us that progress can have collateral damage; it seems unsure of what it’s actually trying to say.
In casting Berry and Pascal as members of Statesman, they also appear to be addressing the criticism of the first film’s idea that anyone could be a Kingsman, regardless of class (but only if he’s white and probably male). But given their presence in America’s Statesman – and not England’s Kingsman – the inadvertent message seems to be that this can only happen in the U.S., and even then only rarely. The film has some fun poking at stereotypes of American and British people, but this doesn’t seem to be part of what they’re trying to get across.
What the film and director Matthew Vaughn are sure of is the movie as a whole. It’s so self-assured and self-satisfied, and it’s hard for the audience not to nod their heads in agreement – when they’re not hooting with laughter or clapping. It’s gleeful at its own invention, whether it’s smirking at its robot dogs, the use of John Denver‘s ubiquitous “Country Road” or its visual verve in action scenes that look like they’re completed in a jaw-dropping single take à la its predecessor.
What made “Kingsman: The Secret Service” such a revelation wasn’t just its bold style, ballsy comedy and graphic violence; it was all those elements combined, creating a fresh approach to the British espionage genre. James Bond and John Le Carré, it’s not. By nature, the sequel would likely struggle to replicate that feeling, and it does. It’s almost formulaic in some respects, particularly around replicating its approach to its villain. Samuel L. Jackson‘s Valentine was an antagonist we hadn’t seen before in a spy movie, and here Moore’s Poppy takes a similar tack, though she’s a wildly different character.
As Poppy, Moore is perky yet steely, a vibrant rose surrounded by deadly thorns. Her sunny demeanor and colorful dresses cover up a sadistic streak that would make most criminal masterminds cringe, whether she’s torturing one of her own men or planning the deaths of millions. Meanwhile, Egerton brings new depth to his secret agent, who is no longer the green recruit. Harry’s arc gives Firth the most to do, and the actor is up to the task, bringing humanity and compassion to a film that often lacks it. Strong and Merlin are the unsung heroes, while Tatum, Berry and Bridges don’t get a lot of screentime. But at least they found a way for Tatum to get to dance, so thumbs up there. ‘The Golden Circle’ also features one of the more enjoyable turns by a celebrity playing himself that I won’t spoil if you haven’t already had it ruined for you.
Vaughn’s film is overflowing with big set pieces, but all those epic action sequences amount to a running time clocking nearly two and a half hours – and not much else. Like fireworks, they’re awe-inspiring while you’re watching, but there’s little left to marvel at after the show’s over. [B-]