Film Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' is like a golden circle itself: shiny, yet empty inside.
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With Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service earning upwards of $400 million worldwide, it was only a matter of time before the R-rated spy caper—about a street-smart Londoner (Taron Egerton) recruited by an organization of dapper super-spies—would get a sequel. And it makes sense that this sequel, subtitled The Golden Circle, would hew to the qualities that made The Secret Service such a fun ride: high-energy action, lots of violence (including a mean streak that extends to offing extras by the dozens), a certain sexual crudeness and winking meta-references to spy movies of years past, with a special emphasis on the James Bond oeuvre. All of the ingredients are there…but the resulting dish lacks the excitement and freshness of its predecessor. With Kingsman: The Golden Circle, we’re looking at a franchise that’s entertaining enough while still being subject to the law of diminishing returns.

This lack of freshness is due in large part to the fact that, with Kingsman: The Golden Circle, screenwriters Vaughn and Jane Goldman have written more or less the exact same movie they did the first time around. On the surface, the Kingsman world has expanded, with Eggsy and tech guru Merlin (Mark Strong) seeking help from their American counterparts (led by Jeff Bridges, natch) after the Kingsman’s HQ gets blown up. But, really, we’re looking at little more than a shiny retread. There’s a redo of The Secret Service’s “manners maketh man” bar-fight scene and yet another ally who double-crosses our heroes. (Goldman and Vaughn make no attempt to hide who this is, with the unintended result that the betrayal looks like a red herring and one keeps waiting for an actual third-act plot twist that never arrives.) Two characters assumed dead in the first film—Eggsy’s mentor Harry (Colin Firth) and his upper-crust nemesis Charlie (Edward Holcroft)—are brought back into the fray as well.

Another similarity is that, in both movies, the supervillain’s stated cause célèbre is one shared by many on the left side of the political spectrum. Where Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine was an extreme environmentalist who thought the best way to put the breaks on climate change was to cull the human race, Julianne Moore’s Poppy is a peppy drug kingpin and consummate capitalist whose evil plot involves forcing the U.S. President (Bruce Greenwood) to legalize drugs. At the same time, Greenwood’s portrayal of the leader of the free world as a boorish, callous man who’s easily the most despicable character in the film could be Goldman and Vaughn taking shots at Donald Trump. (At one point, a Fox News commentator uses the old “thoughts and prayers” line in reference to Poppy’s victims.) Really, the politics of The Golden Circle are muddled—you get the sense that the film’s trying to say something in order to give it a patina of seriousness, but you don’t know what it is, and you get the sense that maybe it doesn’t, either.

Any attempt at political commentary, then, should have been cut…as should the President’s whole (unnecessary) subplot and a handful of other scenes from The Golden Circle’s two-hour, 21-minute run-time. The story is sloppy and repetitive, lurching awkwardly along from set-piece to set-piece.

But, then, the positive: Those setpieces are really fun, zipping along with a manic energy that the film as a whole, with its stop-and-go pacing, lacks. Still, the camerawork isn’t so manic during the (excellent) fight scenes that you can’t tell what’s going on, a problem that besets too many action films nowadays. Vaughn has crafted a film that’s stylish and amusing and makes wonderful use of Elton John, and that’s not something every director can manage.

Further, all the actors are on point. Pedro Pascal delivers on the charisma that made him a standout on “Game of Thrones,” and Julianne Moore, marrying June Cleaver wholesomeness with a ruthless streak a mile wide, is clearly having a grand old time playing Poppy. And Egerton and Firth just plain elevate the material, imbuing their characters—and the mentor-protégé relationship between the two—with a depth of emotion absent from the script. We’ve seen, over his decades-long career, what Firth can do with top-shelf material; now I just wish someone would let Taron Egerton cut loose on more projects that really let him show off his considerable talent.

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