Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn, 2017)
One of the finest aspects of both John Wick and the first Kingsman film was the worldbuilding. In each one, we encountered a fascinating secret society that operated just out of sight of the rest of us, in which hidden operatives made and carried out plans to alternately destroy (Wick) and save (Kingsman) the universe. With vivid panache, the directors created compelling characters who strutted their stuff through sometimes-awful mayhem, dapper no matter what (well, John Wick got roughed up a bit …). As soon, however, as the narratives strayed from the foundational design and into violence they lost what made them interesting. Their innovative mojo vanished when guns were drawn and/or fists raised, at which point they became just your average, generic action film, devoid of real personality.
That problem has not gone away in Kingsman #2, otherwise known as Kingsman: The Golden Circle, helmed, as was #1, by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class). While there are some nice new touches in the netherworld of espionage, and a great new villain, at some point it devolves into the same old, same old. There is still a lot of fun to be had, but it begs the question: why must fight scenes all look the same? Where is Edgar Wright, who brilliantly revitalized car chases with Baby Driver this past summer, when you need him?
As this second Kingsman movie begins, our hero, Eggsy – rescued from cockney delinquency the last time around and trained for the independent secret-service agency known as … Kingsman – is immediately (as in, within a minute of the start) attacked by a disgruntled former Kingsman trainee and pursued through London in a high-speed, shoot-em-up drag race that ends in Eggsy’s triumph, or so he thinks. Unbeknownst to him, his attacker – a one-armed man – has left behind, in Eggsy’s vehicle, a mechanical prosthetic that hacks into the Kingsman system and reveals the whereabouts of all the agents, who are then quickly dispatched. The last man standing – with only his original trainer, Merlin, by his side – Eggsy must seek out the source of Kingsman’s demise, a journey that takes him to Kentucky and the sister agency of Kingsman, called Statesman. There, Eggsy joins forces with his American cousins to defeat the movie’s villain, Poppy.
We should say villainess, actually, as she is played with delightfully devilish flair by Julianne Moore (Still Alice). Poppy presides over a drug empire headquartered in Cambodia, her jungle lair designed in bright 1950s diner colors. Moore is one of the bright spots here, the garish design of her hideout complementing her “little-ole-me” false mask of helplessness. To add to the outlandishness of her plan for world domination, she has kidnapped Elton John, keeping him prisoner as her private pop star. The real Mr. John has a lot of fun spoofing some of his songs and flamboyant outfits, and does not embarrass himself.
Every surviving character from the first film (plus one who died) is back for round two: Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle), as Eggsy; Mark Strong (Miss Sloane) as Merlin; and Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight) as Harry (the one who died – see poster, above). New additions, on the American side, include Halle Berry (Kidnap), Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Pedro Pascal (Javier Peña on Netflix’s Narcos) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), most of whom, with the exception of Pascal, are wasted. Inexcusably, the movie sidelines, early on, the character of Roxy – the female rival for Kingsman acceptance in the first film – thereby removing one of the more dynamic relationships from the narrative.
Inventive at times, mediocre through most of its length, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is by no means a total loss, though at 140 minutes it overstays its welcome by at least 30 minutes. Interestingly, Elton John is not the only “John” featured in the film: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” plays a big part towards the end, much as it did in Steven Soderbergh’s recent Logan Lucky (which, in a strange coincidence, also starred Channing Tatum). What should we read into this doubling? Nothing, except for a failure of imagination. It’s a pleasant-enough little earworm, though, so why not give it a listen?