The sequel to 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is hardly more than a ritualistic exercise in the law of diminishing returns. Matthew Vaughn returns to direct, delivering a second entry guilty of nearly every violation for which subpar sequels are known. Formula is favored over invention, gags are recycled, and characterization is ignored. With a star-studded cast and undeniable thrills, the film certainly has its moments, but a pervasive sloppiness and lack of energy prevent The Golden Circle from capturing the lightning in a bottle the second time.
For those unfamiliar, Kingsman involves a secret, independent intelligence agency in Britain with manners and gadgetry to spare. In the first film, agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) recruited young Eggsy (Taron Egerton), and lost his life to a genocidal maniac (Samuel L. Jackson). In the sequel, the Kingsman are reduced to Eggsy and agent Merlin (Mark Strong) when a peppy drug lord (Julianne Moore) destroys their facilities. The remaining Kingsman subsequently team up with the American-born Statesman, who are revealed to be nursing a hazy Harry back to health.
On its surface, the original Kingsman resembled just another classed-up, James Bond-inspired action flick. A few minutes in, however, and it was clear Matthew Vaughn had different intentions. Rather than a serviceable espionage thriller, the director used the material as a vehicle for his blend of gleeful black humor and gratuitous violence first showcased in 2010’s Kick-Ass. In addition to a terrific cast and flawless action sequences, the first Kingsman offered an exhilarating stylistic spin in the vein of Tarantino, though it certainly had its share of flaws.
With The Golden Circle, however, the rough patches are more frequent and harder to ignore. In the film’s greatest offense, Harry’s death in the first film is absurdly negated. In The Secret Service, Vaughn utilized cheeky meta-humor to mock the lack of spine in standard action-thrillers when Harry was audaciously killed in the second act. By reanimating him in The Golden Circle, however, Kingsman is no better than the rest. Not only does he now exist in a world where a head shot doesn’t guarantee death, but Firth’s groggy, amnesiac Harry lacks his crackerjack magnetism.
Though the first movie hardly qualified as a character study, it certainly had more to offer than The Golden Circle. While the 2015 film focused on Eggsy’s fatherless past, the sequel features Eggsy’s frivolous relationship with stuffy-and-stale Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). Tilde was barely involved with the first film, appearing briefly for expositional purposes before returning in the final moments to cap the film on a racy gag. The Golden Circle ludicrously treats her as a meaningful character, and her romance with Eggsy falls flat as lazy throwaway material.
While the expansions to the cast inevitably emanate a lack of ideas, the rustic Statesman offer an effective counterbalance to the Kingsman’s tightly coiled elitism. Channing Tatum amuses with country acumen, and Jeff Bridges towers with an air of redneck authority. Halle Berry is sprightly yet forgettable, but Pedro Pascal injects a Zorro-esque vigor. Julianne Moore’s chirpy Poppy makes for a menacing villain, but she doesn’t compete with Samuel L. Jackson. Though Firth is impeded by poor writing, returning stars Egerton and Mark Strong dependably satisfy.
When Vaughn first adapted a Mark Millar comic with 2010’s Kick-Ass, he stirred up a firestorm of controversy related to violence in media. While a preteen girl slaying dozens of grown men is certainly edgy, nothing should offend sensibility like the scene in The Secret Service when Harry slaughtered a congregation of rowdy churchgoers to an upbeat rock song. Vaughn’s depiction of violence here doesn’t quite approach questionable territory to the level of his previous films, but a thread where the president laughs off the impending deaths of millions is certainly interesting.
Though Vaughn has backed off on his elated treatment of bloodshed, his offbeat sense of humor has only intensified. A scene involving a hamburger will surely sour your appetite for quite some time. Overall, Vaughn’s knack for unnerving black humor doesn’t quite hit the mark this time, nor does the infectious spark that made the first film such a delight. With the new Statesman, The Golden Circle boasts plenty of star talent and technical wizardry, but Vaughn’s handling of action and style lacks the discipline that elevated The Secret Service above commonplace spy fare.