(2017—Director: Matthew Vaughn)
(out of 5 stars)
“Manners…maketh…man. Let me translate that for you.” — Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to some Kentucky bar thugs
When writer-producer-director Matthew Vaughn released Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2015, audiences loved it for its stylized action sequences, charismatic characters, and slick aesthetics. Critics gave Kingsman positive notices as well, although the excessive violent and sexual moments did not impress them as much. I fell into the latter camp, especially when I found towards the year’s end that many mainstream-inclined film buffs kept Kingsman in their top ten lists for 2015—a year I praise as the strongest of the current decade due to a large handful of films I prefer over Kingsman. That experience made me cautious about the sequel, subtitled The Golden Circle. My experience of watching it did everything to confirm my worries. The Golden Circle doubles down on the stylized action sequences, slick aesthetics, and over-the-top violent and sexual moments. These, combined with cheap uses of beloved pop songs, come at the cost of a compelling story that would have made better use of the expanded, transatlantic cast.
A year has passed since Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Eddie the Eagle) grew from a mere working-class London teenager to a full-fledged agent of Kingsman, an independent British intelligence service. His newest adversary is the fiendish drug trafficker Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, Still Alice, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), aided by rejected Kingsman applicant Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft, The Sense of an Ending, BBC Two’s Wolf Hall). To make easier her goal of blackmailing the U.S. government to legalize all narcotics, Poppy bombs the Kingsman’s headquarters and eliminates its agents. Only Eggsy and tech operative “Merlin” (Mark Strong, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Imitation Game) manage to survive. With little resources at their disposal to save the world from Poppy, the two seek the assistance of their American counterparts, the Kentucky-based Statesman (consisting primarily of Jeff Bridges as “Champagne/Champ”, Channing Tatum as “Tequila”, Halle Berry as “Ginger Ale”, and Pedro Pascal as star agent “Whiskey”).
From the opening car chase/fight scene onwards, Kingsman: The Golden Circle becomes a routine of slick, cartoonish action setpiece after another slick, cartoonish action setpiece. A well-known pop song dominates the soundtrack in most cases. Yet while Baby Driver’s eclectic and calculated jukebox mix from earlier this year joyously directed each of that film’s scenes, the use of catchy songs in The Golden Circle comes off as easy and safe. They are cheap ploys to keep the audience engaged in case the action loses their attention.
In addition to the occasional emotional scenes that range between contrived and ludicrous, The Golden Circle throws in moments of over-the-top violence that feel more at home in writer-director Vaughn’s Kick-Ass films than in Kingsman’s pastiche of classic James Bond. Yes, James Bond too has a few instances of villains meeting their end through some sort of rapid-moving blade or shredder. However, rarely (if at all) does that franchise show blood and gore to the extent reached by The Golden Circle’s two deaths via meat mincer. Worse yet, classic spy films would never go so far as to have the meat mincer’s human output transformed into an old school American hamburger that the head villainess then forces her newest lackey to eat. As for sexuality, no amount of noble relationship testing can justify the film’s ridiculous “finger condom transmitter”, which factors into one of 2017’s most cringe-worthy scenes. The Golden Circle’s slack emotional journey and exaggerated violence and sexuality feed into each other in a clumsy, disgusting fashion, all under a dapper espionage façade.
Yet even with that façade, the first Kingsman found strength in its cast and distinguishing which characters to emphasize with clarity. The Golden Circle clocks in at 141 minutes, over ten minutes longer than the first film, and tries with little success to divide those extra ten minutes among six additional cast members. Channing Tatum gets a cool introduction before getting sidelined for much of the story. Jeff Bridges barks orders from the Statesman’s meeting room and not much else. A Kingsman-Statesman fling between tech operatives “Merlin” and “Ginger Ale” (think the English butler and the American housekeeper from 1998’s The Parent Trap remake) would have made better use of Halle Berry. Pedro Pascal’s “Whiskey” holds perhaps the largest amount of screentime among the Statesman, yet Pascal somehow did not receive main cast billing in the film’s marketing. Popular musician Elton John, meanwhile, did get main cast billing, but given the cast’s size already, his extended cameo proves more distracting than purposeful, despite drawing many laughs from the audience behind me. Colin Firth’s return retroactively reduces the first film’s emotional resonance, regardless of whether his reveal had been present in the marketing or not. On a more positive note, Julianne Moore relishes playing the under-developed Poppy as a ditsy narcotics villainess who is nostalgic for the 1950s. Despite the extra ten minutes, The Golden Circle cannot do more than spread these colorful personalities thin.
Few types of films disturb me more than those that quietly regard lingering on gore and sleazy sexuality as normal and classy, even if they remain well-distanced from exploitation or borderline pornography. Matthew Vaughn may have made X-Men: First Class, my favorite entry in that franchise. Unfortunately, the works that are closer to Vaughn’s tastes, such as Kick-Ass and the Kingsman films, are often more bark than bite—that is, if each bark expelled saliva, champagne, and blood. No amount of pop songs, however beloved, can cover for an over-stylized effort to please.
(Parental Note: Kingsman: The Golden Circle has been rated R by the MPAA “for sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout, and some sexual material.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC and rated O (Morally offensive) by the Catholic News Service for containing “persistent, sometimes shocking, bloody violence, a scene of cannibalism, a drug theme, cohabitation, frivolously portrayed casual sex, some sexual humor, a couple of uses of profanity as well as pervasive rough and much crude language.”)