Excised from its hulking 141-minute running time, the opening sequence of Kingsman: The Golden Circle would make a dynamite audition tape for director Matthew Vaughn, if not an award-winning music video. We’re not yet acclimated into the film’s space-time, but its lead character, millennial super-spy Eggsy (Taron Egerton) nearly dies about 20 times.
He’s just getting off work when he’s thrown into a cab on London’s Savile Row, just outside the secret headquarters of the Kingsman intelligence agency. Thus begins an epic sequence of hand-to-bionic-hand combat with a partially mechanized thug that you won’t remember is Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a Kingsman reject from the first film, The Secret Service. Eggsy and Charlie are worthy adversaries, and we cringe in our seats as our hero is tossed like a horseshoe in, around, astride and atop the taxi, which careers through the metropolitan streets like a B-side from Baby Driver.
The problem with this inciting incident is that it is, by far, the film’s most exhilarating sequence. There’s no place to go but down and back — namely to the well of The Secret Service, one of the more inspired action-comedies of the past decade. Like many unplanned sequels, The Golden Circle is filled with retreads and callbacks, marinating in its mythology to the point of myopia.
Want more of Colin Firth as gentleman-spy extraordinaire Harry Hart, quipping in polysyllables to single-celled thugs in pubs? So what if he died in the first Kingsman? That bold stroke can be erased through the callow magic of revisionist screenwriting. Likewise, some of the original Kingsman’s most brazen scenes — the bedroom filling with water, the Kingsmans’ final challenge to shoot a puppy — are revisited in stale contexts, like leftovers from a superior meal.
If the challenge of a successful sequel is to capture a winning film’s spirit without Xeroxing its particulars, Vaughn fails. That said, there are fun moments from an impressively curated cast. With their entire European infrastructure decimated by a cyberattack, the Kingsman agency is forced to collaborate with its American counterpart, the Statesman, a rough-and-tumble outfit hidden behind the front of a Kentucky whiskey distillery.
This results in the expected culture clashes between the knightly Kingsman and the cowboy Statesman, the latter personified by Channing Tatum’s six-shooting Tequila, Pedro Pascal’s lasso master Jack Daniels, and Halle Berry’s under-utilized tech support Ginger Ale, with Jeff Bridges revisiting Hell or High Water territory as Champagne, Statesman’s rangy director.
The plot takes our heroes from the Glastonbury Music Festival to the mountaintops of Switzerland to the jungles of South Asia, but none of its set pieces even approach the satirical, nihilistic zenith of the original Kingsman’s church slaughter. Also missing is The Secret Service’s wit. There’s a lot of comedy in The Golden Circle, but it’s mostly comprised of easy, juvenile potshots. The funniest line in the movie — you’ll know it when you hear it — is also a cheap ageist one-liner. You’ll laugh, but you won’t be proud of yourself.
Where both movies unequivocally excel is in their cast-against-type villains. The Secret Service’s lispy, bespectacled tech magnate-gone-bad Samuel J. Jackson is replaced here by Julianne Moore as an unlikely druglord with a penchant for ’50s nostalgia. Having conquered the entire illicit drug market, she has fashioned a checkerboard-floor-and-jukebox utopia in the depths of a Cambodian jungle, where she has begun to spread a fatal disease in all of her millions of clients. It can only be cured by her antidote, which she’ll only drone-release to the masses if the American president (Bruce Greenwood, sporting a red tie, but the imitation ends there) formally agrees to end the war on drugs and legalize her business.
This franchise delights in crossing our wires, having gifted us with two arch-villains operating on kernels of informed policy: Jackson’s Richmond Valentine wanted to protect the earth through population reduction, and Moore’s Poppy Adams seeks to end a so-called “war” that has been failing for more than three decades. Like rooting for the heel in professional wrestling, we delight in their every scene, but this is a backhanded compliment: The heroes, it seems, are not terribly exciting.
KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE. Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson; Director: Matthew Vaughn; Distributor: Fox; Opens: Friday at most area theaters