I loved director Matthew Vaughan's 2014 James-Bond-on-speed spy extravaganza Kingsman: The Secret Service. That film, adapted from the graphic novels by famed author Mark Millar (Kick Ass) took everything the world loved about the world's favorite martinio enthusiast and cranked it up to eleven, delivering a high octane action cartoon populated by memorable characters and featuring handsome relative newcomer Taron Egerton in the lead as the chavvy super spy in training, Eggsy. Trained by no less an expert in proper posh manners than Colin Firth's spy-cum-mentor Galahad, Eggsy took on a megalomanical tech magnate played with lispy verve by Samuel L Jackson and saved the world in a technicolor ballet of absurd violence and ridiculous spy tropes.
In Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Eggsy is now Galahad the spy - with the prior owner of that handle having seemingly bitten the bullet towards the climax of the first film - and he's settling into his new position as keeper of the peace quite well (not to mention filling out those Saville Row bespoke suits impeccably). One day as he's leaving the office, Eggsy is accosted by perturbed Kingman reject Charlie (Edward Holcroft) leading to the film's first - of many, many, MANY - absurd action sequences while Eggsy attempts to escape by drifting his black cab through the streets of London with Charlie and crew in hot pursuit. While it appears that he gets away, Charlie gets just enough of a foothold to send the Kingsman an explosive message that leaves Eggsy and his Q, Mark Strong as the headstrong man-behind-the-screens, Merlin, grasping for revenge and stability in a world that seems to be falling apart around them.
As seemingly the last two remaining Kingsmen, Merlin and Eggsy intiate the Doosday Protocol, which links the Kingsman franchise with their American counterparts, the Statesmen. Housed surreptitiously in a bourbon distillery, the Statesmen are every bit the American rough-and-tumble stereotype opposite of their prim and proper British brethren. Led by Champagne (Jeff Bridges), and represented in spirit by Tequila (Channing Tatum), the two teams decide that the Kingsman's misfortune is alarming enough that it warrants a team up, and so begins the globe trotting adventure in this sequel that goes so far over the top that its hard to determine where it went wrong.
The primary antagonist this time is not a lisping technomaven, but a charming and beguiling drug kingpin named Molly (Julianne Moore) who is determined to take her business legit, but only on her own terms. Molly's methods are brutal, however, she never forgets to smile, even in the face of extreme adversity. She is a reaction to the recent decade's righteous crusade to allow women the agency to behave and present themselves as they see fit. She may be all smiles on the outside, but inside she's ruthless, the living embodiment of the rage that fills so many women who've tired of being told to smile day in and day out. The trick here is that she has everything in the world to smile about.
Much like Jackson's Valentine in the first film, Molly has the world by the balls and she's not afaid to call their bluff, which leads to a lot of very uncomfortable discussion in the film about the morality of drug use, abuse, and the dichotomy between prevention and treatment. It's an awfully heady concept for a film that seems so geared toward making its audience squeal with delight at every popped tendon and dismembered body, but perhaps that was Vaughan's way of sneaking a little bit of a message into the fireworks.
As Eggsy, Merlin, and the crew attempt to identify and destroy Molly's operation, Vaughan sneaks in several instances of genuine pathos. Eggsy is force to confront the dirty reality of international espionage in a way that Bond always avoided by placing him in a committed relationship back home in conflict with the need to play honey-pot on a mission. There is also the unlikely survival of Galahad from the first film (it's in the trailers, so it's hardly a spoiler at this point), and his reckoning with his own past and damaged sense of propriety. Then, of course, there is the over-arching debate between reform and rehabilitation of substance users, abusers, and addicts. It's all a bit heavy for a film that is so focused on visual splendor.
That all being said, if Kingsman: The Secret Service whet your whistle for over the top action, The Golden Circle is likely to scratch that itch so hard it'll definitely leave a mark. Unfortunately, for me, this was the film's biggest misstep. Where The Secret Service played a bit fast and loose with suspension of disbelief in terms of what an audience can accept, The Golden Circle does not care a whit for your preconceived notions of logic. We've gone through the looking glass from exagerrated reality to full-blown cartoon nonsense, and I just wasn't ready to follow them down that road.
Yes, The Secret Service featured an assassin whose both legs were replaced below the knees with razor sharp swords attached to springs, and there was a Busby Berkeley styled head-explosion extravaganza, but that pales in comparison to the constant disregard for intelligence shown by The Golden Circle. While the hand-to-hand fight sequences are actually quite impressive, with Vaughan choosing to present them largely as single shot throw-downs, is is the barrage of ridiculous CG violence and characters that really throws me off. Couple that with a celebrity cmaeo that is fun the first time, but grows tiresome quickly, and you've really lost my interest far earlier than you should've.
I recognize that perhaps turning from film enthusiast to film critic has likely dimmed some of the magic I feel when I go to the cinema, but I know that the flame can still be lit, as was proved just a couple of weeks ago by Andy Muschietti's It. The audience in my screening was hooting with laughter, often when there wasn't even the slightest hint of a joke or gag to be seen, but I found myself rolling my eyes far more often than pumping my fist, and that's never a good sign. Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn't a bad movie, it's the logical extension of the goodwill that Matthew Vaughan bought with the success of The Secret Service, I'm afraid it just wasn't for me, and that's sad.