“Kingsman: The Secret Service” was a nice piece of 2014 action escapism that offered a wide variety of visuals, styles, and memorable characters to become a surprise must see hit of that year. Three years later we finally got a sequel although this time the stakes are higher, even though the overall presentation of the film is a bit of a step back. “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” isn’t really a bad film per say. It’s fun and it certainly gives us everything we hoped to see to remind us why the first film was so awesome, but that’s really all it does. Despite its attempts to expand the lore of its universe and even work in new characters and a new villain, “The Golden Circle’ doesn’t quite capture the same magic as its predecessor making for a lackluster, albeit enjoyable, second entry in this young franchise.
“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” picks up some time after the original film (exactly how long is never really said) with Taron Egerton’s Eggsy now a full-fledged and active top agent in the Kingsman ranks. After Eggsy is attacked by an old foe, Edward Holcroft reprising his role as Charlie from the first movie, the Kingsmen attempt to unravel the mystery behind the seemingly random attack, learning of a secret drug rings called The Golden Circle. The cartel is operated by Poppy Adams, played by Julianne Moore, who seeks to infect users of her drug with a disease to hold lives hostage in exchange for the legalization of all drugs in the Untied States. To keep the Kingsman organization off her tail Poppy eradicates their headquarters and all of their agents, except for Eggsy and Mark Strong’s Merlin, leaving the two to team up with the organization’s American counterparts, the Statesmen, to put an end to Poppy’s plans.
“The Golden Circle” starts off well enough with a fantastic chase scene that immediately reminds us of the fast paced and unique filming style of the original, but soon the movie seems to lose its way. “The Golden Circle” had so much going for it there were bound to be a few holes that reared their ugly heads, but this movie has way too many to count. As “The Golden Circle” progresses we are bombarded with forgettable new characters, major plot holes, a less-than-stellar villain and, if I must say, too few real action set pieces that all play out as a jumbled, rushed mess really.
Let’s start with the performances and characters. Once again Taron Egerton portrays Eggsy but now the young agents seems much more suave and confident in his abilities as a Kingsman. To Egerton’s credit Eggsy is much more likable in this movie than he was in the first film, and that’s saying something considering he was pretty likable to begin with. There is an obvious transformation that has occurred over time where Eggsy, now void of his mentor Harry Hart, has had to take the reigns himself and truly embrace life as a secret agent. This makes for a delightful character that is well developed, likable, and relatable and for the most part Eggsy is the best part of this film maintaining many of the same traits and even showing some growth from his time in the first film.
The other more familiar figures that return were given a bit of their own character building to appreciate as well. While several other notable returnees from the first film are unceremoniously axed at the very beginning, Colin Firth’s Harry Hart, aka, Galahad, returns as does Mark Strong’s Merlin and they are really the only other characters with any true smooth development throughout the rest of the film. Firth does his best to recapture the attitude and composure of Galahad, despite starting the movie with amnesia due to the events of the first movie, and Strong’s Merlin is given some surprising depth. Between these two characters and Eggsy we are reminded of why we loved these characters, and that should be the goal of any film, to build on or even improve on the quality and adventure of the original. Both Merlin and Galahad may not be quite a charming as they were in the first movie, but they’re both welcome additions to the film that are significant to the plot and serve as both fanfare and truly worthy aspects of the first movie that help establish continuity.
The same can’t be said for the new characters of this movie, which are all lackluster additions at best to the “Kingsman” universe. The biggest additions are the Statesmen, the United States counterparts to the British Kingsman group who use a whisky distillery as their cover opposed to the Kingsman’s tailor shop. Making up the Statesmen are Tequila, played by Channing Tatum, Ginger Ale, played by Halle Berry, Champagne, played by Jeff Bridges, and Whiskey, played by Pedro Pascal. Unfortunately Whiskey is the only one of these character we really get to know. If I’m being honest the whole Statesmen gimmick is a bit too much for me in this film. To use a word, it’s contrived. The Statesmen feel out of place and none of them are really well developed or worthy of recognition if I’m being honest. Most of all though, the Statesmen kind of take away from the charm of the entire series. The first movie was well liked because of its embrace of English culture and its more professional approach to the concept of being a secret agent. To put it bluntly the addition of the Statesmen results in a more “Americanized” approach to the film making “The Golden Circle” feel more like a crossover or team up than a true continuation of the previous movie. Even the attempt to redux the events of the previous movie to justify the existence of the Statesmen and Galahad’s survival seems forced and horribly handled.
Then there’s the villain, Poppy Adams, who is actually pretty well played by Julianne Moore who gives a slight innocence and calm to Poppy that actually makes her a pretty intimidating figure. It should be commended that writer/director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman succeeded in their goal of making Poppy a villain we may not like, but one we may be able to agree with. While her anti-drug war mission may come off as extremely heavy handed, Poppy herself is a pretty interesting character but she pails in comparison to Samuel L. Jackson’s Vincent Valentine from the first movie. Poppy just doesn’t hold up to her predecessor and while Moore does turn in an entertaining and devious take on the drug lord her character suffers, perhaps, from a case of worn out novelty. We saw a quirky, over the top villain in the previous film that, honestly, was much better developed. Poppy might have her moments but she is a big step backwards and, at the end of the day, is actually kind of a slightly altered clone of Valentine with a similar global plan, a similar outlook on the world, and even depends on a sidekick with an artificial limb to do her dirty work. Despite her unique characterization everything that makes her interesting is borrowed from the first film which, ironically, is a perfect way to describe this movie as a whole.
Most of all “The Golden Circle” suffers from a horrendous pace and choppy presentation and while we get the great action, colorful and animated fight scenes, and the same old genre-references we loved about the first movie we don’t get a whole lot more. “The Golden Circle” is just not as well shot or as well presented as the first film. The story isn’t smooth, the new characters are underdeveloped, the fight and action scenes are few and far between, and the filmmakers seemed to be content with just taking what worked and trying to emulate it rather than build on it. When the action does pick up the film is actually a lot of fun and the underlying theme touching on the hypocrisies and dangers associated with the war on drugs are noble, but all the fun and subtlety of its message are lost in a mess of choppy cuts and a story that never really finds its footing.
“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” does deserve credit for being a fun action flick and a great bit of escapism. New gadgets are introduced and the violence is amped up as the film successfully recaptures the mind numbing joy that made the first movie such a gem. The only problem is “The Golden Circle” merely emulates its predecessor and makes little effort outside of the inclusion of new tools and agents to really build on what was done much better before. “The Golden Circle” may give us everything we wanted to see, but that’s essentially the problem. It doesn’t give us anything else. When a sequel merely reminds us how great the first movie was then it’s not truly a success. It doesn’t effectively add to the “Kingsman” saga in satisfying way and settles for pandering to the lowest common denominator in its fan base, giving viewers what they wanted but not what they needed to further invest themselves in what this series is all about.
As I said, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is not a bad film and it is a heck of a lot of fun, but it’s not what it could have and should have been. Granted it had big shoes to fill, but “The Golden Circle” tries too hard to add new elements to the “Kingsman” universe with few truly unique or quality results and while it hits the mark in terms of bringing back the action and artistic approach that made the first movie so great to watch its own story offers nothing truly memorable to set itself apart as a great film in its own right. Messy, unpolished, and rushed, “The Golden Circle” had so much potential and while what we got is an okay and passable movie going experience, it can’t hold a candle to its predecessor and, as a result, is an unfortunate step backwards for an otherwise promising series.