This article was first published to The Edge on 22nd September 2017
It’ll be a cliché by the time you read this, but if you disliked Kingsman: The Secret Service, you’ll probably hate The Golden Circle. What made that film so surprising upon its release cannot be replicated, because it was Matthew Vaughn going all in on button-pushing non-winking satire. Repeating the brazen opening, the church sequence, or Pomp and Circumstance fireworks would only have diminishing returns, no matter how laser-pointed the jokes were. The only way to make a sequel that lives up to that watermark is to do something that develops the characters in new directions. That requires a story as finely-tuned as the first’s, which is something The Golden Circle doesn’t even come close to having.
What it does have is another nakedly callous villain’s plot to make money and kill people, shown when the Kingsmen, reeling from a devastating attack, meet Poppy (Julianne Moore). This CEO of the titular cartel has targeted our heroes, in order to protect her plan to bend the will of anti-drug politicians. But following their one lead, a bottle of Statesman whiskey, leads Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) to their American cousins in espionage – who have a guest in the basement.
Accusations that Vaughn was being obscenely conservative in the first film will find it hard to stick the same this time. Here, the director has bundled all his political opinions into a landmine of impossible-to-miss satire: classism, the war on drugs, corporate CEO culture, the prison system, and the new guy in U.S. politics are all targets (through genius casting, Vaughn even finds a fresh take on that last one). These searing swipes all play out in plot terms however, disconnected from the protagonists’ journeys, what little there is.
Here, we’re presented with a targeted demolishing of the outdated “stiff-upper-lip, no time to be emotional” cultural personality of Britain, in a neat tandem with how the first looked to tackle the same’s aesthetic values. Or at least, that’s where it appears we’re headed, until the film decides that the plot wasn’t complex enough, and it throws in double-crosses, marriage proposals, and the already-spoiled return of Colin Firth’s Harry Hart.
Vaughn’s eye for actors gave us the epitome of class conflict on the first swing. Combined with his and Jane Goldman’s writing, Kingsman had a cast of characters that played as authentic representations where it counted, whilst still striking satirical notes. Unfortunately, although the casting of the Statesmen and Poppy herself couldn’t be more delightful, the writing never leaves parody land. That’s okay for some: Jeff Bridges’ fatherly Champagne is basically a cameo, while Channing Tatum as Tequila gets one hell of an entrance before going on ice. On the other hand, the late arrival of a key piece of Whiskey’s (Pedro Pascal) backstory makes him another of the film’s missed opportunities, charismatic as Pascal’s performance may be. It’s Moore’s deranged Poppy that steals the show, relishing her sheer madness behind plastic presentation, despite her conspicuous removal from the rest of the cast.
She also represents the film’s disregard for any nuance in the female characters: all of them are either “incapacitated” or “Bad Guy”. This applies not just to franchise newcomer Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), and the criminally underused Sophie Cookson as Roxy (it’s as bad as you’re thinking), but also Hannah Alström, returning as Princess Tilde. Her scenes with Eggsy, now her long-term boyfriend, are beyond sweet, and they make for a subversive pair, yet this over-correcting apology is undercut by that binary. Not to mention the now de rigour sex joke-Bond-trope one-upping, in a scene that goes way beyond uncomfortable – at least this time the protagonist agrees with the audience.
Taron Egerton’s Eggsy remains this series’ biggest asset. Above the polished pop design and the wackadoo-bounce of the action sequences, is the subversiveness of this vulnerable, working-class hero assuming Galahad’s mantle. He (and the film) is at his best in the contrast between sensational displays of superhuman ass-kickery and the emotional moments where Eggsy’s bravado vanishes. I thought I could tell how his grief for his mentor would play into the film’s central theme, but once Harry’s reinstated, this unique angle is unceremoniously abandoned, leaving Eggsy with little left to do on a character level. When he finally winds up in another unfamiliar situation above his station, this time he hasn’t grown in the slightest.
The slick sequences are still present – if for nothing else, editor Eddie Hamilton helps make Vaughn’s panache for action amongst the most visually dynamic in the business – the camera zig-zagging with the grace of a drunk free-runner. But a ski-resort detour is a weightless bore, and the CGI elongated takes give the impression that they wanted to top the church sequence in completely the wrong context. It’s not just the action sequences that operate with Looney Tunes logic: in this world, megalomaniac plots just happen, apparently, don’t think about it too much. Although none of it’s as outlandish as Fox News showing any sympathy for imperilled drug users.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), directed by Matthew Vaughn, is distributed in the UK by 20thCentury Fox, Certificate 15.