by Joe Hammerschmidt
To say that Kingsman: The Golden Circle improves any on its predecessor would be inaccurate. At best, it manages to stack itself right on the same level with its 2015 predecessor, albeit without some minor frustrations, which thankfully don’t weigh down its entertainment value. Leave it to Matthew Vaughn, who once again picks and chooses carefully what elements are worth rehashing, reconstructing, and leaving alone, with a few surprises (welcome and otherwise unsettling), and there’s enough to still leave the audience second-guessing themselves all the way through.
The first example that manages to frustrate and leave me wanting more: the surprise return of Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), a Kingsman trainee-turned-reject-turned-defected-bad-guy, just seeking simple revenge on the gallant Eggsy (Taron Egerton). While I can understand the necessity of this second film essentially completing the missing piece of his backstory left over from the previous adventure, there could’ve been a million more original ways to introduce us to the outlandish world of the sequel’s key antagonist.
One look into the lair of drug kingpin (or queenpin?) Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), and it’s like stepping into a tormented version of Main Street USA, complete with your usual amenities; pro-cannibalism cafe, sadistic salon and a quaint theater with nightly performances from Sir Elton John, who delivers the largest laughs throughout his self-ironic cameo. Through his past Kingsman ties, Charlie has been recruited by Poppy to more or less infiltrate the opposition, and promote her own line of contaminated product, meant to eliminate the largest fraction of substance abusers on the planet, making for a generous back-and-forth between our villain and an unsettlingly parodic caricature of the American president (Bruce Greenwood), while also posting an equally faux overreliance on the foibles of Fox News as a plot movement device.
Eggsy, aka the current Galahad, and trainer Merlin (Mark Strong) make the hesitant travel to the States, seeking assistance from their exceedingly American counterparts known as Statesman, doubling as a high-profit distillery (opposed to Kingsman as a tailor shop). We’re treated to plenty of new characters, all named after fancier drinks. First and foremost, Channing Tatum as Tequila, the pretty boy/bad boy of the team, whose performance is literally wasted upon, eventually relegated to a silent third-act motivator; Champagne (Jeff Bridges) is the charismatic leader who just envelops much-needed enthusiasm; Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) carries a little violent energy and a heavy conscience in a deadly lasso, but is lost on his own purpose; and Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) fares best serving as their tech support, and the necessary go-between the English transplants and a mold of clay that drops back onto their laps.
This brings us to our second source of frustration: bringing back a character who should’ve stayed dead. Bringing back Harry, the original Galahad (Colin Firth) in more than flashbacks was a smart move and a welcome encore for one of the more honest performances in the first film. But to push the once-established agent through an intense recovery period from retrograde amnesia poses a distraction, not just for him but for the rest of the film. It’s not enough to completely halt the action, but just slow it down a few notches that it adds up. Firth’s general screen presence maintains the balance, just barely enough to forgive its self-inflicted error.
The same phenomenon can be counted towards Eggsy’s romantic prospects with Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), likely our third valuable source of frustration. Previously a bad one-note joke in the very tail end of chapter one, she is now vindicated as the steady girlfriend, with a few decent scenes; the tension brought upon the pair when invited to dinner with the king and queen is the stuff of sitcom cliches, yet posts enough of a rewarding (or detrimental) consequence. While the pair look cute together, and Eggsy is given enough push to ensure he sees his mission through to get back to his intended, it doesn’t mean any tension between them falls below warrant. The guilt he experiences when trying to bed another woman just for implanting a tracking device deep inside her body core (and the close-ups that come with) is justified, but the approach is otherwise cheapened by Vaughn’s need to keep a tight, brisk pace.
A quick intensity only works when faced with the rawest of action moments, of which Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) ensure a very ample supply. As expected, it raises the bar a little higher from the first time, exploring how to stretch the meaning of “over-the-top” for a modern audience. If you don’t know Vaughn’s work already, and if you weren’t a fan of the predecessor, you will feel incredibly uncomfortable by the stunts, the scenes which harken back to old-school spy flicks, and of course the gruesome deaths (many in number, though not quite as flashy as in the first).
If one were to peg the center of the universe around which this film revolves, it is once again Taron Egerton, who made a gravity-bending tentpole film debut in the original, and now in the sequel elevated to established suave action hero. Even after a year passing between films, Eggsy (and Egerton) is just as awkward as before, as heartwarming, and as steady a rock, particularly with the organization always in a constant state of crumbling apart.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle runs the same risk, especially in pushing a rather long runtime. It doesn’t necessarily overstay its welcome, yet the film experiences more than one climax, leading to a certain overkill, if not justified by a third installment. Certain happenstances occur in the last half-hour that one hopes can be forgiven by allowing our new characters, but particularly Tatum’s, to expand their roles in a possible third installment. By missing its intended target, this second Kingsman doesn’t necessarily stand out as its own film; it’s nonetheless a great sequel, despite several points of lagging. With a quality ensemble cast, genius writing and locales, and a great shape of promise for things to come, it simply plays better as a middle third to what could be a great trilogy. The first film’s a genius work, second falls just under the cut, third could restore balance. We’ll see how the opening weekend goes. (C+)
Kingsman: The Golden Circle opens this weekend at most area theaters; rated R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout and some sexual material; 141 minutes.