3 out of 5 stars

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) was fantastic in every respect. I’m assuming that anyone wanting to watch this sequel agrees Matthew Vaughn set the bar rather high! With Kingsman: The Golden Circle, we’re immediately back on familiar ground, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) exiting the Kingsman tailors shop and being confronted by Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft)—didn’t his head explode? All will be revealed, later…

The next 10-minutes welcomes us in with spectacular close-quarter fight inside a London cab, as it speeds past recognisable landmarks, avoiding heavy artillery fire from three pursuers. The super-charged chase ends with the deployment of guided missiles in Hyde Park, before the black cab transforms into a submersible and disappears into the lake—an obvious homage to the iconic Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). We appear to be in safe hands, and why shouldn’t we be? The Golden Circle comes from exactly the same writing and production team.

The next half-hour settles us in nicely, with the ever-loyal Eggsy hanging-out with his mates from the street, and now in a relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). There’s a light-hearted scene where he goes to dinner with her parents, but this is swiftly followed by disaster as Kingsman is unexpectedly and completely destroyed. Then we get to meet the evil villainess, Poppy (Julianne Moore) in her secret base inspired entirely by 1950s American nostalgia—soda bars, donut shops, salons, bowling alleys, and burgers. And so the tone is set for a play-off of British tradition vs. American pop culture, as Eggsy (now codenamed Galahad) teams up with Merlin (Mark Strong) as the only surviving Kingsman agents, and head to North America to seek out their US counterparts, the Statesman.

Now, I would’ve thought the Americanisation of Golden Circle was an attempt to pander to a trans-Atlantic audience, but if we do some quick math, we can see that didn’t quite work. With a budget of $104 million, Golden Circle cost about $20 million more than Secret Service, earned a couple of million less on its opening weekend, but is only about $6 million behind in terms of global box-office gross. It remains about $30 million behind its predecessor in the US market, whereas in the rest of the world it’s taken the lead by nearly $20 million. So, everyone else seems to be enjoying Americans being made fun of, but maybe the Yanks can’t take a joke…

When I learned that Poppy’s secret base was hidden away in an ancient temple, in an Asian jungle, I hoped we were in for a crossover with Hong Kong-style action. Sadly not. Instead of bo staffs and nunchucks, we get bull-whips and lassoes. (Is it just me or is an electric lasso sillier than a tricked-up brolly?) I assume the idea of placing her base in the far east is some sort of poetic reversal of the ‘opium wars’ when, in the 1800s, a trade-war between Britain and China escalated into full-on military conflict, primarily over drug sales and the trade in ‘coolies’—people trafficking to compensate for labour shortages after the abolition of the slave trade. Themes of legalising drugs and the exploitation the labour market are both prominent in Golden Circle.

The film follows a fairly predictable path as the two true-Brits meet up with their rodeo-style US ‘cousins’ and there is plenty of ‘friendly’ rivalry. There’s one welcome “surprise” (had the marketing not spoiled it) that Colin Firth reprises his role as Eggsy’s mentor Harry Hart—didn’t he get shot in the head? All will be revealed, later….

It turns out that Poppy has flooded the world markets with contaminated drugs and only she has the antidote. So far so good, as the two Kingsman team up with a lasso-swirling, whip-lashing cowboy called Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to infiltrate a mountain base where Poppy is keeping the antidote. The ensuing cable-car sequence is literally the highpoint of the film and from then on it is pretty much downhill—again literally!

Somehow, the second half of The Golden Circle just seems to lose heart. In Secret Service, we had Eggsy’s home life and a subplot about his return to rescue his mother from the evil stepfather. We followed his My Fair Lady transformation from beginning to end. There was all the interplay among the Kingsmen cadets during training, too. In Golden Circle, that’s all lost in satire and CGI-fuelled set-pieces. There’s an emotional disconnect. The only heartfelt response I felt was brought on by the Mr. Pickles flashbacks, as the amnesiac Harry Hart regains his memory of who Galahad was.

One problem I have with Golden Circle is that it wants to play the ‘knowing’ political satire, but its politics are so confused. It’s heroes are elitist and conservative. Some claim they’re sexist, but no more so than James Bond. It is, of course, critical of the privileged upper-class, the driving premise being ‘what if that elite were to put their money to work for the benefit of mankind?’ Good question. But it also champions that group as our only hope against stupid governments and their corrupt politicians, failing to recognise their inextricable connection!

In Poppy, we have another villain born of the well-educated liberal intelligentsia with working-class roots. Like Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine from before, she’s shown to be in league with, or at least supported by, elected politicians. Whereas royalty and the hereditarily privileged are portrayed as solid and reliable. Does this come from irony, or from the deep-rooted royalist views of the creators? Or just another nod to Bond?

On the other hand, our hero comes from the street: Eggsy, a working-class boy made good… whose final accolade is the approval of those posh-nobs. He even marries into royalty! Or is it just doing the fairytale thing? Like Cinderella marries her Prince, Eggsy marries his Princess. There was so much bluster, bravado and downright brilliance in the first film that these issues never even crossed my mind, but the follow-up let my attention slip and left me with a niggling unease.

And then there’s Elton John. It’s one of those ideas that may have looked funny on paper, ends up being a bit of an in-joke (one of the newspaper headlines glimpsed in Secret Service proclaimed ‘Elton Gone’), but is just embarrassing. Of course, Elton’s a public figure with equally confused politics—a famed conservative and Tory supporter who’s also openly gay and refused to play at Trump’s inauguration.

Secret Service’s Valentine was actually sympathetic. He was a flawed genius with a fleshed-out backstory. We could see from his penchant for baseball caps and Happy Meals that he’d come from modest roots, to develop an impressive intelligence at the expense of emotional maturity. He was a software and tech billionaire with the kind of know-how and connections to develop weaponised SIM cards and call-in favours when he needs control of a satellite network.

That’s sort of feasible, as I could accept an evil Steve Jobs or bad Bill Gates type of character, but  Poppy is just plain bonkers. She’s simply motivated by money and power in the purest comic-book villain sense. How does she have stealth missiles at her disposal worldwide, high-tech hacking abilities, super cyber dogs, and state-of-the-art androids? Presumably because she got so rich as a drug baroness she could just buy-in the tech? Although we do see her fitting a bionic arm onto Charlie, implying she may have invented it herself. This turns him into a pastiche of one of the sillier Bond henchmen, Richard Kiel’s ‘Jaws’. As stated in Secret Service: a film is only as good as its villain. How about, only as good as the villain’s henchman? Charlie would stand no chance against razor-limbed Gazelle (Sofia Boutella)!

Golden Circle doesn’t make too much sense. It tries to cover this up with fantastic action and cool set-pieces. This might’ve worked if those had been up to the audacious level of Secret Service, but they become slightly tedious. For the finale, we’re presented with a rather sterile, albeit tightly choreographed, three-way fight that, at moments, has the feel of stop-frame animation. It’s clear that we could have done with that Hong Kong-style crossover, perhaps some advice from John Woo?

kingsman - the golden circle

It’s telling that the distributors categorised Secret Service as an ‘action-adventure’, but marketed Golden Circle as an ‘action-comedy’. The first Kingsman was an exuberant, irreverent homage to the spy films of yesteryear, tipping its hat to the likes of Our Man Flint (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Part 2 is much more of a send-up. Whereas the first film was sharp, the second is plain silly. Nothing in the Golden Circle compares to any of the jaw-dropping moments that happened in Secret Service, like the failed rescue attempt that introduced Gazelle, or the ultra-violent massacre in the right-wing church and, of course, the coordinated technicolour exploding heads.

In some ways it’s a worthy sequel, delivering plenty of the expected action and immature humour… but it also feels like the middle chapter of a trilogy and leaves audiences unsatisfied. Kingsman 3 has already been announced and Vaughn has mentioned the possibility of a Statesman spin-off, with rumours this may be developed as a TV series. Perhaps the next instalment will explain where all those thousands of bespoke portable cages come from and, more importantly, what happened to the new Mr. Pickles?

Cast & Crew

director: Matthew Vaughn.
writers: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn.
starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum & Jeff Bridges.