I really had trouble with the first Kingsman. I didn’t exactly think that Matthew Vaughn’s take on Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ Secret Service was a bad film necessarily, most Vaughn films have a base-level of storytelling competency that’s hard to really call unwatchable by any stretch, but that initial Kingsman entry – despite taking a fun spin on the Roger Moore-era Bond pictures – had a deeply ugly core that is sadly a bit of a hallmark of a lot Millar’s current day, creator-owned work. I probably had other criticisms of it too, but I have no interest in revisiting the thing other than to say it was an often unpleasant experience from a filmmaker whose work I often like (Layer Cake, X-Men: First Class, Stardust).
But it was again that fannish tendency towards Vaughn’s work that prompted me to bother with the sequel. I thought perhaps will all the origin brouhaha out of the way, he’d be able to embrace the wall to wall aesthetic of parody, the elements of the original that worked best, and maybe even sand off some of those edges that caused the first film to largely topple. Funny, he ends up doing at least the latter, but it actually makes the sequel even worse. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.
This entry, subtitled The Golden Circle picks up with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) fully ensconced in his role of “Gallahad” within the Kingsman organization. He is immediately attacked by a returning out of the blue Charlie, and between the two of them they have a fairly exciting, if perhaps fake looking battle through the streets of London within Eggsy’s private car. Due to machinations of Charlie’s plot, the evil Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) and her Golden Circle team (a sort of pseudo-SPECTRE by way of 1950’s suburbia) strikes out at the Kingsman organization and leaves Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) as men with little in the way of resources – and in Eggsy’s case, even a home. Their effort of last resort, called the “Doomsday Protocol”, finds them pulling a bottle of Kentucky bourbon out of safe that, in turn, leads them to discovering assistance where they’d least expect it.
It’s a tried and true arc really, that same sort of Born Again/our heroes pulling themselves from the gutters to conquer the bad guy with nothing else but their wits and skillset trope – and had The Golden Circle focused on this sort of redemption arc, that could have led to something pretty fun and easy to gravitate to. Unfortunately that’s basically where this film’s adventurous streak ends. As soon as they discover their American counterparts overseas, this sequel is instantly bogged down with what amount to glorified cameos for exciting star-wattage from Channing Tatum (despite what the marketing would lead you to believe) and Jeff Bridges. While we’re on the subject of Bond-style parodies: the closest this go-round gets to some of the sharper wit of its predecessor is its utilization of the Statesman team as a sort of Felix Leiter-like stand-in. But someone forgot to remind the production team Leiter is often the most boring characters in that franchise, and now we get a whole team of them? Sadly, the one we have to spend the most time with is a hokey cowboy played by Pedro Pascal, who is basically unwatchable throughout.
Working my way through this one, it was becoming clear pretty quickly to me that Vaughn and his ongoing writing partner Jane Goldman really didn’t have another story to tell here. There’s a quick moment or two, where some life was breathed into it by some clever satire that made great use of Bruce Greenwood as a sort of Trump-like stand-in, and a tad bit of commentary regarding the legality of illicit substances, but it’s all very fleeting and either much of the meat of that material hit the cutting room floor, or Vaughn was simply too afraid to go any further with it beyond an extremely surface-level view. Instead, we spend significant stretches of running time with interminable scenes of Eggsy trying to navigate relationship landminds with Princess Tilde, or perhaps even more egregious, having to witness Colin Firth, one of the world’s finest actors, sleepwalking through turgid scenes of him trying to break through what should be affectionately termed as “plot amnesia”. And their one, fairly humorous gag, involving a particularly famous and unexpected cameo, gets run right into the ground before the credits roll.
There’s just a sense of laziness throughout, as if the demands on the sequel came more from production notes (“We need to make it more American!” “We need to make it just a bit less offensive!”). While the latter point was something, on paper, that would be welcome to this viewer – as it turns out, Vaughn didn’t really have much else to fill that time with, and yet somehow still managed to crank out a nearly 2 and half hour movie. Of course this is done through stuffing it to the brim with badly staged and overly mannered action sequences, with the superhuman element cranked to the fore, that somehow this series no longer becomes a parody of the British spy genre, but instead, what amounts to your standard superhero slog. There’s a good chance there’s a decent 90 minute feature in here, then again, I’m not totally convinced of that either, you’d at least need to come up with a plot worthy of even that shortened time-frame.
How we’ve failed so badly as a people that Firth has to star in crap like this? This is not how I wanted my A Single Man reunion to go.