2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was a bit of a surprise hit — it took a somewhat-unknown actor (Taron Egerton) and put him at the center of a film that was part ultra-violent shoot-em-up, part Bond satire, but also part Bond homage. Based on Mark Millar’s Kingsman comics, it was a delightful bit of popcorn entertainment that was also surprisingly bloody and gruesome in parts, if comedically so. If there was a downside to it, it’s that it rushed through its script, but worse, it took its depictions of women to pretty unpleasant places, particularly at the end, where a woman gifts the protagonist with anal sex as a prize for rescuing her. It’s a nasty, unpleasant, and weirdly misogynistic attempt at humor that ultimately darkened my opinion of the entire movie.
Well, now we have its sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle and, well, it essentially takes all of the elements of its progenitor — the extreme violence, the wacky villains, the satirical homage to Bond, the unpleasant use of a woman as sexual gratification as a plot device — and ratchets it up. Tori Preston recently wrote about how the film is essentially critic-proof, and it’s easy to see why people feel that way. If you loved the first one, there’s a very good chance you’ll love the second, regardless of what I write.
And truth be told, there’s a lot to love! The story is as nonsensical as before — this time, a sweet, plucky drug lord named Poppy (Julianne Moore) has seized control of the world’s drug trade and is threatening to unleash a plague on the world’s drug users unless drugs are legalized (it’s a bit of a murky line of reasoning, but stay with me). As part of her plan, she infiltrates the Kingsmen Secret Service agency and essentially decimates it, leaving only protagonist Eggsy (Egerton) and tech guru Merlin (Mark Strong) behind. They turn to their American counterparts, the Statesmen (who operate out of a Kentucky bourbon distillery instead of a British tailor shop) for help in finding the antidote and stopping the villainous — if oddly adorable — Poppy.
It’s farcical hogwash from start to finish, but it’s mostly fun. Egerton is charming and engaging, and Mark Strong’s Merlin is a terrific character, a role-player suddenly thrust into the driver’s seat. The Statesmen — Jeff Bridges as their leader, Champagne («ChampP»), Pedro Pascal as Whiskey, their chief operator, Channing Tatum as young up-and-comer Tequila, and Halle Berry as Ginger Ale, their tech support — are all quite fun. Tatum has a blast with his goofy southern accent, and Berry plays the straight-laced Ginger with just enough tongue in her cheek. Bridges sort of gruffly mumbles his way through the film as he does with all films now, and Pedro Pascal is Pedro fucking Pascal, meaning he looks amazing even with a silly mustache and moves like a goddamn sex cobra through his fight scenes.
And really, the action choreography is the best part of the film — it’s gonzo stuff, all set to ludicrous speed. Using every piece of scenery as a prop, switching efficiently between slow- and fast-motion, director Matthew Vaughn makes it all looks effortlessly fun. Everything about it is bonkers — from killer robot dogs to deadly cable car battles, to an absolutely ridiculous chase scene at the film’s very start, the film is at its best when the pedal is pressed firmly to the floor. It’s when the action lets up that Kingsman starts to suffer, and that’s a real shame. The dialogue isn’t as crisp or engaging as it was the first time around, in no small part due to the reduced presence of Colin Firth’s Harry Hart, who really was a phenomenal piece of the first film. The writing isn’t as fun, and even though it’s a joy to watch Julianne Moore chomp her way through her scenes with gleeful aplomb, she doesn’t really have much to do. So while the action has been dialed up to 11, it often feels like everything else is muted and tired. It’d be one thing if the slower moments were simply less exciting, but unfortunately, they’re often clumsy and tired, if not outright boring.
To make matters worse, the film really does itself a disservice in the way it treats one of its female characters. It’s worth spoiling, so you know what you’re getting into — in an effort to infiltrate The Golden Circle (the name of Poppy’s cartel), Eggsy has to put a specific kind of tracking device on the girlfriend of one of their members. For reasons that are explained, but not acceptable, the only way to attach this particular nanodevice is to… insert it into a woman’s vagina.
I mean, come on, Vaughn.
This laughably (but not in the ha ha way) causes a moment of conflict for Eggsy, who is seriously dating the Swedish princess he rescued (she of the anal sex prize) from the first film, but ultimately ends with a seduction scene that is just really, really unnecessary and unpleasant. I’m sure some will be able to explain it away as a sendup of the Bond film seductions, but it didn’t read that way. It read as little more than Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman using a woman as a sexual prop in order to titillate, and it’s an ugly blemish on the film.
So. Should you see Kingsman: The Golden Circle? That’s a difficult question. There are undeniably good parts to the movie, but I don’t know that I’d call it a good movie. The bad parts are pretty bad, the story is ultimately nonsense, and there’s a lot that simply bogs it down. It’s often too impressed with itself to the point of parody. But it undeniably has some terrifically entertaining action sequences, and the cast all seem to be having a hell of a good time. I suspect mileage will vary wildly on this one, but overall the negatives too often outweigh the film’s positives.