2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was the best Valentine’s Day gift I have ever received. A near-perfect, slick, sexy sendup of a genre carved out by James Bond, the original “Kingsman” topped off its winning formula with tinges of British posh and ultraviolence. The resulting cocktail was exhilarating and the world wanted a refill. Enter “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”.
As wary as some are of sequels, there’s hope in the entire “Secret Service” team returning: the director, writers, cast, cinematographer and producers are all back for more. The plot sees Eggsy and the English secret service team up with their American cousins, the Statesmen, to take down a drug cartel led by a sweetly evil Julianne Moore. The bar was set high, so how does the sequel measure up? Well — don’t kill the messenger.
I went in hoping that “The Golden Circle” could top the church massacre scene from the first film (it never does), but I should’ve been careful what I wished for — the sequel starts attempting to do so immediately. An action sequence kicks in thirty seconds into the movie, presenting the first symptom of sequel fever. It’s commendably insane and left the audience clapping, but it causes early exhaustion.
Not long after, a courageous move on the filmmakers’ part obliterates much of what they established in the first movie, as if to say there’s nowhere to go but forward with the sequel (this proves false). In response to the devastation, one character tells another “there’s no room for emotion in this scenario.” That’s unfortunately declarative of the film itself: “The Golden Circle” is far too crowded to resonate like its predecessor did.
The addition of the Statesmen allows for some flavorful fight scenes with laser lassos and stylized Western shootouts. The cast behind them is worthwhile as well: Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal, Halle Berry and a curiously clean-shaven Jeff Bridges fill out the American agents with brash attitudes and a love of whiskey. While this provides a contrast to the Kingsman brand of high society spy, the Statesmen flatten the film’s tone. They barely factor into the narrative and seem to exist purely to give the next sequel more material to mine.
The first “Kingsman” thrived on its British sensibility. Dividing that up dulls what made the original uniquely suave. To make up for it, “The Golden Circle” pulls the most egregious resurrection stunt in recent memory: bringing back Harry (not a spoiler, he’s in every trailer).
The shocking ‘death’ of Colin Firth’s character in the original shifted its pathos into overdrive, shattering the mentor/student relationship between Harry and Eggsy. The sequel, starved of emotional content due to hasty pacing and a congested screenplay, unceremoniously brings him back and rehashes the dynamic.
This is a gift and a curse: his presence never feels earned, but the movie would’ve floundered without him. “The Golden Circle” works when it’s imitating “The Secret Service”: Harry and Eggsy teaching each other, outlandish set pieces, social commentary from the antagonists, a choice celebrity cameo — the last of which is easily the most entertaining part of the movie.
Weak aspects from “The Secret Service” also return in full force though. The Swedish princess from its ending is now Eggsy’s girlfriend and serves as the sequel’s damsel in distress, which flat out doesn’t work after she was merely the butt of a misogynistic joke in the first movie. “The Golden Circle” has its own misogynistic misstep played for comedy, but this time it’s an entire scene and less consensual. The reliance on CGI and green screen crosses a line too.
Where “The Golden Circle” really misses the heart of its predecessor is its lack of character arcs. Eggsy’s journey from thug to spy drove the original, but he doesn’t even feel like the protagonist here. He and the other main characters are either static or they jump from one character phase to another with no real development along the way. Agent Merlin is the only one doing dramatic heavy lifting: thankfully, Mark Strong sells it passionately. Drug lord Poppy is one-dimensional, but Julianne Moore has fun relishing her villainy.
It’s not a terrible sequel and it has its strong moments — especially when it’s milking nostalgia — but it’ll never stand up to just re-watching the original.