Writer/director Matthew Vaughn and regular collaborator/co-screenwriter Jane Goldman took many viewers and critics by surprise with their 2014 hit, Kingsman: The Secret Service. Loosely based on a comic book series and set in the present, it was an affectionately winking, post-modern take on spy movies that took aim squarely at the 1970s-era films of the James Bond franchise, with Oscar winner Colin Firth tapping into his inner Roger Moore as gentleman spy Harry Hart, also known as “Galahad.” In this critic’s estimation, the wildly entertaining homage was the most delectable iteration of the Bond formula since 2006’s Casino Royale, the franchise’s first with Daniel Craig.
Vaughn’s sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, subverts the Bond template even further, as he and Goldman’s script now finds Hart’s protégé, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) living with Tilde (Hanna Alström as the Swedish princess he rescued in the first film), rather than turning her into a disposable fling like the bulk of Bond’s more casual conquests. Likewise, you’d probably never find Bond willingly diving into a shit-filled sewer in order to keep a date with his beloved as Eggsy does at the conclusion of this film’s opening action scene. But then, it’s doubtful that even Galahad’s gentleman spy would have chosen to soil one of his immaculate double-breasted suits from Kingsman Tailors, the esteemed Savile Row shop that has served as the front for an independent British Secret Service since its founding in 1849. “The suit is the modern gentleman’s armor,” Galahad once told his then-hoodie and hightop-wearing charge, before Eggsy’s mentor was slain near the end of the first film’s second act by Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine.
As is customary, the enemies had previously met over dinner, during which Valentine asked Galahad, “Do you like spy movies?” Without missing a beat, the Kingsman replied, “I always felt that the old Bond films were only as good as the villain.” Which brings us to one of The Golden Circle’s many unfortunate deficiencies.
As Poppy Adams, Oscar winner Julianne Moore sedately underplays her role as the film’s Big Bad. On paper, the head of the mysterious Golden Circle criminal enterprise is like a Martha Stewart gone very, very wrong, but the actress never really locates the proper notes of menacing peppiness that would have made the role sing. That’s a shame, considering the wonderful playground that production designer Darren Gilford (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and returning art director Joe Howard have created.
Poppyland, as its red neon signage proclaims, is the sociopathic drug lord’s lair-cum-theme park. Even though Poppy’s dope-dealing deeds have exiled her from her homeland, she’s transformed the ancient ruins in her secret swath of jungle in Southeast Asia into a spectacular reminder of the country she gave up, a glistening ode to Main Street Americana, by way of the 1950s—including a bowling alley, a beauty salon, a movie palace and a diner that doubles as her office. At the center of this hep eatery sits a shiny meat-grinder large enough to be a wood chipper—and viewers of 1996’s Fargo can probably guess how Poppy will utilize the menacing mincing machine.
But while the violence is still turned up to 11, the first film’s theme of two worlds colliding—served so well by the dynamic of the dapper spy who taught a street tough not only the art of hand-to-hand combat, but also how to tie a Windsor knot—has been drastically diluted due to the absence of Galahad, a code name that Eggsy took on after the death of his teacher. Instead, the theme is recycled with the introduction of the Statesmen, setting up another culture clash as Galahad 2.0 and the Q-like Merlin (Mark Strong, great in an expanded role) flee to America after a series of bombs kills the rest of the Kingsmen. They seek the help of the Kingsmen’s cowpoke counterparts—Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal from Netflix’s Narcos, channeling Smokey and the Bandit-era Burt Reynolds), Ginger Ale (Oscar winner Halle Berry) and their boss, Champagne, also known as Champ (Oscar winner Jeff Bridges).
But the stellar pedigree of the cast can’t save the problematic film, which features unexpected tedium (Elton John’s cameo is funny the first time, not so much the fifth), a second-rate henchman (Edward Holcroft doesn’t cut nearly as deep as The Secret Service’s Sofia Boutella) and surprisingly subpar, CGI-reliant action. It’s enough to make you appreciate the original’s scatology. ◆
Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Pedro Pascal, Edward Holcroft, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Hanna Alström, Björn Granath, Lena Endre, Sophie Cookson, Michael Gambon, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson, Jeff Bridges and Elton John. Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Directed by Vaughn. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.