Matthew Vaughn clearly had too much fun making Kingsman to leave its prim-but-deadly Savile Row secret service hanging in the wardrobe. A bespoke Bond pastiche, tailored to amplify to maximum comic effect that series’ preposterous plots, snobbish undercurrents, cold-blooded violence and (to the understandable distaste of many) smutty sexism, it was also such a success that a sequel was positively demanded.
As ultraviolent as the first film, and as ultrasmutty.
But Kingsman wasn’t just about turning up 007 all the way to 11. There was at its core a smart spin on Pygmalion, with Colin Firth’s starchy superspy Harry tutoring the chavvy Eggsy (Egerton) in the ways of properly refined espionage. With that arc complete, Eggsy doesn’t have anywhere so interesting to go in The Golden Circle, in terms of character development at least. Neither the culture-clash elements — which arise once Eggsy seeks out the brash, honky-tonky Statesmen — nor his attempts to stay faithful to his royal Swedish girlfriend Tilde (a returning Hanna Alström) quite fill that Pygmalion-shaped hole.
The not-so-surprising return of Harry, now one-eyed and amnesiac, at least revives the central relationship; albeit in an inverted form, with Eggsy struggling to ease his former mentor back into the spy game. But character definitely takes a back seat to the action in this instalment.
Thankfully, though, that action is bloody terrific. From an opening black-cab scrap and chase through the streets of London, to the climactic assault on the villains’ secret base (a lost, ancient Cambodian city given a ’50s kitsch Americana renovation), Vaughn keeps things impressively kinetic, gymnastic and focused. Presented in seemingly single takes, each brutal fight sequence involves a (presumably VFX-assisted) single camera fluidly whirling, pivoting and crash-zooming through the carnage, usually to an effectively ironic pop-song backing. Then there’s the gleeful incorporation of the kind of outlandish elements you’d expect from this double-OTT universe: a giant mincing machine, a laser lasso, a bubbling pot of molten gold, a wildly spinning cable car on Monte Bianco’s Skyway, an actual Elton John, and killer robot dogs with drill-bit teeth.
As with the first film, the sexual content is similarly heightened and despite the reaction to that anal gag, which was both coarse and jarring, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman are hardly contrite. Hence The Tracking Device Scene — we'll spare the details here — which involves some shockingly invasive tactics on Eggsy's part, and seems calibrated to offend (though it is leavened a little by Eggsy Facetiming Tilde beforehand to seek permission to perform this squirmy act of infidelity).
Meanwhile, Vaughn and Goldman have a blast with the introduction of the American contingent, brazenly flirting with cliché. Where the Kingsman front is a tailor’s, the Statesman crew are hidden away in a Kentucky bourbon distillery. Where the Kingsman codenames are based on Arthurian legend, the Statesman handles are all booze-related. So we have Tequila, played by Channing Tatum with tobacco-spitting brio (until, that is, he’s weirdly and frustratingly side-lined for most of the movie); Ginger Ale (Halle Berry, not doing much as the Yankee equivalent of Mark Strong’s chair guy Merlin); Whiskey (Narcos’ Pedro Pascal, coming on like Burt Reynolds playing Indiana Jones); and big boss Champagne — or ‘Champ’, as he prefers to be called (Jeff Bridges doing a benevolent Boss Hogg).
Then, of course, there’s the off-kilter villain, this time represented by Julianne Moore as illegal-drug-trade monopoliser Poppy Adams. She’s underused, but provides brief bursts of quality as a ’50s-obsessed psychopath who’s unhinged in a gently perky way — turning Keith Allen into a hamburger, or holding the world’s drug-users, recreational or otherwise, to ransom with a deadly toxin.
There are a lot of toys for Vaughn to play with here, and for the most part he plays well, but there’s not quite enough to justify the unwieldy 141-minute run time. Harry’s return feels stretched and laboured and the whole “Glasto” episode (including the aforementioned Tracking Device Scene) is something we honestly could have lived without. But Vaughn clearly can’t get enough of his Kingsmen. After all, he’s having too much fun.