I love cheese—on pizza. As an approach to making movies, it’s a little dicier. Matthew Vaughn’s new movie, Kingsman: The Golden Circle—a sequel to Vaughn’s wildly successful Kingsman: The Secret Service, from 2015—is a case in point. It’s a spy movie with a running Elton John gag, gourmet cannibalism, a Channing Tatum cowboy act, Jeff Bridges in an ascot, and a villain, played by Julianne Moore, who’s a power-hungry international drug lord with a fetish for ’50s Americana. Check, check, check: It’s practically an algorithmic mix of Movie Bullshit I Love.
And yet, at two hours and 21 minutes, this bloated sequel largely trades in the endearing comic energy of the original for a bad case of nonsensical doubling down. It’s a classic example of being bigger but not better. The gang’s all here—including Taron Egerton as wonderboy agent Eggsy, who in the first movie was poached from his working-class chav lifestyle to be trained in the ways of ass-kicking gentlemen, as well as charming Mark Strong as Merlin, the senior Kingsman responsible for training the agency. The gadgets are back, too. Kingsman meetings are still conducted via high-tech eyeglasses that can seemingly fill a room with life-size holograms of agents near and far, and those nifty watches can still shoot amnesia darts—or worse. Bar brawls are back, too, and so is that surprisingly durable catchphrase from the first movie, “Manners maketh man.”
But the good stuff, the quality cheese, comes at a price. Since the first movie, the Kingsman franchise, which is based on the Mark Millar comic The Secret Service, has been knowingly over the top. Vaughn et al. have simply blown the lid off. From the start, the franchise was a funny send-up of new and old, proper and not: Savile Row propiety cut with street-bred wit and gratuitous parkour, 007 suavity buttressed by affectionate self-ridicule à la Get Smart. It’s a nudge-nudge wink-wink kind of endeavor, which is why the first movie coasted so smoothly on its charm and good looks. That’s the fun of a genre send-up: The genre’s already done all the heavy lifting. All you have to add, really, is style and a smile.
Style is one thing The Golden Circle still has, sort of. It’s the sense of humor that’s strained. When we last saw the Kingsman, the organization was reeling from the loss of Harry Hart (Colin Firth)—code name Galahad. Hart, a senior agent, had been shot in the head by an evil technocrat. Hart’s trainee Eggsy, to whom he’d become something of a father figure, has assumed the title of Galahad in his absence, which is another way of saying our boy’s all grown up. When we first met Eggsy, you may remember, he was an aimless flunky with a chip on his shoulder about his poor upbringing. His ticket to the Kingsman had been the legacy of his father, an agent who, it turns out, had saved Hart’s life years earlier. Hart, feeling he owed it to Eggsy’s father, gave Eggsy a chance. And the boy proved himself.
Now Eggsy’s a full-blown agent, and there’s a new danger on the rise: an unhinged drug lord named Poppy (Moore), whose plans for world domination, etched out from within the secluded confines of a ’50s-themed palace in the middle of a jungle, kick off with a mass assault on every living member of the Kingsman she can find. Her drug empire is the Golden Circle of the movie’s title; each of her agents (one of whom is a scorned reject from the Kingsman training program) has a 24-karat gold tattoo emblazoned on their body. Played with a hilariously lax attitude by Moore, who’s apparently just here for the check, Poppy is all fake smiles and TV-mom, “Have a good day at school!”–like mannerisms. When she serves up a hamburger made of human meat, it’s in the politest way imaginable. But she’s also got a quick temper (hence the human burger) and a ruthless pair of mechanical dogs named Bennie and Jet who carry out her bidding. Oh, and speaking of: She’s also kidnapped Elton John.
Poppy’s master plan, aside from making Elton John perform his greatest hits in an empty concert hall in the middle of a jungle for the rest of his days, is to poison her drug product and hold the world hostage to the antidote. She wants to become a legitimate businesswoman; she’s tired of hiding out in the jungle while other CEOs get to break the law safely from within Silicon Valley. It’s a plan, in other words, to end the war on drugs. In any event, it’s good enough to get the wheels of the plot spinning.
And spin they do, on and on, through redundant action scenes in which Vaughn makes the camera jerk and stutter as if the camera, too, were part of the action, and mounting revelations that pivot the script toward a broader world of secret agents. There’s an American counterpart to the Kingsman, apparently—a sister organization called the Statesman, manned by the likes of Bridges, Tatum, Halle Berry, and Pedro Pascal. They go by code names like Tequila and Whiskey, American alternatives to “Merlin” and “Galahad.” In favor of tailored suits they’ve got cowboy hats and, in one case, an electric lasso. Their front is a mega-successful whiskey distillery—and they’ve got a man in their possession who looks an awful lot like the Kingsman’s dead leader Hart. Call it an expanded universe. There’s even an awful U.S. president in the movie, notable less for any similarities to real life than for the fact that introducing politics entertains the idea of how these spy agencies and their foes would operate in the world at large.
All the elements are there for an interesting popcorn movie, in other words, and not just a familiarly satisfying one—which is the only reason I’m complaining. Give me your processed cheese, but understand that you’re handing me Kraft Singles when the recipe calls for Velveeta. Vaughn at times comes off as a director who resorts to bombast when it’s clear he’s really just run out of ideas—like a guy at a party who repeats a bad joke, more loudly this time, because he thinks the problem is that we didn’t hear it. In favor of genuine comedy we get five dumb Elton John scenes, all of them laced with desperation, and a plethora of unrehearsed one-liners from Moore, who seems like she’s a half step from becoming a Sad Affleck meme as soon as the cameras stop rolling. Instead of intrigue we get an expanded cast that’s here really just to justify the movie to its American investors. There’s a rule to sequels that apparently says: Don’t reinvent the wheel, just give the audience what they want. What we want, apparently, is what we already paid for, in 2015, when we collectively earned the first Kingsman its $414 million intake. The presiding ethic of the movie is clear: Why change the recipe?
I mean, for one thing: It’s a boring recipe. But even that I can get over. Just give me better jokes! The movie gets by on the good-times camaraderie of its altogether fine cast and the warm feelings I still harbor for its superior predecessor. Strong and Berry are particularly sweet as the Moneypennys of their respective operations; Tatum (as always) is endearingly goofy; Bridges can still instill wisdom and good humor into even the most telephone-book dry lines; and Egerton once again more than holds his own among pros. None of that mitigates the fact that the movie is wack. The Golden Circle had nothing to compete with, really, but itself. Somehow, oddly, it still managed to lose.