Matthew Vaughn walked into making 2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” like the kid that everyone expected would get exactly average on the midterm. At the helm of “X-Men: First Class” and “Kick-Ass,” he showed a decent mastery of action directing, if not for engaging stories.
And yet, Vaughn defied expectations and aced the midterm instead, turning in a “My Fair Lady”-inspired spy story with just the right amount of heart to be taken seriously and just the right amount of silliness to serve as a gentle but loving ribbing of the Bondian spy genre.
But as any college student can attest, it’s the second midterm that kicks your ass. And while Vaughn has packed plenty of ass-kicking into his 2-hour, 21-minute behemoth of a sequel, it’s Vaughn himself who’s had his ass kicked this time around.
“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” picks up just about where the first film left off. Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) is a freshly minted Kingsman spy, now dating Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) — of the anal-sex-based closing scene in the original — which is a cute move, although Egerton seems too young for the middle-aged white-collar worker-speak he employs throughout their scenes.
Everything, predictably, goes to shit when the evil villain of the film, Poppy (Julianne Moore) launches guided missiles to take out the Kingsman’s various headquarters as well as the agents’ individual homes.
Why she does this is unclear — her drug organization, named The Golden Circle, isn’t even being investigated by the Kingsman, and as we learn her master plan later on, she could’ve easily carried it out without any interruption from the spy group, if she’d not tried to take them all out (but left a critical few alive). Presumably, her attack is simply at the behest of one of her henchmen (and possible lover) Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a failed Kingsman applicant from the first film.
The rest of the plot, which is about as unintelligible, shoehorns in the help of the American counterpart to the Kingsman — known as the Statesman — the members of which comprise a star-studded cast (Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry and Pedro Pascal) whose roles are almost completely devoid of the depth we are used to in the franchise, rendering them curious doodads who seem hardly relevant. Perhaps Vaughn was trying to crack a larger American audience? All he succeeds at is bloating the runtime.
There’s a sense of urgency to the original that’s lost here, which likely arises from the fact that the training sequences in “The Secret Service” meant the primary conflict was well-paced, nicely filling the last third of the film rather than its entirety.
We do see the return of Galahad (Colin Firth), who was an absolute legend in the original, though his arc sadly ended with a shot to the head by archvillain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) after a ridiculously spectacular scene of carnage in a Westboro Baptist-themed church. Though his mere existence makes the film better, his return from the dead hugely cheapens the concept of death in the series altogether. Our thoughts immediately jump to the Kingsman lost in the film’s opening — will they also come back?
Moore, too, is mostly wasted in her role as a villain, and far from Jackson’s almost-believable pontifications as Valentine in “The Secret Service,” Moore’s Poppy is never really given the chance to justify her vision in a convincing way. Her character has Valentine’s flair for the comical, but not the quiet, intelligent sense of self-righteousness that nearly won us to his side.
“The Golden Circle” shows all the classic signs of the student who got too cocky too fast, and it winds up paying for it dearly. If there’s any reason to watch this sequel, it’s for Elton John’s incredible cameo, and it’s best to just leave it at that. Also, there’s still plenty of cute puppies in this one, so there’s that.
But if the film’s final moments have anything to say about it (and if the rumors of a green light for the trilogy closer are true), Vaughn is going to have one more shot on the final exam to make it up to us. Let’s hope he does.