No one is having a better time in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” than Julianne Moore, which is saying something. The director’s first sequel (no, he didn’t direct “Kick-Ass 2,” yes, “X-Men: First Class” is its own franchise-starter) is as high energy and bonkers as anything he’s made yet. As the film’s primary baddie, nefarious drug kingpin Poppy, Moore gleefully zips her way through every wacky scene, bolstered by an inventive setting that speaks to Vaughn’s intense imagination and the scope of his off-kilter super-spy vision.
Yet, for all that crazy fun, “The Golden Circle” doesn’t go wild enough to break Vaughn’s well-set mold, instead fitting neatly inside his filmography alongside other action-heavy offerings. It’s fun, but it’s blockbuster overkill after an already-crowded summer season.
Picking up soon after the conclusion of 2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” the sequel finds unlikely super-spy Eggsy (Taron Egerton) settling into his role as one of the UK’s best-equipped secret agents, while also juggling his clandestine private life with girlfriend Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). Vaughn sets the bonkers tone of the film early, thanks to a rollicking chase scene that sees young Eggsy pursued by a former friend, all set to the pitch perfect tones of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” Crazy is the name of the game, and Vaughn pushes it into another direction when he takes the ol’ “kill your darlings” trope and goes nuts with it.
If the first film was all about Eggsy learning his place with the Kingsman, “The Golden Circle” is all about blowing it up — literally, as Poppy sends a series of missiles at each and every Kingsman, decimating all of them, save for a bewildered Eggsy and a cool-as-a-cucumber Merlin (Mark Strong). A revenge tale writ large (and often through oddly convoluted narrative choices), “The Golden Circle” hits its stride when the pair discover a banger of a backup plan: The Statesmen. American cousins to the straight-laced British spy organization, the Statesmen are as free-wheeling as it gets, using a sprawling whiskey distillery as their cover, one that keeps them both flush in cash and booze. The introduction of the Statesmen allows “The Golden Circle” to have serious fun with a slew of new characters, including Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, and Jeff Bridges, all who show up just long enough to make it obvious that Vaughn is banking on a second sequel to expand out their own mythology.
This is still a Kingsman film, after all, and even in a fresh setting with plenty of new faces, Vaughn stays fixed on Eggsy’s own trials. At least the Statesman come complete with the kind of nutso technology that can literally bring a dead man back to life (Colin Firth, so brutally killed in the first film, is back, and with an endearing adoration for butterflies to boot), and the film finds its greatest emotional depths when it starts plumbing that side of the story. Bolstered by the unexpected affection lavished on the first film, Vaughn is clearly happy to show all sorts of new toys, new people, and new places in his ever-expanding universe, but most of it scans as place-setting before finally getting to the meat of story at hand.
Did you forget about Poppy? And Moore having more fun than anyone else on screen this year? Unfortunately, “The Golden Circle” forgets about her, too.
At a hefty two hours and 21 minutes, Vaughn has more than enough time to tighten up the basic elements of the film’s storyline, but instead choses to lavish his attention on high-energy fight scenes that ably blend humor and eye-popping action. It’s hard to blame him though, because “The Golden Circle” boasts some of Vaughn’s most ambitious action-centric filmmaking yet, from the lasso-snapping joys of a bar fight to a mountain-centric set piece that will shred nerves and engender tremendous cheers. The story? Secondary.
Bundled up in all of Vaughn’s big action filmmaking is an unexpectedly trenchant tale about the dangers drugs, and perhaps even more nefariously, the dangers of drug-regulating legislation. Seriously. Poppy, rich as she is (and she’s rich, the nostalgia-loving villain has essentially reconstructed a 50s’-era small town in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, all the better to make her whimsical HQ feel more “Poppy!”) is ticked off that all her millions can’t land her a spot in the business world (a tossed off line about her educational background hints at the root of this), but she’s got a big idea to fix that: Tainted drugs. More specifically, tainted drugs that can only be cured after the American president (Bruce Greenwood) makes illicit drugs legal, allowing Poppy to rock to the top of the stock market.
She wants money, baby! But more importantly, she wants to take away the stigma of drug use. As Eggsy and company attempt to unravel the mystery of why Poppy targeted them (and if the Statesmen are next), the rest of the world falls into a weirdly blue-hewed rash and persistent mania, signs that they’ve recently ingested Poppy’s drugs and are not long for this world. The drugs reach far and wide, and “The Golden Circle” makes a strong case for decriminalization in the process, one of the film’s major surprises (and that’s to say nothing of the extended Elton John cameo that positively sings through the third act). It’s a big idea, and one sort of bizarrely buried in what is otherwise a whiz-bang popcorn action vehicle that has Vaughn’s fingerprints all over it.
Not all the shocks in “The Golden Circle” are as welcome, however, as Eggsy’s dedication to avenging his Kingsman compatriots leads him into some very iffy decision-making. The Statesman may be great technological inventors, but that apparently hasn’t allowed them to pioneer tracking device technology in an major way. During the film’s most uncomfortable — and, quite frankly, most confusing — sequence, Eggsy targets the ditzy girlfriend of the baddie who went after him during the film’s opening, the sole lead in a case gone cold, implanting her with a tracking device that can only be pushed into her bloodstream via vaginal insertion. Have the Statesmen never heard of a needle? Popping a pill in some food, like you’d do with a sneaky pet? Just not shoving things up people’s private parts in service to an already flat-footed narrative device?
Vaughn may be trying to say something about Eggsy’s character with the scene (he really doesn’t want to do it), but the film’s camera says something else: traveling down the girl’s underpants and straight inside her, all to deliver a tiny technological device with little payoff and a tremendous ick factor. Why not lean into the fun, into the inventive action filmmaking, to whatever the hell Moore is doing (and owning) in every scene? Why dilute the charms of “The Golden Circle” with something so out of place and insulting?
Then again, “The Golden Circle” is all about dilution, spinning off exciting ideas and storylines into further complications that take it further and further from its best bits. Moore’s having the time of her life, and so’s everyone else. Vaughn’s action has never been better, but this is one story that doesn’t know when to quit, even when it’s ahead.
“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” opens on Friday, September 22.