‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ is overstuffed almost beyond coherence
Matthew Vaughn has no intention of growing up, and that has its benefits and its flaws. On the one hand, there’s a gleeful and cartoonish quality to his films that’s absent from most IP blockbusters today — a sense that the director is making a film he would pay to watch. This has been the case since his best film, 2007’s family fairytale Stardust, through Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and the first Kingsman (shockingly, these are the only films he’s directed in the last decade). On the downside, he has some profoundly juvenile instincts, and this has led to two instances of icky sexual content in the Kingsman franchise that no amount of post-release spin can really justify.
The Golden Circle wholeheartedly doubles down on the obscene ending of The Secret Service with a particular directorial decision that’s so awful it surely must be intentionally commenting on the response to the previous film. The Golden Circle feels from start to finish (this film is so long) like it was conceived while Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman read mean tweets about The Secret Service: everything is amplified, the most iconic moments are lazily retreaded and there’s a general sense that Vaughn was lying when he claimed he had a sequel idea before the first film was even released.
The Golden Circle is not, by traditional definitions, a ‘bad film’. Vaughn’s direction is as energised as ever, Henry Jackman’s now hoedown-infused score is an absolute treat and there are no bad performances: the problem is, there are no performances at all! This film has one of the most crowded casts in recent memory, and at least 60% of the characters have no purpose. It’s as if Vaughn knew a third Kingsman film was off the table, and forcibly squeezed a trilogy’s worth of plot and gags into one overlong feature. There are never less than 3 things going on at once, and it’s exhausting.
These could honestly have been three different Kingsman movies (SPOILER ALERT):
A: Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is mourning the death of his mentor/father figure Harry (Colin Firth) in the first movie. But he soon discovers that Harry is still alive, resurrected by members of the American Statesmen! But is it the Harry we know and love, or has he been changed beyond recognition? Eggsy must help Harry return to his old witty ways, while defeating Poppy (Julianne Moore) and her villainous scheme.
B: Eggsy is left shaken after the Kingsman headquarters are destroyed by Poppy and his friend Roxy is mercilessly killed (I’m never forgiving Vaughn and Goldman for this). He seeks revenge on Poppy with the help of the Statesmen.
C: Eggsy must maintain a relationship with his girlfriend Princess Tilde while also carrying out Kingsman duties (which often involve sleeping with other women). He’s also being hunted by former Kingsman training rival Charlie (Edward Holcroft).
In addition to all that, the filmmakers must find time to acquaint us with the Statesmen’s MVPs: Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges. Of these, I have little comment: Tatum and Berry barely register, Pascal is a pleasant surprise — the closest this film gets to Firth’s performance in the first — and Bridges has actually shot all his scenes in one room. When your film has a bowling alley as venue for a fight scene, and Jeff Bridges, and you don’t include The Dude himself (or Julianne Moore!) in said scene, you just aren’t trying hard enough.
Mark Strong probably does the Strong-est work of the cast, apart from the always-charming Egerton, and is — in fairness — given one bloody marvellous moment in the last act. But The Golden Circle has a serious deficiency of ‘bloody marvellous moments’, something The Secret Service was abundant in. Maybe I just saw that film at precisely the right time — 17 years old, bored at school, seeking a blockbuster that felt in any way alive — but I fell in love with so many elements of that original film when I saw it. The infamous ‘Church Scene’, in which Harry takes on an entire congregation of Westboro-style evangelicals in a violent single-take extravaganza, felt incredible subversive — and that whole film is quite delightfully political, with class war undertones to Eggsy’s working class-to-first class My Fair Lady narrative.
The Golden Circle has no time for politics, for character development, for much of anything, because it’s too busy satisfying the contractual obligations of every actor. Keith Allen and Emily Watson do not need to be in this film. Bruce Greenwood, playing the same President from National Treasure: Book of Secrets, does not need to be in this film. Michael Gambon doesn’t, Sophie Cookson doesn’t, and Elton John — in an extended cameo that will either tarnish or sanctify his legacy — really doesn’t.
But everyone’s having fun (except when things get super sleazy at Glastonbury, or in a few moments of uncalled-for sadism), and there’s an argument to be made that the Kingsman sequel we got is our own fault: we were far too complementary of the first film, so they gave us more! More! More!