Festival season is here and Kingsman: The Golden Circle has arrived in a perfectly tailored suit to defy all the pomp and circumstance. Loaded with Academy Award winners and nominees mugging for the camera to deliver exposition, the Golden Circle re delivers what the first installment did albeit with updated cartoon gore and a topical social agenda. Where Kingsman: The Secret Service paid homage to the entire genre of espionage films, this update feels more like a remake of the original. In other words, the film suffers from what most sequels nowadays do. The reason it still works is because of how self-aware the film is. Even though, the audience is getting the same jokes, the Golden Circle has a good bit of fun with it. The end result is a film that manages to be shamelessly flawed and also rather irresistible.
Based on a 2012 graphic Novel, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman teamed up again to adapt this sequel. Vaughn laments that if he had known another installment was likely, he would not have killed off Colin Firth’s Harry Hart. It is problematic that he is resurrected because it cheapens the stakes of big deaths in the franchise. The Golden Circle tries to counterbalance this by killing off many other big characters. By all rights, Sophie Cookson’s Roxy could and should have been the main character in place of Taron Egerton’s Eggsy. That’s not to say that Egerton is not a great leading man, he really is very good here. It’s just more compelling storytelling. Having a female lead would have brought an equilibrium to a film that lives in a masculine adolescence. Also, it’s a big time trade off. Firth for Egerton. Valentine died in the first picture though so he isn’t here to let us know “This isn’t that kind of movie”. As a result, we get “that kind” of sequel.
Julianne Moore is Poppy, our Bond villain. She heads her drug cartel, The Golden Circle, based out of Cambodia in an estate modeled after a 1950’s main street. Poppy is far too intelligent for the world she lives in and devotes all her brains and entrepreneurship to her own personal empire. Her badness level is illustrated early in the film as she finds a way to infiltrate the Kingsman and literally blow up the entire organization. Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are the last surviving members. In a Doomsday protocol, they discover an equivalent secret service organization in the United States headed by Champ, short for Champagne (Jeff Bridges). While the British agent code names are based after Knights of the Round Table, the American agents are named after alcoholic spirits. Champ, is head honcho above Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and in the role of tech guru is Ginger (Halle Berry).
Poppy is the world’s biggest provider of drugs and narcotics. She holds the world hostage by lacing a genetically engineered virus into all her drugs and she will only the release the antidote once her drugs are on the same legal playing field as cigarettes and alcohol. Poppy negotiates with a president that would prefer to allow the hundreds of millions of users to die thusly eliminating the drug users and the drug market. Hmm. A morally bankrupt President in the midst of a dire opium epidemic. Like every other aspect of this film, the social commentary is not subtle. This isn’t British writers taking a dig at the Americans.
Vaughn’s movies always take place in corrupt worlds where powerful figures that have lost their humanity inflict their schemes on the many. Another Vaughn trope that blooms right out of this is a patriarchal martyr. A beloved teacher or guide is dispatched in a cruel heart wrenching fashion. This will lead to the hero doing the best he or she can. All to the tune of classic song swelling up in the background. I had Elvis Presley in my head after watching Kick Ass (2010), KC and the Sunshine Band after Kingsman: The Secret Service, and this time around it’s John Denver. Vaughn does this to terrific effect. It may sound cheesy on paper, but it gets me every time. His main characters seem to always be struggling for paternal validation only to have that possibility ripped away from them before the end. A vacuum of self-reckoning typically leads to an ultra-violent and cathartic final chapter.
The most entertaining update is the addition of Elton John in the role of princess in distress. Initially inhabited by Princess Tilde, her contribution to the original film was rather divisive for how the plot objectified her to the role of a prize for Eggsy. They literally made her the butt of a bad joke. To make good on that, Vaughn and Goldman had the relationship of Eggsy and Tilde expanded on as a primary motivation for the plot. Elton John gives the film an absurdist and surreal edge that is very funny. His final line in the movie mirrors a line from the prequel so well it practically forgives it. The audience in my theater was rolling with laughter.
Matthew Vaughn has excelled in fusing camp with ultra-violence and the Kingsman films are the ideal vessel to exploit exactly this. He is far from his film debut, Layer Cake, where he made an intelligent but violent gangster picture with the Bond actor himself, Daniel Craig. Espionage films appear to be a passion for him considering all the callbacks the Kingsman: The Secret Service snuck in. This passion doesn’t result in imitating the greater spy flicks though. Instead, Vaughn side steps the complexity of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the elegance of Spectre to show the audience all the greasy details under the hood. This film can be accused of being style over substance, which it shamelessly is, but the visual gusto with which the film is presented is entirely intentional and not out of necessity. The Golden Circle is not the result of corporate filmmaking, nor is it an auteur shooting the moon with self-indulgence at the expense of accessibility. The director is having a fantastic time dishing this all out like Valentine, the prequel’s villain offering a silver platter full of McDonald’s served with no irony whatsoever. That is Matthew Vaughn and I am perhaps, only slightly, ashamed to say that I eat it all up.