'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' Review: A Spirited Romp That's Not Quite As Good As The First One

Before going any further, let's get this out of the way: I loved the first Kingsman movie. On a purely visual, gets-your-adrenaline-going level, Matthew Vaughn has achieved the platonic ideal of the comic book movie. The Kingsman movies spectacles of bright colors, stylish costumes, outlandish violence, and a complete lack of attention to the laws of physics, all scored to pop songs that are immediately recognizable. To be sure, I loved the physical act of watching Kingsman: The Golden Circle. More than a few sequences got me to clap in delight. But beyond that, there's something about this second installment that doesn't quite click.

Maybe it's how ill-timed and ill thought-out the plot seems to be. Julianne Moore is the megalomaniacal big bad this time; she's the head of an international drug cartel known as the Golden Circle, and her product has poisoned the majority of the world's population. If the American president (Bruce Greenwood) agrees to legalize drugs, she'll release the antidote, but if he doesn't, she'll let everyone who's been affected die. It's a plot that makes sense on a base level, but doesn't work given the specific framing mechanism of the American war on drugs. The legalization of marijuana — and particularly the disparity in treatment when it comes to race — is a contentious subject, and the script's attempt at working around the nature of drugs on the whole (Emily Watson, as the Clinton equivalent to Greenwood's Trump-like prez, points out that drug users come from all walks of life) doesn't delve as deeply into the subject as is necessary if it's going to be used as a plot device. The argument could be made that it's just a comic book movie, it doesn't need to go that far, but on that same token, there's no reason that a comic book movie couldn't have just used poisoned funfetti.

It's a self-seriousness that doesn't really do the movie any favors — this goes for its take on the state of American politics as well — especially when it's all propped up with the kind of bombast that is so clearly not grounded in any kind of reality. Julianne Moore has robot dogs. Pedro Pascal (alarmingly charming, and deserving of his own spy-superhero franchise) has a laser lasso that can cut people into pieces. Elton John is around for some reason (not a complaint). Taron Egerton drives a cab into a pond that opens up into an underwater Kingsman facility. They're the kinds of gimmicks that forgive a lot of storytelling weaknesses, but the movie's flaws are too wide for even the best action sequences to get the bitter taste of them out of your mouth.

The cast also does their level best to charm the audience into submission. Pascal, as one of the American Statesman agents, sports a twang and a swagger that would make anyone blush, and in his second turn as Eggsy, Egerton is perhaps the one thing that's improved from the first film. His performance is more assured and more charming, which goes a long way towards making up for the fact that he lacks a Pretty Woman arc to fill out this time around. The material he's given to work with ranges from showcasing his talent to showcasing how unbearably macho the world of Kingsman can sometimes be (Halle Berry has a bit part as the Statesman tech wiz, and unfortunately barely registers), and it's to Egerton's credit that he pulls both off.

The Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy contingent of Mark Strong and Colin Firth are reliably great, particularly Strong, who proves once again why he's relatively ubiquitous in film as well as upholding this summer's trend of working John Denver songs in whenever possible. Firth, as Harry Hart, has a slightly stranger role to play, as the most shocking (and most exhilarating) scene in the first Kingsman film ended in his apparent death. For a while, pains were taken to make it seem like Firth wasn't coming back — his name was altered on the call sheets, multiple cast members denied any chance of his survival in interviews — but somewhere along the line, there was a sharp turn in marketing strategy (it completely gave up on trying to suspend any mystery as to his character's fate at all) that seems to symbolize everything that's good and bad about the franchise on the whole. Kingsman is inherently silly — I mean that in the best way possible — and it starts to deflate when it pretends it isn't. Firth's character got shot in the head and is then saved by what's essentially a hot-and-cold gel pad, for Christ's sake. There's no way to walk that back.

The film's "real" details are good when grounded in the characters rather than an attempt at taking on political relevance, as their outsize personalities allow for the kind of cartoonishness that feels inappropriate on the other end of the spectrum. Harry's recovery is the best example of what Vaughn can make work, as re-acclimating to the job requires struggling with his new lack of depth perception as well as hallucinations of butterflies that evoke the stars and birds prevalent in The Adventures of Tintin as markers of shock and surprise. Harry's self-doubt — as well as his dealing with the doubt of his colleagues — is one of the most striking emotional notes in a two and a half hour runtime that otherwise hits the majority of its beats like it's striking a gong. If you, like me, were partial to the first Kingsman movie, it's worth seeking the second one out, but it's a recommendation to be taken with a grain of salt. All the action in the world can't quite save this movie from feeling like it's in the wrong place at the wrong time.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10