Vaugh’s first sequel is a globetrotting action movie chockfull of forced puns, high-brow suavity, and storytelling contrivances.
Every year, there appear several studio movies that surprise everyone with their distinctive ways to scream style and rarity. In 2014, Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of those. It is a Bondian sendup so anti-Bond that we can only tip our hat for Matthew Vaughn, who also directed Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. Now, he is back to scourge September box office with Kingsman: The Golden Circle. The first one lives and dies on its stylized, over-the-top violence, so Vaughn makes sure it only levels up.
Taron Egerton comes back to play Eggsy, bold and courteous, working as the new Galahad for his prim sartorial agency/spy organization Kingsman. The movie opens with Eggsy approached by Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft reprising his role from the first movie), and a trademark-Vaughn fight ensues inside Eggsy's car. After a chase involving three more vehicles, Eggsy shakes off this old foe, but the traitorous bastard already gets what he wants. Due to Charlie’s real intention, all Kingsman members, including Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and the new Arthur (Michael Gambon), are exposed and killed by missiles, presumably from Charlie’s new boss. Yeah, it's dark enough for the audience to feel sorry for the Kingsmen. They are treated as a plot device for the introduction to another stage of worldbuilding.
Eggsy and tech wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) are the only two left, and they must resort to Kingsman’s doomsday protocol. Almost a riddle for the disheartened men, it leads them to America. They arrive at a distillery in Kentucky before getting their Anglo asses handed to them by sashaying cowboy Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum). This impulsive know-all works for Kingsman’s counterpart across the pond—an American independent spy association called Statesman.
If Kingsman assigns its agents with codenames of the Knights of the Round Table, its American cousin operates with booze-related aliases. We meet their leader Champagne—or as he insists, Champ—played by Jeff Bridges and Merlin's counterpart, the overlooked, reasonable techie Ginger Ale by an underused Halle Berry. Though we expect a full-blown clash of skills and attitude in the prospect of cultural criticism between the British and the American, their interactions are diluted in a messy satire of the American hero. The script by Vaughn and Jane Goldman only visits the Statesmen, including Tatum’s arrogant millennial, for glimpses into their relationship with the Kingsmen. Only one prominent character stands out: former-rodeo-clown Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal, Narcos and Game of Thrones). Pascal isn’t featured much in the promo, but he owns this doggedly confident character with charisma and grayness—involving in a too familiar subplot about vengeance and frontier justice.
In the same token of crafting an eccentric villain as Secret Service did, Golden Circle bounces to the lushness around PoppyLand in Cambodia. This is the evil lair of Poppy (Julianne Moore), an uber-powerful drug kingpin, with a diner and a salon for golden-ring tattoos. Inside her self-congratulatory Americana residence that reminisces the 50s, this capitalist megalomaniac spews lines of bragging exposition about her international corporation and displays her heartless cruelty over punishing a henchman with her meat grinder. The premise of monopoly is preposterous, but Moore can always electrify any role that needs allure and deception. Sir Elton John, kidnapped by Poppy and paid homage to through her canine robots, has a small part as himself. In a colorful, feathery costume, he looks ridiculous but still works in favor of the multiplex audience.
With street-level trading and drug advocacy, Poppy's addictive products spread to many corners of the world. Her plan is simplistic as the first step is way too easy before an infomercial announces her plan, and she has no backup plan or trusted allies to plant along the way. Unlike with the previous villain, Jimmy Valentine, there’s little sense of immediacy and confrontation; Poppy coops up in her diner and lets Charlie run genocidal errands. This trouble provides a scenario for a lighthearted take (with parodies of real-life politicians) on the War on Drugs, a controversial issue that has mired America for years. Auteurs explored this problem with the near-perfection in Traffic and Sicario, but we never saw junkies in cages get stacked up like animals. That image alone invites sympathy for Poppy’s victims.
As many Kingsfans notice, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is back, though not his absolute self. Amongst humorous, expository callbacks to the first movie, a recreation of the bar fight—this time Harry can't handle it himself—spotlights on Agent Whiskey's talents for lasso and whip. Despite the cramped space for character development, Harry mentors the disoriented Eggsy in another aspect of life while plot leans on a problem with the former Galahad’s mental functionality. Well-spoken and mutually understanding, Egerton and Firth capture the synergy and trustworthiness of this male-male bond within small windows of affection and action. It’s fun to see their brief departures from the debonair manner that maketh man—before action scenes resume with the formal, polished look of two generations of Galahad.
However, most of the subplots create lengthy or superfluous scenes, stretched to twice their durations while failing in reaching for an emotional depth this movie doesn’t need. They make their points by inserting gags to get away with sprinkled plot holes, which facilitate certain developments, including Merlin's emotional arc—only inspirational because of Strong’s determined sensibility for his devoted Merlin. This is the second time in this year when John Denver's “Take Me Home, Country Roads” plays a crucial part in a movie (the other is Logan Lucky).
Audiences can’t forget Eggsy’s mission at Glastonbury, which becomes easier thanks to modern social media. Using a sex act, Vaughn ups the controversial ante with more kinky, stylized smut in poor taste for our shameless giggles. From this point on, Eggsy’s forced romance with Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), who gave him an anal in the ending of the first movie, starts meddling in many affairs. He already moved in with her, and a meet-her-parents scene sets up his wariness about commitment with such a woman of royalty while fulfilling his Kingsman responsibility. Mawkish sentiment thus becomes the drive for Eggsy to finish the mission. In comparison with his charming arc in Secret Service, from a deadbeat chav on the street to a refined gentleman/killing machine, Golden Circle fails to recreate the thematic aroma of profundity and sharpness.
Instinctive and stylish, Vaughn redeems those shortcomings with action sequences in many bonkers settings and centerpieces. They include a spinning ski-lift car in mountainous Italy, a confined space inside Eggsy’s cab, and a full-blown shootout in the final act, in which Eggsy again must showcase his acrobatic skills to evade slicing and grabbing weapons. George Richmond’s camera breathtakingly pans, spins, smash-zooms, in sync with the escapist purpose. In Vaughn’s vision, operatic brio is assisted by a reasonable dose of CGI. Every action sequence accents the efficiency and showmanship of these agents during energetic melees and death-defying chases.
Vaugh’s first sequel is a globetrotting action movie chockfull of forced puns, high-brow suavity, and storytelling contrivances that are never brought to their full potential. While the cast members add levity to the movie’s dwindling satire, Vaughn can only achieve so much with a complex bungle of relationships and ploys.
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