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Sequels are always challenging, since the filmmakers must give audiences more of what they want, while also surprising them in ways that seem consistent with the source material. A sequel for Kingsman, the 2015 spy action-comedy from Matthew Vaughn, is especially challenging. The original film was reactionary, trashy, and smart. It took the piss out of the spy genre, globalism, and modern manners. It included the decapitation of Barack Obama and a perfunctory anal sex joke. Kingsman: The Golden Circle has some of the same screwball energy, and far less satire. False endings and repetitive action sequences only weaken its overall impact.
Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman waste no time. Their young hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is confronted by someone in his past, leading to a hyperkinetic chase through London’s streets. The aftermath of his confrontation is fatal: Hackers push through Kingsman’s defenses, allowing a string of rockets to destroy their infrastructure, leaving the shadowy spy organization in ruin. Eggsy and fellow survivor Merlin (Mark Strong) enact their “doomsday protocol,” leading them to Kentucky, where they find their American equivalent: the Statesman. American agents Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) help Eggsy and Merlin take on Poppy (Julianne Moore), a deranged drug kingpin who seeks to legalize all narcotics through a needlessly complex blackmail scheme.
There are about six other sub-plots, including an explanation of what happened to Harry, Colin Firth’s character from the first film. Despite this overstuffed quality, the film starts at a gleeful clip. But since it’s nearly two-and-a-half hours and there are only so many ways to film a shoot-out, all the action loses its power. Vaughn’s style is crisp, and borderline hyper: He speeds up his actors to superhuman speed, letting them bounce and flail in ways that defy the laws of physics. His ultraviolence was better suited to the original film since the context was also transgressive: The original film included Harry murdering bigoted Southern church-goers in an orgy of death, with a “Freebird” soundtrack. Try as it may, The Golden Circle never reaches such snappy lunacy.
This film is more successful as a comedy, with abundant throwaway gags and one-liners from actors who are too good for this material. There is a protracted seduction sequence where Eggsy needs to get to third base with a co-ed—to save the world, of course. Elton John plays himself in a glorified cameo that riffs on his hot-tempered persona.
Another common thread is the difference between American and English culture. Vaughn imagines Statesman as genteel, soft-spoken cowboys, with weapons to match their abundant denim. It is a lazy stereotype, and while Tatum can sell the Western bravado, Pascal struggles with it. Jeff Bridges turns up as Champagne, the head of Statesman, and yet his brief appearance only underscores his halfhearted commitment to this material. In fact, since many of the big name actors only appear in one location, many of their roles amount to little more than Elton’s in scope.
Vaughn relishes the cynicism of his exaggerated worldview. The American president (Bruce Greenwood) reacts to Poppy’s scheme with manic bloodlust, and the film goes out of its way to twist the drug legalization debate until it portrays our justice policy in the least flattering light imaginable (some of this is admittedly well-deserved). Stoners may cheer at a major film discussing legalization in such stark terms—in fact, this literally happened at the press screening—but this target is about ten years too late. Countless other films riffed on the Drug War, all with greater degrees of success, further highlighting Vaughn’s myopic sense of American culture. If he wants to take the piss out of America, he should update his sense of our culture by a generation or two.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle has a couple of inspired surprises. Hanna Alström reprises her role as a Swedish Princess, and while she was the, er, butt of the anal sex joke in the first film, now she and Eggsy have a modern, equitable relationship. The juxtapositions can be dizzying: There is a scene where a henchman is forced to eat human flesh, and moments later everyone coos over the appearance of a cute puppy. But for every flash of imagination, there is yet another improbable fight scene between henchmen and cyborgs. Vaughn ends his film on an open-ended note, with a voiceover suggesting another sequel will arrive soon. Rather than sticking to a biannual schedule, perhaps he and Goldman should wait until they discover the right targets, instead of settling on lazy ones.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle opens Friday in theaters everywhere.