“Manners maketh man.” This is the creed of the Kingsman, a private secret service of gentlemen spies operating out of a London tailor shop. It’s also what makes the Kingsman franchise work. In an action movie landscape littered with conflicted, self-hating action anti-heroes, the Kingsman agents, with their immaculate suits and bullet proof umbrellas, harken back to time when you could be a proper gentleman while blowing everything and everyone to smithereens.
2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service introduced us into a world of super spies that managed to simultaneously feel both familiar and fresh. It was a cartoonishly violent lampoon of the spy genre that remembered to be a satisfying spy film in its own right. The film’s young protagonist, wayward youth turned spy-in-training Eggsy, played by breakout Taron Egerton, was a secret agent for the 21st century. When we pick up with Eggsy in The Golden Circle, he’s a full-fledged Kingsman agent and by the end of the first act, he’s the last one left.
The first film’s big baddie, an apocalyptic tech billionaire who can’t stand the sight of blood, set the bar high for gonzo villains. The Golden Circle vaults over that bar with ease, giving us Poppy, an international drug lord played by a wonderfully manic Julianne Moore, who runs her drug empire from the middle of the jungle in a 1950’s inspired compound called Pollyworld, complete with a captive Elton John to play music for her. Polly has no problem with blood. In her first scene she happily demands a recruit throw a disloyal employee into a meat grinder so she can make a hamburger out of him. Tired of living in hiding, Poppy laces all her drugs world wide with a deadly poison and holds the antidote ransom, demanding that the President of the United States declare all drugs legal so she can rejoin society. The first phase of this plan – kill all the Kingsman.
With their fellow spies dead, Eggsy teams up with Merlin (Mark Strong), the Kingsman’s Q, and heads to Kentucky to enlist the help of the Statesman, Kingsman’s American counterpart. Instead of suits, Statesman makes liquor and names all their agents after various liquors – Channing Tatum is Tequila, Pedro Pascal Whiskey, and Jeff Bridges is Champagne, the head of Statesman. With millions of lives on the line and the clock ticking, the two spy agencies embark on a globetrotting adventure to save the world.
Director Matthew Vaughn intended Kingsman to be a series that harkened back to a time when spy movies were fun, and The Golden Circle is nothing if not fun. It feels like a Roger Moore era Bond film but with a lot more blood. The blend of slapstick camp and ultra-violence won’t be to everyone’s taste and if the first film turned your stomach than this one will too. I for one will never turn down a film with a laser-equipped lasso that cuts people in half.
The Golden Circle is, for the most part, an improvement over the first film, doubling down on the things that worked in the first film and that means, amongst other things, bringing back Colin Firth as Eggsy’s spy mentor Harry. Yes, he was shot in the face in the last film and yes the way they bring him back is absurd and yes it is awesome. This, of course, means we’re treated to the one thing The Secret Service didn’t give us, which is a tag-team fight with Harry and Eggsy, which is also absurd and awesome. The action sequences aren’t necessarily bigger in this sequel, but they are better, building character and plot development into the action. Very rarely does a scene only work in one dimension and that’s a testament to just how good the script by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn is. Nearly every scene in The Golden Circle furthers the plot and deepens its characters while both subverting genre expectations and building its own mythology.
Vaughn’s sequel doesn’t just improve upon the successful elements of the first film; it also attempts to fix some of the less successful ones. One of the more cringe-inducing moments in The Secret Service was Eggsy’s deal with the Swedish Princess Tilde to save the world in exchange for sex. This idea of sex as reward felt like a crass, old-fashioned Bond cliché that made it into the film with no twist or modern take. In The Golden Circle, Eggsy is now dating Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), and struggling to balance his relationship with his Kingsman responsibilities. This becomes more complicated when he discovers his new mission may require sleeping with the enemy. It’s a fresh take on an old trope and accomplishes something that few sequels do: it takes one of the worst moments in the first film and turn it into one of the most entertaining subplots of the film.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Kingsman: The Secret Service pitched itself as a spy series for the modern world. With The Golden Circle, Vaughn has proved that this is a franchise with legs. Taron Egerton continues to be excellent as Eggsy and Colin Firth continues to be the action star we never knew we wanted. The Golden Circle improves upon the first film in nearly every aspect, creating a globetrotting thrill ride that never forgets to be fun. And Kingsman is some of the most fun I’ve had in the theatre all year.