Matthew Vaughn’s 2014 action film Kingsman: The Secret Service was mostly a blast, and despite a few rough patches (the slaughter at the church, the sex-reward from the princess), it was a nice spin on the spy genre. Vaughn basically made his own version of Bond, and played up the sillier aspects while still making us invested in the hardscrabble protagonist, Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Since spies always have work to do, a sequel seemed like a promising idea, but sadly, Kingsman: The Golden Circle plays like a last-ditch attempt to do everything, and it does very little particularly well. Despite another charming performance from Egerton, Vaughn’s kitchen sink approach leaves the movie feeling bloated and unable to carry its cartoonish tone. Rather than being a light, fun piece of escapist entertainment, The Golden Circle suffers from trying to do too much.
Eggsy is living it up as a Kingsman, and he’s got a good thing going with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) until cheerful drug kingpin Poppy (Julianne Moore) has to go and blow the Kingsman organization to hell. Eggsy and his quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong) are forced to get help from the organization’s American cousins, the Statesmen. Once in the U.S., they discover an alive Harry Hart (Colin Firth), but also that Poppy is poisoning her drug supply in an attempt to blackmail the government into legalizing all drugs, which would make Poppy both rich and able to come out of hiding from her South American lair. Eggsy teams up with Statesman Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and Harry to try and track down the antidote and save the world again.
Even though The Golden Circle is only ten minutes longer than its predecessor, it feels substantially larger because it’s trying to do so much. Even though The Secret Service runs two hours and ten minutes, it’s largely focused on Eggsy learning to become a Kingsman and Valentine’s evil plan. The story can afford to run a little long because it has a very simple focus and those two plotlines tie together with Eggsy having to defeat Valentine. By comparison, The Golden Circle is all over the place, throwing in a bunch of disparate ideas but never figuring out a way to make them work together.
The initial drive seems to be a little fish-out-of-water story with Eggsy and Merlin having to figure out how to work with the Statesmen, but the Statesmen stuff falls flat, which is surprising when all of its actors, which also includes an underutilized Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges, all seem game to play along. No disrespect to Pascal, who’s a great actor, but the film never really seems to know how to use him or even how to make him play off of Eggsy. Instead of being their own entity, the Statesmen seem to exist simply as a backup plan plus a way to get Harry back into the story.
And while having Harry around is nice, that’s another burden the story has to carry, and you can already see the wheels coming off as Vaughn attempts to juggle new characters and subplot along with just trying to get the A-plot moving so that we care about Eggsy stopping Poppy. Even at almost two and a half hours, there’s no room for The Golden Circle to breathe because it’s so eager to throw in every idea. It’s a movie that, in its desire to have an action scene set to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, will cram in a bunch of scenes with Elton John, and hope that you just have fun with Elton John playing himself. I like Elton John as much as the next guy, but he doesn’t significantly make the film stronger.
This leads to a movie that’s intermittently amusing, but for as cartoony as it gets (and it’s super cartoony), it can’t handle everything that it’s trying to do. For every scene that tries to get back to how the original upended the spy genre, such as one bit where Eggsy has to plant a bug in an unconventional way, you also have a scene like the one where Poppy has her robot dogs rip an errant henchman to shreds. I understand that the impulse with blockbuster sequels is to go bigger and bolder, but for The Golden Circle, it ends up creating a mess that deprives the film of the energy and verve of the original.