I imagine the pitch for Kingsman: The Golden Circle went a little something like this: “It will be like the first movie, except EVERY scene will be the church scene”. That may be a slight exaggeration but I think it captures the overall experience of watching Matthew Vaughn’s follow up to 2014’s surprise hit, Kingsman: The Secret Service. The organizing principle here is clearly one of gratuity, with more exotic locations, more hyperkinetic action and (so, so much) more characters. There are times when this philosophy of excess works in The Golden Circle’s favor but, overall, it just causes the movie to buckle under its own weight. I left the first film thinking I had just seen a promising (but admittedly flawed) start to a new franchise. I left this film exhausted, having seen enough Kingsman to last me a lifetime.
The film’s plot concerns the Kingsman organization teaming up with the Statesman (the American equivalent of Kingsman) after a surprise attack leaves their ranks depleted. Said attack is carried out by Julian Moore’s Poppy, who has an evil plan that she doesn’t want Kingsman getting in the way of. Her plan is to infect large portions of the world with a disease and then hold various countries to ransom, make the, give in to her demands that all drugs be legalized and she receive immunity for her crimes. After that, Poppy plans to make money selling drugs in the while also getting the recognition for her business acumen that she is upset about having been denied all these years (really). Vaughn uses Poppy’s status as a drug dealer as a jumping off point to satirize the American government and the war on drugs. Its blunt, sledgehammer satire that doesn’t end up saying a ton but it is, admittedly, kind of fun.
The film is most unwieldly in the character department*. Vaughn and Co added a whole new secret organization, the Statesman, but only one of them, Pedro Pascal’s Agent Whiskey, really contributes to the story in a meaningful way. Channing Tatum is a lot of fun as Agent Tequila for his collective ten minutes of screen time but he’s quickly brushed away to make room for Whiskey. A smarter, leaner movie would have simply collapsed them into one character but the screenwriters of The Golden Circle couldn’t be bothered. There is clunky stuff like this all over the movie. We learn about The Golden Circle organization through the POV of a character named Angel (Tom Benedict Knight) and a lengthy sequence with him in the beginning of the film. After that, he drops off the movie and becomes completely unimportant. There is another Golden Circle member who serves as one of the more central antagonists and Vaughn really could have just used that character for the purposes of introducing us to the Golden Circle but, again, the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to streamline the movie in this way.
In the giant mess of everything, the filmmakers end up having some surprising and strange priorities. Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has the thinnest of thin character arcs but Haley Barry’s Ginger Ale is given a journey from a Merlin-eqsue computer job to a field agent even though we don’t know anything about her and thus cannot be dramatically invested in this journey. Who is this woman? Will she be good at being a field agent? The film doesn’t have time to answer these questions because it has to keep cutting back to all of the superfluous characters who have nothing to do with anything. For example, Eggsy’s friends from the first movie are back and we spend more time than you might think with them, given that they have no bearing on the narrative proper (by that I mean that you could cut every scene that they were in and the movie would be no worse off). Why not give these scenes to Ginger, or cut her out of the movie entirely if she’s going to be as thin a character as she ends up being?
The action scenes are, taken on their own, fantastic. I can safely say that I will be watching a couple of them on YouTube with the same regularity that I rewatch the church scene from the first film. What I won’t be inclined to do, however, is rewatch the movie when I want to enjoy these scenes. I will watch the scenes discretely because the film is so jam packed with indulgent, hyperkinetic action that it left me feeling a kind of sensory overload by the time the last one rolled around. Yes, watching Whiskey bust out his laser whip was great the first time. It was fun the second time. By the third lengthy, overlong whip-heavy action scene, enough was enough. It is a somewhat trite metaphor but I am inclined to compare it to eating your favorite food for every meal of every day. It doesn’t matter how nice each action scene is on its own because each is just part of a whole and the whole is exhausting.
I love Matthew Vaughn as a director. During this movie, I couldn’t help but wonder where the restrained director of X-Men: First Class had gone but I hope he comes back. Kingsman: The Golden Circle can be a lot of fun and I wouldn’t call it an outright catastrophe. It just makes so many wrongheaded decisions that it is impossible to be anything other than disappointed, at least for me anyway. Had Vaughn been able to reign in his self indulgence and “crank it to 11” attitude, I might be here telling you to look forward to the next Kingsman movie. As it stands, I am telling you to maybe check this one out if over the top spy action is your thing but also to severely temper your expectations.
*There is one narrative justification that I can think of for why the film has so many characters that don’t end up being important but explaining it would get into some pretty heavy spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that in a movie this convoluted and bloated, I don’t think the pay off is worth it.