Review: KINGSMAN - THE GOLDEN CIRCLE a 'Downright MILLAR-ian Guilty Pleasure'

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle" poster
Credit: 20th Century Fox
Credit: 20th Century Fox

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring Taron Edgerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Julianne Moore
Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
‘Rama Rating: 8 out 10

They say manners maketh the man, but if there's one word I'd pick to describe Kingsman: The Golden Circle, I'm not sure if it would be the word "refined."

"Action-packed" might be more appropriate. Or "wild." Or even "chaotic." But by the end of this roller coaster ride - and indeed, roller coaster might be a better descriptor for this sequel than an actual movie - there's one word that seems to distill this film down perfectly.

It's downright Millar-ian.

Forgiving the breach in syntax for a moment, as I watched this rollicking Kingsman sequel, I couldn't help but feel this was the most intense, in-your-face distillation of writer Mark Millar's voice that we've seen on screen yet. (Yes, even including Kick-Ass. When you look at Millar's oeuvre, his work is constantly defined by over-the-top action, crazy high concepts, and a sense of humor that often straddles the line between subversive and just plain juvenile. Whereas the first Kingsman played it relatively (comparatively?) safe, The Golden Circle takes all of its predecessor's qualities and cranks them up to 11, resulting in a sugar-rush kind of spy thriller that's half James Bond, half insane comic book superhero tropes.

Writers Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn start off this story with a bang, as street-kid-turned-superspy Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) is ambushed outside the Kingsman tailor shop by Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a washout candidate who has been upgraded with a killer robotic arm and an attitude to match. To say this opening action sequence is dynamic is putting it mildly - it easily rivals the insanity of the church shootout in the first film, as the camera whips and darts around a fight in the back seat of a cab, bringing viewers (willingly or not) into the middle of the fisticuffs as if they were throwing punches themselves. As Eggsy makes a swan dive to dodge oncoming traffic, it's hard not to be taken in - and believe it or not, this might be the tamest this movie gets.

Well, that's perhaps not accurate. One element where The Golden Circle might be even more charming than its predecessor is seeing Eggsy's home life, now that he's joined the ranks of the Kingsman. You'd think it would be difficult to humanize a guy who is going steady with the Princess of Denmark (a surprising return for Hanna Alstrom), but Goldman and Vaughn are able to take that dynamic to give this movie a beating heart by playing up Taron Egerton’s surprising sensitivity underneath all that spy swagger, particularly in one hilarious scene where Eggsy has to beg Princess Tilde to give him permission to sleep with a target. ("Is this a proposal?" she asks, as all the color seems to rush out of his face. "Because with that kind of security, this would be very different...") Egerton’s Eggsy isn't quite as hard-edged as he was living in the slums last movie, but he's still finding himself in this upper-crust world of manners and spycraft - that is, until his whole world explodes, thanks to a flurry of missiles from the titular crime organization known as the Golden Circle.

One of the most indulgent aspects of the last Kingsman film was Samuel L. Jackson's lisping genocidal maniac Valentine, who has flamboyant flourishes like having Big Mac dinners with millionaires or employing a bodyguard with razor blades for legs. But Julianne Moore's Poppy, a multibillionaire drug queen with a penchant for 1950s nostalgia, terrible puns and killer robots feels simultaneously more and less - like much of this movie itself, Poppy feels like a grab bag of all the crazy stuff Vaughn and company wanted to include in this movie, from Charlie's grappling hook robot arm to gruesome deaths involving Art Deco advertising. It's her plan for world domination that makes the least sense for this movie, as she holds the world's drug users hostage with a deadly virus in order to push a global legalization campaign, leading the U.S. president (Bruce Greenwood) to shrug his shoulders and let all the "lawbreakers" burn. It's a strangely preachy turn for this otherwise devil-may-care movie, and while I get this direction as a possible spinoff point from Valentine's environmentally-inspired terrorism, this bad guy only works if you don't think about her too hard.

The real meat of this film, however, is the culture clash between the Kingsman and their American counterparts, the Statesman. Fair warning, the biggest draw from the trailers - namely, Eggsy teaming up with Channing Tatum - is fairly misleading, as Tatum's Agent Tequila is sidelined almost immediately as he's stricken with the virus and thrown into cryosleep. But the Statesman organization seems to represent both the Kingsman's past and future, as Eggsy is not only paired with Agent Whiskey (Narcos’ Pedro Pascal), but discovers they are holding his mentor Harry (played with absolutely coolness by Colin Firth), who had miraculously survived the events of the last film, albeit with a serious case of amnesia.

It's the Statesman iconography that gives this movie its most memorable beats, with electro-lassos and six-shooters acting as a refreshing counterpoint to the Kingsman’s umbrellas and watches. Yet it’s also the bit where the movie feels the most convenient, and possibly even drops the ball - Jeff Bridges replaces Michael Caine as the elder statesman in charge of this American spy organization, but the script never gives him enough to do other than bankroll Eggsy and company. (Same for Halle Berry’s wonderfully named Ginger Ale, a desk jockey who feels a little redundant next to Mark Strong’s Merlin.) Agent Whiskey, who gets the lion’s share of the Statesman spotlight, unfortunately pales in charisma when placed alongside names like Tatum, Bridges and Berry, not that that’s his fault - but when the script tries to give him a few last-minute twists and turns, you can’t help but feel like the movie is having a bit of an identity crisis as to who the real villains of the movie are. Honestly, who wouldn’t want more of a dustup between the posh Kingsman and their rough-and-rugged cousins?

Yet it’s to this movie’s credit that the two most important Kingsman - Harry and Merlin - play a large role in this story. Whereas he played a more steely version of Q in the previous film, Strong gets to really sink his teeth into his character whenever he comes on screen - watching him go from stoic to weepy after a bottle of whiskey is one of the funnier comedic beats in the whole film, and a stirring rendition of “Country Road” near the film’s climax might actually put a tear in your eye. (Who knew a Kingsman would like country so much?) Firth as Harry, meanwhile, threatens to upstage his young counterpart Eggsy, since he arguably has the biggest dramatic arc out of anyone here, moving from amnesiac butterfly enthusiast to his resolute but wobbly return as a one-eyed Kingsman. The Golden Circle is ultimately the story of Harry’s redemption, and while I can understand the impulse to lean into undoubtedly the coolest member of the Kingsman team, it does distract a little from the central rags-to-riches themes of the original story.

But ultimately, how much are you really going to argue about theme and structure when you’re talking about a movie where Elton John gets to Shaolin kick a bad guy while wearing a rainbow-feathered suit? That’s the niche that Kingsman: The Golden Circle finds itself in, being so loud and brash and over-the-top that it’s able to have its cake and eat it, too, when it comes to taking the time (however briefly) to have its characters grow. In many ways, this is a movie that looks at its predecessor’s most insane moments, shrugs, and tells the audience to hold its pint. More often than not, this is a movie that seems to channel the madcap intensity of its co-creator Mark Millar, which is an experience that moviegoers everywhere might not be ready for, but will likely still find a guilty pleasure in. They say manners maketh the man, but it’s the rude and rowdy qualities that will be most likely to carry Kingsman: The Golden Circle to a box office victory.

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