With Kingsman: The Golden Circle, director Matthew Vaughn has committed himself to a task he’s never faced before: producing a sequel to his successful and surprising original hit. That hit was Kingsman: The Secret Service, an action film with a twist, satirising and upturning spy movie tropes to the humorous satisfaction of its audience. Vaughn has made this his directorial oeuvre to some extent: as the first Kingsman played with spy movie clichés, Vaughn’s Stardust left no fantasy formulas untouched, and the same with Kick-Ass, a brutal shuriken to the skull of superhero silliness.
So it’s a shame that The Golden Circle falls foul of its predecessor by committing the very crimes that original film sought to challenge: subsuming to cliché with bombast and banality, Vaughn’s sequel is a disappointment.
Without giving too much away, The Golden Circle continues the adventures of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), now dubbed Galahad, serving as a Kingsman operative and tackling the world’s greatest threats. His newest adversary? Charmingly psychotic Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a megalomaniacal drug mogul with a penchant for all things 50’s, leading her organisation ‘The Golden Circle’ in a battle to legalize her merchandise. Eggsy’s latest allies, assisting in his quest to end Poppy’s schemes? The Statesmen: America’s answer to the sharply-suited Kingsman, with a preference for all things bourbon whisky and cowboy weaponry.
With these narrative developments, you’d think that Vaughn were following in the footsteps of Chad Stahelski and the trajectory of the John Wick franchise: deepen the universe, rather than complicate the plotline itself. In some areas, Vaughn achieves a similar effect: the introduction of the Statesmen is a promising prospect, particularly when the talent of Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal and Channing Tatum are relied upon to bring it to life.
However, the Statesmen’s introduction is only one of many new expansions within the Kingsman mythos: there’s a couple of welcome returns (one heavily confirmed by the marketing), a side-story involving the first Kingsman’s Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), a consistent cameo from a British icon that never ceases to entertain, a peculiar segue into American politics with the President (Bruce Greenwood) and his unorthodox reaction to Poppy’s plan, a portrayal unsubtly caricatured from that reality TV star who’s currently sitting in the Oval Office. I think you see what I’m getting at.
Rather than follow in the former film’s satirical footsteps, by mocking ‘sequelitus’ and its tendency for overindulgence and gratuitous plot complications, Vaughn takes it too far in terms of narrative information. There’s no through-line, like the original’s coming-of-age catharsis with Eggsy’s journey from London ruffian to debonair gentleman. It’s a lot of narrative baggage, dragging this cinematic camel down to the point of exhaustion.
And the aforementioned clichés? As screenwriter and director, Vaughn has unfortunately injected every sense of formula into the film’s blood stream, at every golden opportunity. From far-fetched plot turns, to silly scenes of villain exposition, and an indefatigable reliance upon ridiculous action moments, Kingsman: The Golden Circle relishes them all, yet without any of the wit and self-reflexivity of Vaughn’s previous work. There are moments where the action reaches peak lunacy, breaking every law of physics in the book. We wait, patiently, for the moment when Vaughn gives us the wink to laugh along with it. Yet, it doesn’t come. He falls into the fatal trap of trying to make us care for a kind of filmmaking that worked in the days of Roger Moore’s Bond, yet induces eye-rolls and shrugs in our era. A sequence involving a cable car and a precarious ravine would welcome a sardonic edge. And yet, with Henry Jackman’s grandiose score pulsating throughout, intensifying the insanity on screen, it often feels like Vaughn expects us to take it all seriously, even identify with it. And as you can imagine, it’s all but impossible to do so.
Worst of all, Vaughn crafts an early sequence within the confines of a muddy Glastonbury marquee that left me feeling a little unsettled, of all feelings to experience in a campy spy caper. An off-the-cuff plan involving a condom-shaped tracking device, a target with ties to the Golden Circle, and an apparent necessity to implant said device into the target’s uterus, felt wildly inappropriate and mishandled, especially considering early developments with Eggsy’s personal ties to the Princess Tilde. Rather than a clever confrontation of gender stereotypes within the spy genre, and its tendency to objectify women, Vaughn once again conforms to cinematic conservatism, underserving the female characters in the process.
It’s a frustrating experience because there is so much potential resting beneath the cacophony of action movie noise that blasts out of the cinematic surround. In one action sequence, set within a Cambodian ruin, Vaughn delivers some of the gutsy gusto that the previous film delivered so fervently, knowingly winking at the camera (literally, in one hilariously meta moment) and bringing us along for the ride. Jackman’s score is absent, with the action brilliantly covered by Elton John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’: the eye-popping rapidity of the editing and camerawork, combined with this catchy yet nonconformist music choice, gives the scene an irreverence that flashes back to Vaughn’s finest work.
It’s just a shame that Vaughn only finds his footing so late into the game, with everything that came before being so heavily steeped in tactless tradition. In spite of its game stars (with Egerton proving himself a worthy franchise frontrunner) and a strong cinematographical offering from George Richmond, the film is too often rambunctious, convoluted and chaotic, lacking the intelligence, wit and substance of the original. Because of this, Kingsman: The Golden Circle fails to deliver the satisfying punch that you’d expect from a Matthew Vaughn production: we can only hope that he learns from this sequel’s shortcomings for the probable third instalment.