If the Kingsman franchise is a one-trick pony, at least its one trick is a pretty good one.
The Golden Circle – once again starring Taron Egerton and directed by Matthew Vaughn – is the kind of sequel that seems unlikely to win over anyone who hated the first one.
If, on the other hand, you were a big fan of Kingsman: The Secret Service‘s cartoonish violence, bawdy humor, and overall 13-year-old-on-Pixy-Stix vibe – well, then, The Golden Circle will probably be for you.
There are a few differences this time around. The Golden Circle destroys Kingsman’s London headquarters in the first act, prompting secret agents Eggsy (Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) to reach out to their American counterparts for help.
The American version of Kingsman turns out to be Statesman, an extra-governmental organization hiding in plain sight as a successful distillery in Kentucky. And the culprit behind the attack on Kingsman is very quickly revealed to be the Golden Circle, an international drug cartel led by the unnervingly cheerful Poppy (Julianne Moore, having the time of her life).
The Golden Circle does for the United States what The Secret Service did for the United Kingdom. Namely, take an idealized self-image and dial it up to 11. It’s not enough that Statesman is in the business of bourbon, that most American of spirits. Their agents (played by Pedro Pascal, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, and Jeff Bridges) wear cowboy hats and boots and arm themselves with rifles and lassos. They chew tobacco and speak in honeyed drawls.
Poppy, too, is unmistakably a product of American culture. Indeed, she’ll tell you herself that she “grew up on all that awesome 1950s nostalgia,” name-checking Grease, American Graffiti, and Happy Days. Her headquarters is a chrome-and-vinyl diner guarded by minions in letterman-style jackets. She’s even got something of our famously entrepreneurial spirit, bragging that she’s “the most successful businesswoman in the world.”
The States prove to be such an intriguing new addition to the Kingsman universe that I’m actually disappointed to report that The Golden Circle remains very much focused on the series’ British leads. Tatum isn’t in the film nearly as much as the marketing suggests, but Game of Thrones scene-stealer Pascal is put to perfect use as the dashing Agent Whiskey.
The Golden Circle is less successful when it brushes up against current events. There are references to “thoughts and prayers” and “keeping [America] great” – which are somewhat undermined by the fact that the film’s news channel of choice is Fox News. (The network shares a parent company with 20th Century Fox, which is behind Kingsman.)
Without giving too much away, the film eventually stumbles into the debate over the War on Drugs and makes a bunch of noise that amounts to very little. On the one hand, the film questions our lack of empathy, even having a character point out in dialogue that “whether they broke the law or not, those [drug users] are human beings.” On the other, the characters who represent the pro-legalization side are … kinda dicks, to say the least. So, ¯_(ツ)_/¯, I guess.
Then again, no one comes to these movies for their brilliant social commentary. Kingsman‘s appeal lies in its jokes and its violence, both of which fly fast and furious in The Golden Circle. The film is downright American in its tendency toward excess – it runs a hefty 141 minutes long, and crams that time with more extended action sequences, more characters, more subplots, and more dead bodies than I cared to keep track of.
The overall effect is kind of numbing, but from moment to moment it’s the cinematic equivalent of a cotton candy sugar rush. This is a movie in which Oscar winner Colin Firth is made to yell “You’re not Mr. Pickles!” at a yawning puppy, in which one character’s love of John Denver becomes an honest-to-God plot point, in which Elton John gets the most ridiculously colorful hero moment of all. Look for something to chew on here, and you’ll be disappointed. But if all you want is a hit of escapist pleasure, you’ve come to the right place.