That’s an exaggeration, but only slightly. The film has something like five antagonists, which it keeps juggling, with four or five different storylines. Every single character has a double or even a triple somewhere, and though some of that is built into the story (which is centered on an American version of the Kingsman independent spy agency), it often feels as if the movie kept casting recognizable actors, then felt obligated to come up with characters for all of them.
The Golden Circle is two hours and 21 minutes long, and at least half of that feels like clutter. The dramatic stakes are inert, the filmmaking is hyperactive, and the movie keeps introducing characters only to shuffle them offscreen a couple of minutes later. And just like the first movie, the film’s politics are all over the place in a way that should be fun but ends up feeling distracting.
Yet it’s hard to hate this movie too much. It has a weird generosity toward its audience. It keeps giving and giving and giving, until you’re overstuffed. It’s a Thanksgiving feast movie, where you’re vaguely impressed at all of the effort, even if the individual elements leave something to be desired.
So that in mind, here’s the good, bad, and weird of a very, very good, bad, and weird movie.
Good: This movie is full of stars, and they’re all having a great time
Kingsman: The Secret Service was beautifully cast, with a bunch of actors at all levels of fame, who took perfectly to the film’s “if the secret magic world from Harry Potter were actually a secret world of spies with James Bond-style gadgets” vibe. Established actors like Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson had some of the most fun of their careers, and rising stars like Taron Egerton and Sophie Cookson ably stepped into the shoes of “the next generation.”
Golden Circle returns most of these actors to the series (sans Jackson, the first film’s antagonist), then keeps adding new players. Jeff Bridges turns up as the head of the Statesman, the American equivalent to the Kingsman. Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal, and Halle Berry are all Statesman employees. Julianne Moore plays a gleefully wholesome psychopath. There’s even a surprisingly large part for Elton John, of all people.
Now, a lot of this is intimately tied to why this movie doesn’t quite work on a story level (about which more in the next section), but it’s hard to deny just how much fun all of these actors are having.
Moore, in particular, plays her character — a drug cartel queen named Poppy, who turns a city of ruins in the jungle into a riff on ’50s Americana — as a hollow smile, gleaming in the darkness. The character barely makes sense, and she’s mostly there to kill a variety of other characters in gruesome ways, but Moore is having the time of her life. You just kind of go with it.
But that said, having so many characters means all of them need something to do. And that means...
Bad: This movie has no idea what it wants to be
Part of the appeal of the Kingsman movies is the way director Matthew Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman keep throwing new ideas at the audience. When he’s at his best (which, admittedly, is not always), Vaughan is one of my favorite blockbuster directors, someone who has a cheeky command of tone that continually insists you not take anything too seriously, but, also, you should take it absolutely seriously.
Vaughn’s best movies (like X-Men: First Class and the British Layer Cake) fully engage with their ridiculous premises and sleek surfaces, but also keep their fingers crossed behind their backs. You can’t always see it, but you know there’s a joke somewhere.
For better or worse, Golden Circle is the most Matthew Vaughn movie. This means that he’ll insist you buy into the emotional connection between Egerton’s Eggsy (the young recruit from the first film, now a full-fledged Kingsman) and Firth’s Harry (his former mentor, presumed dead when Golden Circle begins), while also largely hand-waving away Harry’s survival after a gunshot to the head. It means that a one-off gag about Elton John somehow turns into a full-fledged (if abruptly realized) arc about celebrities in captivity. It means that an entire major storyline about the president — played by Bruce Greenwood in full “George W. Bush, I guess?” mode — is introduced two-thirds of the way through. (In case you’ve forgotten, Secret Service exploded Barack Obama’s head by implication.)
But it also means there’s just too much. John, for instance, is a lot of fun, and his songs provide the backdrop for some kinetically exuberant action sequences — but the movie has already established a major emotional throughline involving the music of John Denver. Characters will fill one story function, then another, then yet another, without any real sense of how they’re meant to be the same person from scene to scene.
Poppy is the primary antagonist, but the film also has several other secondary antagonists, and it keeps tagging them in like a WWE match. Poppy doesn’t like to work with people, because they’re untrustworthy, so she builds robot help — except for when she trusts her human lackeys implicitly. She mostly destroys the Kingsman organization (something that had already sort of happened in Secret Service), but apparently doesn’t care about the Statesman group, something that doesn’t make sense, until it does make sense, until it doesn’t again.
What I’m saying is that everything in this movie contradicts itself, because it’s so intent on giving viewers a good time, moment to moment. Because it’s Vaughn and Goldman, it’s pretty obvious that on some level, they’re mocking the idea of big, overstuffed sequels. It’s just not immediately clear that the way to do that was to make a big, overstuffed sequel — no matter how much I loved seeing Channing Tatum as a tobacky-spittin’ cowboy for about five minutes.
Good: But it is mocking the idea of big, overstuffed sequels
Vaughn directs movies like he’s drunk a whole pot of coffee, then started snapping his fingers while muttering, “Cool. Cool cool cool,” under his breath. His action sequences zoom dramatically between big, gruesome moments, the camera speeding up before slowing down to take in someone’s head being blown away, kinda-sorta mimicking the experience of reading a comic book. (The Kingsman series is — at this point very loosely — based on a comic by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.)
For plenty of people, that description will be a turn off. But I love the way Vaughn simultaneously wants to give the audience more, more, more of what he thinks we want, while shaking his head at all the dumb bullshit we like. Late in this film, Elton John gets into a fight with some bad guys, then launches himself through the air, high-booted heel aimed at a baddie’s throat. Vaughn pivots the camera, slowing the chaos down, so John can look right at the camera and grin.
It’s preposterous and glorious all at once, and when The Golden Circle focuses on hitting the sweet spot between glorious stupidity and sheepish but unashamed enjoyment of said glorious stupidity, it works really well. I laughed so much at this movie, even when I was aware it was a gigantic mess.
Bad: Bringing back Harry tanks the movie’s dramatic stakes
For roughly half the movie, the scenes with Harry (who’s lost his memory and lives in Statesman custody, where he believes he’s a butterfly expert) feel as if they’ve been randomly inserted in between other things that are happening, simply because Firth was so associated with the first film.
Saying that Harry survived being shot in the head was always going to involve some degree of a dramatic cheat, but the one Golden Circle settles on — which involves a secret technology the Statesman have developed to survive being shot in the head — utterly robs the movie of any of its stakes. It makes the movie’s gleeful approach to violence feel especially empty, because even if the good guys get shot, they can be resurrected thanks to what’s effectively magic.
It reminded me a little bit of the TV show Archer, where the joke is that the good guys can survive a hail of bullets solely because they’re the protagonists. Golden Circle is aiming for some of the same cheekiness, but the gravity of Harry’s death lent the first film a surprising amount of power. Going back on that shortchanges the second film.
Weird: Something something treatment of women? Legalization of drugs? Maybe?
Secret Service famously concluded with an anal sex gag that turned off plenty of audience members. In Golden Circle, Vaughn and Goldman pointedly lean into that gag, with Eggsy and Princess Tilde of Sweden (who offered him said anal sex) now trying to engage in a real relationship, which becomes all the more difficult thanks to Eggsy’s day job, where casual sex is part of the job description.
But Golden Circle struggles when it tries to deal with female characters beyond their status as punchlines. It doesn’t have a single fictional woman who doesn’t end up existing solely to artificially boost the movie’s dramatic stakes — and this, sadly, includes Roxy, Cookson’s character, who was a stand out in movie one when playing a sort of Hermione to Eggsy’s Harry Potter. The villains’ ultimate scheme is only properly understood any time it threatens the movie’s women, and Poppy, even as gleefully played by Moore, is ultimately just a goofy satire of ’50s sitcom motherhood. Halle Berry’s character, Ginger Ale, probably comes out the best, but she also spends most of the movie sitting behind a desk, telling people what to do, like Melissa McCarthy at the beginning of Spy.
This, however, is in keeping with the Kingsman series’ politics, which veer wildly between a kind of lasseiz faire libertarianism — what does it matter if people use drugs recreationally? — and arch-conservative nightmare, where the worst elements of society are always waiting to devour the classy patriarchy whole. The series fetishizes traditional masculine notions of British class and propriety (to the degree that American masculinity is presented in Golden Circle mostly as a boorish joke), but it also knows it shouldn’t, but it also really wants to.
And yet that’s what I like about the series’ spin on conservatism. It’s honest enough to admit that, even when it knows better, there’s something oddly appealing about the idea of good manners and proper etiquette being able to stand in for an actual moral compass. It’s not deluded enough to think that’s the whole deal, but somewhere in its heart, it really wants to think just looking the part is 75 percent of the job. Maybe that’s a fantasy primarily relegated to white men in 2017, but Kingsman understands why it would be seductive.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in theaters Friday, September 22. If nothing else, it’s wild!