Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the bloated, campy, thoroughly stupid sequel to the 2014 action thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service, which made comic hay out of the tension between English Men’s Club manners and insanely graphic violence. The first movie was no classic but had its charms. Director Matthew Vaughn’s syncopated perversity was a relief from the recent, overearnest 007 vehicles, and the two — count ’em — climactic gore orgies made even the most jaded splatter fetishists howl with delight. A sequel was de rigueur, of course, but what a mess it is.
The Golden Circle opens with an incoherently storyboarded car chase introducing the No. 2 villain, a Kingsman reject from the last film named Charlie (Edward Holcroft). Then Vaughn eliminates most of the old cast — including one character I really, really liked and I bet you did, too — and introduces a team of unmagnetic American counterparts. That they’re played by A-listers — Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges — is no compensation when what’s lost is the key to the whole comic conceit: the unflappable, perfectly groomed Englishness of the warriors. Now we get unflappable drawling Kentucky bourbon distillers, who aren’t as funny, especially if we don’t get to sample their whiskey.
Eggsy (Taron Egerton) — inheriting the nom de guerre Galahad following the killing of Colin Firth’s Harry in the first film — and tech wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) flee the U.K. for Kentucky (the Doomsday Protocol), from which they attempt to learn who attacked their organization and why so many people all over the world have blue veins popping out of their faces. They’re stunned to discover an old comrade, who’s so prominent on the poster that I doubt it’s even a spoiler. The chap has lost one eye and his memory following a bullet to the brain but is otherwise hale — if nowhere near as much fun as Kyle MacLachlan’s catatonic simpleton Dougie in the new Twin Peaks. It takes him a long time to recover his memory but he never gets his bonhomie back.
The chief villain is a drug dealer called Poppy, played by Julianne Moore in the mode of a perky ’50s housewife. She presides over a gleaming diner, Poppy’s, in the middle of a jungle, maintaining her frozen smile as she directs one underling to put another headfirst into a giant meat grinder. Moore has a gift for physicalizing silly people, and for a while I relished her steely good cheer and the petulant twist of her mouth when she didn’t get her way. But after a while, she just stands there repeating the same shtick and waiting for the good guys to invade her hideout.
You see, Poppy hates being an exile because she sells drugs in a world where more people die from alcohol and tobacco, so she decides to bring about social change in the most grisly way imaginable. Putting reasonable political sentiments into the mouth of a psychopath is one way to discredit them — though it’s hard to believe Vaughn or anyone else involved thinks of humans as much more than receptacles of blood, bone, and brain matter.
Not as much blood, bone, and brain matter as last time, though. Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty of gruesome killings (done in faux single-takes with whooshy, slow-motion camera moves) but no spectacular set pieces like the church massacre or symphony of exploding heads in The Secret Service. For my money, the biggest gross-out effect is Elton John in the role of Elton John, whom Poppy has kidnapped as part of her attempt to blackmail the world. I’d have paid her to keep him but in any case there he sits, plumed, playing some of his greatest hits, the mere sight of him meant to be riotous. Eventually, he runs around like the queeny guy in Airplane! but can’t even do that very convincingly. Some people will do anything to be in movies.
Taron Egerton is modest and agreeable — though not much else — and there’s a semi-embarrassing but spirited turn by Cara Delevingne’s sister, whose name is, of all things, Poppy. Pedro Pascal has some spark as a cowboy with an electrified lasso. The others are a bore, although this is the first time Bridges has reminded me of his dad, Lloyd, which isn’t necessarily a compliment. (Lloyd was a fine character, but Jeff is generally leagues more inventive.)
One action sequence has a modicum of style: a runaway cable car at a ski resort. The rest made me think fondly of Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which had more visual wit in any given scene than the whole of Kingsman: The Golden Circle. That was an uncharacteristic tempo for Ritchie and the movie, alas, wasn’t a hit, so I doubt he’ll be so restrained again. If audiences respond happily to a movie as cynical as The Golden Circle, maybe they deserve it.