OnScreen Review: 'Kingsman: The Golden Circle'

John P. McCarthy

  • OnScreen Film Critic

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” did well enough at the 2015 box-office (especially abroad) that a clutch of fairly prominent actors has signed on for the sequel. No surprise there. What is surprising is that Elton John joins the cast, playing himself in a small but pivotal role. Moreover, he turns in the movie’s most entertaining performance – outshining fellow check-seekers Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges, along with returnees Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.

Pairing the young Welshman Egerton with Firth worked well in the first go round. As Eggsy, a working-class lad recruited by an upper-crust spy outfit, Egerton provided winsome Cockney counterpoint to Firth’s genteel if lethal agent. Evidently, director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn realized Egerton’s looks, charm and charisma, while sufficient to get the franchise off the ground, could only take it so far. Another reason to concoct a story that necessitated importing talent from across the pond.

In his defense, whatever his limitations as an actor, Egerton can’t be faulted for needing reinforcements when Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman make dropping F-bombs and otherwise cursing like a dolt Eggsy’s default reaction. Clever repartee is rarely the main selling point of a diversion like “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” yet surely imaginative dialogue lifts all boats, even those whose mission is to deliver cool gadgets, slick fashion accessories and elegantly frenetic action sequences. Unfortunately, where the first movie had appreciable flair, this boys-with-their-crime-fighting-toys lark is decidedly more bombastic, crude, and lumbering (clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours).

Tonal dissonance is part of the problem. “The Golden Circle” is jocular and lighthearted yet goes beyond cheeky bits of sophomoric humor to display a dark, somewhat twisted perspective that comes off as grotesque and overly harsh. One example is an icky and anatomically frank scene about planting a tracking device on one of the bad guy’s girlfriends. Several others involve a meat grinder. Of course the comparatively lowbrow material is calculated to appeal to the key demographic of teenaged boys. However much of it also reflects a British sensibility that delights in the absurd and mildly perverse. The result is something along the lines of James Bond meets Benny Hill, as conceived by playwright Joe Orton.

The movie alternates between showcasing noble, heroic sentiments and mean, even heinous behavior. An appetite for kitsch unifies these impulses to a degree. By that I mean, every character is motivated by a fetish for objects and accouterments that they believe capture their ideal aesthetic and philosophy of life. Because they’re all burdened with an excess of nostalgia however, the movie feels slow and heavy. As mentioned, the exception is the glam rocker Elton John, whose ends up being outlandishly inspired.  

The filmmakers are shrewd enough to include plot points and thematic motifs that can be described as topical and semi-serious, and which reflect the prevailing political and cultural mood so audiences will immediately recognize them. They include a right wing, Trump-like American President, an antipathy to capitalism and the inequities of the free-enterprise system, and the societal impetus toward legalizing drugs. These elements aren’t intended to strike any deep chords. At the same time, they don’t succeed in making it a more cogent or entertaining movie. 

In the opening scene, Eggsy—who’s in a serious relationship with Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), the Swedish princess he rescued at the end of the first movie—is assaulted by a Kingsman recruit who didn’t make the grade. This reject now works for an international drug cartel called The Golden Circle, named for the unusual tattoo its queen-pin Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) painfully applies to all her employees.

Poppy was educated at Harvard Business School and is obsessed with 1950’s Americana. In the South American jungle compound that serves as her hideout she’s built an elaborate, full-scale replica of a typical Main Street with a theater, beauty parlor, hot dog stand, and other retail establishments. In the sparkling red-white-and-black diner she uses as her office, a certain kitchen machine serves as her favorite, and extremely macabre, tool of intimidation. She’s also a big believer in robotics and is protected by two mechanized guard dogs that ferociously obey her commands and appear indestructible. And, finally, the most intriguing fact about the mega-wealthy Poppy is that Elton John is her prisoner. Yep, she’s kidnapped the Rocket Man and forces him to tickle the ivories and belt out his hits inside her theater. Understandably, Elton is not happy and crankily complains about this state of affairs.

Following the failed attempt to kill Eggsy, Poppy launches missile attacks on Kingsman headquarters inside a London tailor shop and on its other outposts around the U.K. Only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) survive. The Doomsday Protocol triggered by this catastrophe leads the pair to another independent spy agency based at a Kentucky distillery. The ranks of the Statesman are made up of cowboys skilled at espionage and each has a beverage-related moniker. There’s senior leader Champagne, who goes by Champ (Jeff Bridges, looking old and strikingly like his father Lloyd); Tequila (Channing Tatum), who spends most of the movie cryogenically frozen; ornery, lasso-wielding cowpoke Jack Daniels (Pedro Pascal); and lastly, the outfit’s tech wizard Ginger Ale (an implausibly nerdy-looking Halle Berry) who provides support for agents in the field.  

In the Blue Grass state, Eggsy and Merlin get to know their counterparts and are shocked to discover that their colleague Harry (Firth) did not die at the end of “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” Meanwhile, Poppy sets a maniacal plan in motion. Angry that she’s a fugitive and isn’t accorded the respect she deserves as the world’s most successful businesswoman, she infects her products (cannabis, cocaine, heroin and opium) with a virus that makes partakers look like Roquefort cheeses. Blue veins start appearing on their faces, they turn giddy and feel compelled to dance, and then comes fatal paralysis. With millions upon millions of drug users throughout the world about to die a gruesome death, Poppy announces she’ll release an antidote if recreational drugs are legalized and she’s allowed to reenter society as a legit entrepreneur.

The American President (Bruce Greenwood) views this as an opportunity to further his conservative, Malthusian aims. The Kingsman and Statesman join forces to thwart Poppy’s plan, a mission that takes them to the Alps for an exciting gondola sequence, but otherwise not far enough beyond the Deep South and tired stereotypes about America. More and better use could have been made of the stylish weapons, vehicles and gadgetry at the disposal of the good guys. And because the stateside characters aren’t very intriguing, the new cast members are wasted. Moore is an exception, since Poppy, while hardly a revolutionary or ceiling-shattering figure, is an unusual enough villain to hold our attention.

The other exception is Elton John. He turns out to be a pleasantly bizarre surprise and the movie’s saving grace, though it takes a while. Initially, watching him be exploited by Poppy and her henchmen is cringe inducing and slightly disturbing. He comes off as pathetic for allowing himself to be mocked. (It brings to mind Divine in a John Waters’ movie.) Eventually however, he rises up and fights back, embracing and being empowered by his outré persona (like Divine). Dressed in a version of his signature Mardi Gras costume, “Reggie” lashes out at his captors, both verbally and physically, and provides decisive support during the climactic battle. Kudos to Sir Elton for being able to laugh at himself and, more importantly, for making us laugh along with him. It’s worth the price of admission to see him leap into the air and kick a baddie upside the head. Wearing a pair of his signature platform shoes. And in slow motion.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars