Kingsman: The Golden Circle was released in 2017, a mere two years after the first instalment in the saga. Like many other fans of the first film, I had high hopes for this second episode, especially as Matthew Vaughn returned as director, and the trailer showed that Kingsmen would now be working alongside their American cousins, the Statesmen. Unfortunately, the film proved to be quite disappointing, and critical reception was fittingly more mixed than for its predecessor. In The Golden Circle, we still follow Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) now a fully trained Kingsman agent, as he faces the destruction of the agency’s HQ, courtesy of drug dealing villainess Poppy (Julianne Moore). To foil her plans and avoid global chaos, Eggsy enlists the help of the Statesmen, spies who are into the whiskey business. Despite some creative ideas, the film is a letdown, closer to a parody of the first and losing the unique characters which made Kingsman… well, Kingsman!
When is too much actually too much?
While the first Kingsman did have some heavy jokes, is could also boast a good plot, badass action scenes, unique villains and interesting protagonists. Well, forget about (most) of those, because in The Golden Circle, the main goal is to make you laugh – and not much else. I did wonder whether my disappointment with the film was because of unrealistic expectations: one of the trailers’ tagline was “A proper spy movie”, and I was quite eager to see what that meant. Despite these good intentions (Matthew Vaughn mentioned in an interview that Kick-Ass 2 taught him what not to do in a sequel) the end product still feels depressingly disappointing. In fact, TGC is sometimes close to a parody of the first Kingsman movie. The humour is here even more heavy-handed than in the previous film, but far less jokes land. Now, I have nothing against brainless action flicks, but when you are making “A proper spy movie”, you need to offer a little more than brawls and crass puns.
The first Kingsman film worked well because it mixed humour with an actual storyline and some pretty serious stakes. Here, everything is treated as one big joke, even death: as much as I like his character, seeing superspy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) magically coming back to life is a huge disappointment – and don’t even get me started on his presence being spoiled by the trailers. This lack of seriousness makes it much harder to get emotionally invested in the story, and (spoiler alert here) even agent Merlin’s sacrifice feels like it might be reversed in the next film. Owing to its main villainess and her job as a drug dealer, TGC also looked like it would have something interesting to say on the topical issue of legalisation (much like the first movie discussed climate change), but again, this ended being an excuse to blow things up and deliver more puns.
Kingsmen, Statesmen and a supervillain
The biggest letdown for me might be the characters: Eggsy went from a cool guy trying to get his life back in control to the blandest action hero possible. His personality is far less developed than in the first movie, and the most conflict he has here is arguing with his girlfriend. Even the death of his friends affects him for approximately five minutes – talk about a character arch! Eggsy’s relationship with the resurrected Harry is also dull, missing the mentor/mentee feel of the first, despite the fact that Harry’s injuries could have created an interesting shift in power dynamic.
Instead, more time is spent focusing on the Statesmen, US equivalent of Kingsmen. The idea of an underground network of super-spies is definitely interesting, especially as we haven’t seen much of it in movies, and are more used to disavowed agents out on their own (or networks of assassins – just think Wick). Yet we never get much info about the Statesmen apart from their passion for alcohol (who designed that whiskey-bottle-shaped HQ?) and cowboy hats. But there are simply too many of them for the Statesmen to become unique and endearing, and they end up being more style than substance.
And, of course, there is the villain: Julianne Moore as the infamous Poppy, a dealer on a crusade to legalise all drugs. Poppy has a passion for 1950s memorabilia, a cool lair in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, and a meat grinder to take care of lazy employees. I love her unique character design and the care put into creating an entire small town in the middle of the jungle for just a few scenes. But despite this and Moore’s solid performance, Poppy suffers from what I’d call “henchman syndrome”: she is the main villain, but is treated as a henchwoman by the narration. We have a very good introductory scene at the beginning of the movie which outlines how dangerous she is (and puts the grinder to good use), but we don’t see nearly enough of her after that. The only thing we do see in Julianne Moore sitting around with her best Stepford Wives smile on. Having a character set up as a force to be reckoned with in their first scene and fading away afterwards is typical of henchmen (who usually let their boss shine), but doesn’t create a memorable main villain. Here, we instead have Elton John in the spotlight – guess at least we got good music!
Formulaic shouldn’t mean soulless
So, how bad is The Golden Circle? Well, it is watchable, but feels like a huge step down from the first: the originality of the first Kingsman movie, its interesting characters and cool premise (who would’t want to be recruited by a secret service agency?) are replaced by other-the-top jokes and an electric lasso (admittedly pretty cool). This sequel just falls into the classic trap of cashing in on a successful franchise without having enough inspiration for another good story. Watch it if you are looking for a fun Friday night flick – some brawls are entertaining, especially the final showdown which sees Harry and Eggsy fighting side-by-side – but don’t expect anything too ultimate this time around.