‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ review

'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' can't stack bodies high enough to match the original

Matthew Vaughn spun the spy genre in a new direction with 2015’s surprise hit Kingsman: The Secret Service, but does the sequel measure up to its predecessor? Read on for our Kingsman: The Golden Circle review!

For almost as long as there have been spy movies, there have been films that subvert the traditions of the genre. Some go the comedy route, toying with the tropes of classic secret-agent stories, while others attempt to give the old-school aesthetic of James Bond adventures a modern overhaul, filling the screen with slick visual effects, gritty action, and over-the-top characters.

Despite all of these variations on a theme, few films have been as successful as 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service at giving audiences something truly unique in the well-worn genre.

Director Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Kingsman comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons was an expertly shot, hilariously raunchy, brutally violent, and brilliantly cast “R”-rated adventure that took just about everyone by surprise — to the tune of $414 million worldwide and glowing reviews. It’s also the film that made Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth a bona fide action hero, putting the star of The King’s Speech at the center of one of the most thrilling fight sequences of the year.

The fantastic action sequences that were such a thrill to behold in The Secret Service were no fluke.

All of those accomplishments made a sequel a foregone conclusion, but they also created some pretty big (and impeccably stylish) shoes for this year’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle to fill. This weekend’s follow-up to The Secret Service does manage to raise the bar in some areas, but it’s the elements the movie lacks this time around that keep it from replicating the success of that first, wild film.

Directed once again by Vaughn and co-written by Vaughn and his frequent collaborator, Jane Goldman, The Golden Circle brings back Taron Egerton as “Eggsy” Unwin, a talented young agent in the secret global spy organization Kingsman. Set four years after the events of The Secret Service, The Golden Circle pits Eggsy and a small group of Kingsman agents who survive an attack on their organization against a powerful drug cartel run by criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore). Forced to seek assistance from Statesman, an American version of their organization, the team is eventually reunited with one of their greatest agents, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who miraculously survived taking a bullet to the head the last time Kingsman saved the world.

If there’s one thing Vaughn proves beyond a doubt in The Golden Circle, it’s that the fantastic action sequences that were such a thrill to behold in The Secret Service were no fluke.

The Golden Circle lacks any single set piece as memorable as Firth’s expertly choreographed, masterfully acted takedown of an entire congregation of crazed bible-thumpers in The Secret Service, but it opts instead for quantity of action by packing in noticeably more fight sequences than its predecessor. There’s a sense of reckless momentum that runs through The Golden Circle, propelling its characters from one stylized gunfight or explosive brawl to the next. Vaughn is clearly comfortable assuming the audience is familiar with the characters at this point, and dispenses with anything that doesn’t serve to set up the next fight scene.

With a running time of just over two hours for The Golden Circle, that’s a lot of blood-spattered headshots and choreographed brawls, so it’s fortunate that Vaughn is so skilled at making ultra-violence so entertaining.

Although Julianne Moore’s wacky kingpin is entertaining, neither her character nor her character’s primary henchman — played by returning cast member Edward Holcroft — come close to holding your attention as well as Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella did in the first film, and the absence of that energy creates a void in The Golden Circle. Moore is a tremendously talented actress, but whether it’s a lack of screen time or simply an ill-fitted role, her villain never musters much in the way of menace and the film suffers for it.

Given how much inspiration the Kingsman films take from James Bond’s big-screen adventures — which are often defined as much by their villains as their super-spy hero — it makes sense that The Golden Circle suffers for its lack of a truly effective villain, but it’s disappointing all the same.

At times during The Golden Circle, it seems as if Vaughn realizes something is missing from the film, and compensates by cramming in a long list of high-profile supporting characters.

Channing Tatum’s rifle-toting Agent Tequila is frustratingly underused, while Elton John (yes, that Elton John) overstays his welcome with a role that goes far beyond a simple cameo and stretches what was initially a decent joke a bit too far. Returning actor Mark Strong feels shortchanged with his screen time as Kingsman operations expert Merlin after a strong introduction in The Secret Service, and a host of other characters — including those played by Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges — are introduced at various points only to seemingly disappear into the background or become bullet fodder (or worse) as the story speeds along.

Kingsman The Golden Circle review

One exception to the list of forgettable characters is Pedro Pascal’s whip-cracking, lasso-twirling Agent Whiskey.

The Game of Thrones and Narcos actor makes the best of the screen time he’s given with a fun performance that’s memorable for all the right reasons, and his character’s skills as a rope-handler (whips and lassos are his specialty) provide some of the film’s most clever, eye-catching action sequences. Pascal’s character feels right at home in the over-the-top world of Vaughn’s Kingsman films, and his action scenes — and dialogue — provide some of the film’s best moments.

As for franchise star Egerton, The Golden Circle is willing to let Eggsy carry the film on his shoulders, and for the most part, he does a good job of it.

Firth doesn’t steal the show this time around.

The base level for action in The Golden Circle is ratcheted up a bit from the original film (which is no small feat, given how exciting The Secret Service was), and Egerton doesn’t miss a beat as he’s called upon to pull off some impressive sequences. His chemistry with Firth is also quite good, and Vaughn is smart to have the two actors share the screen as often as possible.

Firth doesn’t steal the show this time around, but a sequence late in the film that has the two Kingsman agents cooperatively battling a common enemy is a masterpiece of choreography and camera work that does well by both actors.

Despite increasing the level of gore and raunchiness, The Golden Circle still feels noticeably tamer than its predecessor, which reveled in going off the rails whenever possible and busting the conventions of the super-spy genre. All too often, Vaughn’s sequel seems content to fall back on visual effects and an exponentially higher body count as a distraction from the movie’s flaws, but what’s underneath all of that visual spectacle simply isn’t as strong this time around.

In the end, there’s a lot that works well in The Golden Circle, but given the wonderfully clever way Vaughn and his cast created something fresh and new out of a well-worn genre in The Secret Service, it’s difficult not to expect something more — not the same, and certainly not less — from that film’s successor.