This review contains spoilers.
If you enjoyed the anal sex joke that closed Kingsman: The Secret Service, I have great news for you: Kingsman: The Golden Circle has no less than three callbacks to that joke, one of which is actually kind of adorable. If you didn’t enjoy the anal sex joke from the 2015 Matthew Vaughn spy yarn/piss take, prepare to hold The Golden Circle’s beer.
Vaughn’s new film suffers from a kind of Observer Effect: it knows what we loved about the original, is kind of self-satisfied by what mortified us about the original, and endeavors to give us more of both. Everything is scaled up, and the end result is too much of a good thing, too much of some bad things, and just too much of everything. Where the first Kingsman was a shot in the arm, The Golden Circle is a truncheon to the skull.
The new film finds Eggsy (Taron Egerton) settling into life as a Kingsman agent, which means fending off an attack on his life by disgruntled Kingsman candidate Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and some assorted goons, the battle set against the ticking clock of...Eggsy’s dinner date with his girlfriend Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). Disregarding the Kingsman tradition of abstaining from relationships, Eggsy has opted for domestic bliss, and is preparing for the daunting challenge of meeting his lady's parents - the King and Queen of Sweden.
Meanwhile, Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a Martha Stewart-esque business wizard/drug lord operating from a secret base inside a South American ruin (which she’s desecrated with 50s-themed shops and venues). Annoyed with the Kingsman sniffing around her operations, Poppy sends missiles to destroy every last member of the agency. Their ranks decimated, Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) follow a series of clues to Kentucky, where they discover their American counterparts, the Statesmen - and an amnesiac Harry (Colin Firth), who’s regressed mentally to his early 20s, when he dreamed only of being a lepidopterist.
Like its predecessor, The Golden Circle presents a supervillain whose plot...this reviewer is kind of on board with? Where Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) was trying to wipe out a chunk of humanity for the good of the planet, Poppy has infected her entire user base with a virus - one that will prove fatal without an antidote, which Poppy will only release if the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) ends drug prohibition. That's right: Poppy is a supervillain whose plan for world domination is simply “legalize it.” Or is the supervillain the President himself, who sees Poppy’s virus - and ignoring her ransom demand - as a way to win the war on drugs once and for all?
The Golden Circle tries to match the heart of the original, but there’s just not enough room for it amidst the long plastic takes of shootouts, fistfights and car chases. When the human stuff sneaks in between the pixels it mostly works - Egerton delivers, and Strong gets to shine as Merlin - but the Harry/Eggsy stuff is too contrived (bringing Harry back is a cheat, plain and simple) to land the way it once did. A bigger problem in this department is a plot detail that entails Eggsy forcing Harry to relive a past trauma to snap him out of his amnesia. It’s hard to believe the Eggsy from the first film would take Harry’s placid new state of mind away from him.
The Statesmen are a great idea, but their implementation is wonky, for reasons that would spoil the film’s third act. Jeff Bridges is essentially a cameo; Channing Tatum literally spends the bulk of the film on ice. Pedro Pascal is in fine form as the lasso-wielding Agent Whiskey, while Halle Berry feels about as utilized as Roxy (Sophie Cookson) was in the original (though a good deal more than Roxy is utilized here, alas).
The largely cgi action sequences are too weightless and too numerous to be as iconic as the church massacre from the original, though they all seem to be clamoring for its title. But by the 130th minute of the movie, the battles are about as impactful as your basic digital Marvel slugfest (only with more headshots).
The real water cooler stuff is going to be about how much this movie doubles down on the ugliness of the original. Poppy auditions new henchmen by feeding them burgers made out of former henchmen. Her virus’ end stage is some gruesome Blumhouse stuff. There’s a somewhat laudable attempt to course correct that infamous “we can do it in the asshole” bit by having Eggsy in a serious, monogamous relationship with the once-kidnapped Princess Tilde, but there’s also a scene where he Facetimes her because duty calls for him to fuck a henchman’s girlfriend (Poppy Delevingne) and he wants her to sign off on it. Following that call - and following an offer from the woman to let Eggsy piss on her - Eggsy’s finger is outfitted with a rubber sheath containing a bio-tracker he must place on his target’s mucous membrane. “Wot, like up her nose?” The camera then follows this bio-tracker on its fantastic voyage. Not up her nose. This scene is the beating cgi heart of The Golden Circle, and I suspect people are gonna be pissed.
If you said a third Kingsman movie was coming out in two years, I’d be excited for it. There’s more fun to be had here. But The Golden Circle is what Bond fans call “a misstep.” It feels like an overeager case of “more is less,” as if the series jumped right to its Die Another Day in 1/20th the time span.