by Philip Price
There is a difficulty to pinning down what exactly it is about Matthew Vaughn's work that makes it stand out if not necessarily resonate, but to date it has been difficult to not at least enjoy, on a surface-level, every single film the director has released including the oft forgotten 2007 Neil Gaiman adaptation, “Stardust,” that is a genuinely great, very funny, and wickedly entertaining fantasy film told by someone who knows how to manage tone. Maybe this is it. Maybe it is the way in which Vaughn can deliver on a tone above everything else that makes his personality shine through so much more than other for-hire action directors tend to be able to do. It would be easy enough for studios to craft generic comic book adaptations, X-Men sequels, and James Bond spoofs-everyone is making some variation on one of those today-but to bring a unique perspective and distinct personality to such common proceedings is a gift and there is no denying Vaughn has that gift whether you appreciate where he's coming from or not. It is a tough thing, straddling what is to ultimately be an intangible aspect of one's final film, but Vaughn has always done well to imprint his films point of view throughout the film-thus making for the literal actions of the characters in the climactic scenes to feel more successful as they have not only accomplished the proper resolution the plot desired, but have simultaneously satisfied their moral compasses. Having listed many of Vaughn's previous projects it isn't difficult to note the guy has had ample opportunity to make sequels, but that he hasn't and that he did decide to take on the follow-up to his surprise 2014 hit says a lot about how much he is invested in this world and in this material. What then would Vaughn do in his first sequel? What is the direction he would choose to go? Those were the thoughts and questions stewing in my brain as the Kingsman logo on the front of the Kingsman tailor shop is revealed once more in the opening moments of Vaughn's latest, but while “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is a bigger sequel and dares to explore the extended universe that exists around this independent agency we were introduced to three years ago it isn't nearly as cheeky or outrageous as we've come to expect the Kingsman or for that matter, Vaughn himself, to be. And so, while the film is serviceable and generally a good time it doesn't touch the bonkers and bawdy tone of the original despite being bigger in every sense a sequel can be.
This is all to say that, if you enjoyed the first one you'll probably have a lot of fun with this one as well just not as much as you did with that first one. All the markings of a Vaughn film are still present in the opening scene of the film as it covers this insane and tightly choreographed fight sequence that is also a car chase that takes place on the streets of London. Vaughn moves his camera in such direct and quick ways that the single shot coverage of the action is not only thrilling, but refreshing as compared to the typical fashion of a million cuts that is often utilized in search of the same reactions Vaughn is able to naturally elicit. As Taron Egerton's Eggsy battles Edward Holcroft's rejected Kingsman, Charlie from the first film, in hand to hand combat to the tune of Prince's "Let's go Crazy," there is a sense that Vaughn is telling us to settle in because we've only been here for three minutes and already, this is a wild ride. And it's not that ‘The Golden Circle’ peaks early, but more that it doesn't know when to stop. Vaughn delivers a break-neck opening action scene that throws us back into the world of Kingsman while showing us how much Egerton's Eggsy has progressed in the time that has lapsed since we last saw him. From there we are introduced to the film's main antagonist in Julianne Moore's Poppy who runs the biggest drug trade in the world and has thus had to move off the map to Cambodia where she has set-up shop in this kind of Martha Stewart/Americana wonderland while running the place as if she's Pablo Escobar. In our introduction to Poppy and her methods for hiring henchmen we get a sense of how insane this woman is while at the same time being delivered that distinct flavor we have come to expect from a Vaughn and Jane Goldman script. Things get a little twisted. It is Poppy who, instead of pedaling sim cards that make you lose your mind, has laced her drugs with chemicals that induce four stages of declining health before you die while she conveniently is the only one holding a cure. To release the cure, she threatens Bruce Greenwood's President of the United States with an ultimatum to sign a bill legalizing the drugs she's selling so that she might find fame and respect as one of the best and most successful businesswomen on the planet, but before she does any of this she is out to stop anyone who might get in her way-including the Kingsman. This intent on the part of Poppy is the cause for the destruction of the Kingsman as seen in the trailers and the subsequent seeking out of the Kingsman's American brethren, the Statesman.
Bottom line, I enjoyed a lot of this movie and there is a lot of this movie to digest, but overall this is a fun ride with a few moments here and there that step up to the level of surprise and substance that audiences found so appealing about the first installment. What is strange or seemingly off about ‘The Golden Circle’ though, is that while certain shots and some sequences look pristine in their visual wizardry there are other times where the movie feels incredibly cheap or rushed despite the fact Vaughn seems to have had as much money and free reign as a director could hope for. Much of the transitional shots, in trying to be too clever, get lost in the amount of CGI it took to render them and in other areas, the film simply meanders in trying to catch up with where it wants to be to be the sequel it knows it must be. Much of the trouble with the story deals in integrating Colin Firth's Harry Hart back into the world in a credible manner. It works out, but kind of undoes the balls it felt as if the original film had. It is in the story itself that we find the most disappointing aspect of this sequel in that, with the addition of the Statesman, it seemed as if Vaughn and Goldman were really looking to expand on this world they'd built in the original and explore different avenues to discuss the same topic while not necessarily ending up in the same place. Instead, the introduction of Channing Tatum's Tequila, Halle Berry's Ginger Ale, Jeff Bridges' Champagne, and Pedro Pascal's Whiskey end up being pawns to play on memorable moments from the first film as Pascal's Agent Whiskey literally gets his own bar scene after a recovering Harry isn't up for the task he so effortlessly demonstrated in the first film. Couple this with the fact the film has both Bridges and Tatum on its roster yet only utilizes both for a total of about 15 minutes and you're bound to be disappointed if you bought a ticket hoping to see either of those actors be given the opportunity to play up what an American version of Kingsman might look like. Granted, Tatum's character does get a memorable introduction, but this only makes his absence for most of the film that much tougher to digest while the seeming set-up of the Statesman and their involvement in the inevitable third film feels funnily like it won't pan out. This all comes to a head when the story tries to replay one of the first films more shocking moments in a reversal of roles type scenario near the beginning of the third act, but rather than be genuinely surprised by what happens this action only feels like another small caveat in an otherwise much bigger, more complicated machine that required some serious streamlining before being introduced to the public.
That said, I must remind you that I enjoyed a lot of this movie and that there is a lot of this movie to digest. Though the Statesman aren't taken advantage of in the ways they seemingly could have that doesn't mean the large chunks of the film where they're not involved or serve more as back-up don't form a worthier predecessor. More interesting is what the film is trying to say in terms of satire. Not only is there a fair amount in the overarching scheme of Poppy's that involves a fantastic Bruce Greenwood performance as the arrogant and narrow-minded leader of the free world, but down to the character of Eggsy himself and the diversions they take to separate him even further from what we expect of super-secret British spy to be now. Not only does Eggsy not drink martinis, but Egerton brings a raw humanity to the role once again that is easy to dismiss out of nothing more than pure acceptance, but, could have been just as effortlessly done without. Rather, both Vaughn and Goldman's script as well as Egerton's performance give Eggsy this compassion that is generally prohibited in the field in which Eggsy is working-this is the way Mark Strong's Merlin would certainly have things which only makes it more impactful when Merlin pays off a through line that is set in motion from the beginning in one of the film's most rewarding moments and arguably the best scene in this entire thing. Eggsy has friends, he loves puppies, and he's genuinely in love with a girl that makes him smile, whose parents he wants to impress, and that he wants to spend the rest of his life with-can't say that about James Bond, could you? It is in these smaller moments between characters we've already seen fleshed out that ‘The Golden Circle’ succeeds the most and while I wish Vaughn had held true to Harry dying in the first film one can't deny the charisma Firth brings to the role and the effect it has on the movie overall-though there is still plenty of gaudy action that aims to please as well. Though the highly marketed mountain-based action sequence is something of a bust Vaughn doubles down in the film's climactic scenes as he enlisted a very famous, but equally unexpected pop star to serve as Poppy's personal entertainment who is given a chance to go all out and does with Vaughn taking full advantage. Setting the all-out demolition of Poppy's fortress to Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)" (wink wink) and the subsequent showdown of Eggsy and Harry with other opponents to a country version of Cameo's "Word Up" just...works. In hits that tone Vaughn is aiming for in the bull's eye. Vaughn has a penchant for crafting energetic action sequences that benefit from the director having a good song in his arsenal and while it's clear everyone involved had a blast making this movie it's too bad that fun couldn’t be as consistently channeled through to the screen as it seems it was on set.