2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service took audiences by surprise when the spry spy satire proved to have more going on under the hood. As much as it made fun of the outlandish nature recent spy films – even acknowledging the existence of James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer – it also harkened back to a simpler era of spycraft when it was easy to tell who was a friend or an enemy. Now, three years after the Kingsman arrived in cinemas to stop the well-intentioned, yet bloodied, efforts of Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) to save our planet’s ecosystem, they return to battle the mysterious drug cartel known as The Golden Circle. What felt original and inspired in The Secret Service degenerates into frequent fan-service and little else. For as much fun as The Golden Circle is – and it’s a wild ride at times – it’s far less thoughtful and focused than its predecessor.
In the wake of Valentine’s defeat, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) balances a relationship with Tilde, the princess of Sweden, with the responsibilities given to him with the mantle of Galahad, the Kingsman handle of his fallen mentor Harry (Colin Firth). Working alongside Merlin (Mark Strong), Lancelot/Roxy (Sophie Cookson), and the new Arthur (Michael Gambon), Galahad continues the Kingsman’s mission of global protection. When an agent of The Golden Circle gains access to the secrets of Kingsman, the entire secret society is thrown into immediate peril, sending Eggsy and Merlin to Kentucky, U.S.A., to seek help from Statesman, the American cousin of Kingsman. There, with help from agents Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), and Statesman leader Champagne (Jeff Bridges), the separate agencies join forces, engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with The Golden Circle as millions of lives around the world hang in the balance.
As made clear by the initial outing, the secret society of independent global protectors exists within a world that not only embraces the ludicrous, but feeds upon it, from action sequences that push the boundaries of convention to characters that delight in mayhem. However, the Matthew Vaughn-directed, Jane Goodman-adapted Secret Service made sure to balance an undeniably cuckoo narrative with grounded realism. In their second outing, Vaughn’s and Goodman’s Golden Circle mostly abandons the foothold in reality to embrace the absurd. In this regard, Golden Circle is a blast to watch as Eggsy goes from one extravagant action sequence to another. Other spy films of the decade – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Spy, Spectre – quickly reach an exhaustive zenith with the action, whereas Golden Circle is a constant surge of new, exciting, and frequently hilarious action set pieces that highlight Vaughn’s talent for hyperreal ultraviolence.
Just as with Secret Service, it’s Egerton as Eggsy who serves as the grounding element that offsets the satirical nature of Golden Circle. Still new to spy craft, his reaction to hardware, mission requirements, and social conventions enhances the audience’s reactions to the same elements. It’s in this way that Golden Circle is a blast to watch as Eggsy goes from one bizarre situation to another. However, extravagance for the sake of extravagance only makes the issues within Golden Circle stand out further.
Unlike Secret Service whose narrative structure was exceptionally straightforward, Golden Circle’s devolves into a series of ineffectual narrative threads that weaken the connective tissues of the larger story. In one instance, audiences are introduced to characters for no other reason than that they are literal cannon fodder for the plot as it moves from one expository moment to another. As such, there’s no reason to invest in the outcome for anyone other than the core characters. Secret Service utilized every character with purpose, whereas Golden Circle is a blood-soaked maw, gleefully delighting in their destruction.
Sadly, this also includes Julianne Moore – doing her best psychotic ’50s housewife impression – as Golden Circle leader Poppy Adams, who barely does anything beyond expository action. Everything about her isolated, Cambodian compound is nothing more than a setup for later jokes – from her liquid-gold tattoo station, the meat grinder in her diner (hereby known as Chekhov’s Meat Grinder), and the appearance of musical legend Elton John as a kidnap victim (which does result in one of two excellent music-infused action sequences). With secondary characters and the central villain serving merely as expository devices, Golden Circle forces a reliance on over-the-top action sequences, which are – to great relief – undeniably fun.
Let’s be real, though – audiences that delighted in Secret Service are going to go gonzo over the call-backs, terrible puns, extravagant fight scenes, and one truly flamboyant wink at the camera. Though Golden Circle generally feels like unending and hollow fan service, its offer of mindless entertainment is exactly what it delivers. So buckle in for another globe-trotting adventure as Eggsy and the Kingsman return to save the world. (You know what happens if he does.)
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.