Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.
You all know the scene: the nefarious Richmond Valentine (deliciously portrayed by Samuel L Jackson) tests a weapon that causes anyone within its range to lose their minds in a violent rage, choosing a small Kentucky church – the base of operations for a radical right-wing hate group – as the location for his first experiment. Except that Harry Hart, the legendary Kingsman agent known as Galahad (and played by Colin Firth), is also in the church. Violent rage gives way to increasingly violent acts, all set to the increasingly frantic guitar solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, with Hart utilising his spy training to emerge as the sole survivor.
And then he is shot in the head at point blank range.
The entire scene is easily the most memorable from Kingsman: The Secret Service and, as it turns out, key to setting up the various relationships in sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a return to the action-spy (and not-so-subtle Bond send-up) franchise from director Matthew Vaughn and based on the comics of Mark Millar.
In short: drug kingpin – queenpin? – and leader of The Golden Circle crime ring Poppy Adams (played by Julianne Moore) destroys the Kingsman organisation as part of a plot to hold the world to ransom, forcing agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and support operative Merlin (Mark Strong) to seek help from their American cousins, Statesman. But after contacting Statesman, the pair are surprised to be reunited with their deceased friend Hart, who was found by Statesman – whose agents are named Tequila (Channing Tatum in having-fun mode) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) – and brought back to health by Ginger (Halle Berry), the US agency’s Merlin. For the first time in history, Kingsman and Statesman join forces to take down Adams and The Golden Circle.
There is plenty to like here. For a start, the performances – pretty much across the board – are strong and perfectly suited to the style and tone Vaughn is going for. This is an action-packed, fast-paced film that moves from set-piece to set-piece with ease, never resting on its laurels long enough to get boring. Egerton continues to impress as the leading man, carrying a lot more of the weight than in the first installment, while recognisable faces like Moore, Tatum and a show-stealing Elton John are clearly having fun.
The film has a distinct visual style that informs both the action set pieces and the mise-en-scene, or the way the sets and locations are put together. This is the most comic-book looking film I can recall seeing, and I mean that as a strong compliment: you could freeze-frame certain shots – a wide shot of Adams’ half jungle ruin/half 1950s retro decor, or Whiskey wielding an electrified lasso in the final scene, or Eggsy leaping over a speeding car – and they would absolutely look at home in a two-page spread in any graphic novel.
I also really loved the way the villainous plot affects those on the traditional side of good. Adams’ plot involves poisoning the drug users of the world and holding them to ransom by offering the antidote in exchange for the worldwide legalisation of all drugs (thus legitimising her operation). Yet, instead of being reviled by this, the President of the United States (hey, that’s Bruce Greenwood!) decides this is his chance to eliminate drug use forever by just letting all the drug users die, a dark subversion of the way politicians are often portrayed in these situations.
Even more impressive is later, when it is revealed that a Statesman agent is working to stop Eggsy from saving the world, we find out that he wasn’t even working with the villain, but also wanted to see drug use eliminated for his own reasons. I thought this was a remarkably clever twist on the double-agent trope and – like all great films – delivered something we were expecting but not in the way we expected.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn’t without fault, though.
The film suffers from a few structural problems, mostly stemming from the fact that the primary protagonist (Eggsy) and primary antagonist (Poppy) don’t actually share a scene until the closing minutes of the film. We tended to move between their plots – here is Eggsy, now here is Poppy, now here is Eggsy – rather than have them directly collide more often, which made the film feel a little disjointed and somewhat lowered the personal stakes for our hero.
I also have a couple of plot gripes. Like, it’s not entirely clear why Poppy utterly destroys the Kingsman organisation, but don’t also go after Statesman. Or any other agencies for that matter. If Kingsman is a threat to The Golden Circle, then Statesman is equally as threatening to her aspirations. And the sex scene at Glastonbury, in which Eggsy has to implant a tracking device in the mucus of a girl connected to The Golden Circle, was patently silly – and it seemed like it only existed to cause conflict between Eggsy and his girlfriend Tilde.
(I’m not going to whinge about the marketing of the film, which revealed the return of Colin Firth as Harry Hart; yes, this was a huge misstep from the marketing department at 20th Century Fox, but it has also been pretty roundly criticised by director Matthew Vaughn himself: “I think it isn’t great for the viewing experience and the way I structured the first act. It definitely has left me feeling a bit hamstrung; the narrative thrust has been a little bit weakened.”)
But a few minor complaints aside, I thought Kingsman: The Golden Circle was a thoroughly entertaining film – a Best Picture contender it is not, but I don’t know that anyone involved wanted it to be. My feeling is that writers Vaughn and Goldman simply wanted to make a fun, fast-paced, entertaining action film that enthralls for its two-hour runtime. And they’ll surely be happy to know they’ve succeeded.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is directed by Matthew Vaughn, written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, and stars Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Pedro Pascal, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry and Elton John. It is distributed in New Zealand by 20th Century Fox, and is in cinemas now.