When ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ burst onto screens in early 2015, it was the kind of delightful surprise that happens all too rarely in big-budget blockbuster filmmaking. An entertainingly fresh spin on the 60s spy film by way of the modern superhero origin story, it was a crass, bombastic, inventive and fun slice of popcorn absurdity - which is why it’s such a shame to find that the much-anticipated follow-up, ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’, is decidedly and disappointingly inferior in every possible way.
Picking up where its predecessor left off, ‘The Golden Circle’ finds former council-estate pariah Eggsy (Taron Egerton) a newly minted fully-fledged Kingsman agent. Plot mechanics get started immediately; after some convoluted place-setting, almost the entirety of Kingsman itself is blown up by Poppy (Julianne Moore), the head of the eponymous international drug cartel. Somehow this leads to Eggsy and Merlin (a charming Mark Strong) travelling to America to seek refuge with their American counterparts, the whiskey-swilling Statesman, who just happen to have in their possession Eggsy’s mentor, a somehow reanimated Harry Hart (Colin Firth).
In case you couldn’t already tell, it’s a hot mess. The ways in which this film falls short of its predecessor - and of the best of Matthew Vaughn’s work in general - are upsettingly plentiful, as the usually reliably entertaining director turns in a bloated, lacklustre, convoluted and downright offensive sequel. There’s nothing of any weight here, as Vaughn and frequent co-writer Jane Goldman effectively remove any stakes from proceedings by killing off swathes of characters while bringing others back from the dead.
Sure, Colin Firth’s Henry Higgins-riff was one of the true highlights of the first movie, but bringing him back for a beyond tired amnesia arc with the help of a magical gel that can somehow reverse fatal headshots (and is used multiple times) seems like it may not have been the best of ideas. On top of these resurrection shenanigans, the film also stops in its tracks in order to introduce a whole slew of new American agents whose purposes are negligible and whose characterisations are nonexistent. Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal and Halle Berry give glorified cameos, and are asked to do so little that it’s genuinely confusing as to why any of these characters exist.
Worse still is the overall rushed look of the film, which can be boiled down to one word: cheap. Where the first film looked like it was taking place (for the most part) in actual real places, here absolutely everything screams of an art department pushed to the brink. Not helping matters is the stunning ineptitude of the visual effects, which in one particular scene make James Bond’s ice-wave surfing from ‘Die Another Day’ look like a stroke of Mike Leigh-style realism, while every other scene looks like it might have been the first time literally anyone involved in the film worked with a green screen.
The ways in which this film falls short of its predecessor, and of the best of Matthew Vaughn’s work in general, are upsettingly plentiful...
But, if we’re going to talk about how this film really falls flat on its face, then we need to talk about some casual misogyny. Though no one could confuse the first film with a Kelly Reichardt-directed feminist call-to-arms, it wasn’t the toxically ignorant rape-culture encouraging garbage fire that a particular sequence in ‘The Golden Circle’ can be accused of being. Suffice it to say, it takes place at Glastonbury Festival, and it’s where the movie most aggressively feels like it was written by a thirteen-year-old douchebag who fell into a Red Bull-induced coma while jerking off to a Bond movie. It is genuinely galling that a huge studio film actually includes this sequence in 2017. Seriously.
Even if you were to somehow ignore that particular horrifically misjudged attempt at a comic setpiece, elsewhere the film continually acts like the Male Feminist from Hell, constantly ignoring and pushing to the side its female characters but still wanting credit for its tiny, meaningless attempts at being “progressive”. Nowhere in the film is there a single action scene that involves a woman. Fun fights are for boys, of course, so the girls are relegated to damsel in distress status, or cruelly punished for having an ounce of sexuality, or immediately and unironically talked down to by every male in sight. Even Poppy, the film’s ostensible supervillain, relies on male henchmen in order to be a physical threat, and her big world-endangering plan is instantly undercut by – you guessed it – worse (and less interesting) male characters.
Sure, there are some entertaining moments. Taron Egerton is a charismatic delight, as always. Julianne Moore is incapable of giving a bad performance. There are even a couple of lines that are actually funny. But none of those points can make up for the bloated mess that the rest of the film is, and they most certainly cannot excuse casual misogyny masquerading as liberalism.
This is a huge, disappointing misfire of a sequel.