By Jack Mansfield
(Spoiler warning for both Kingsman films. I’ll be going into full detail as I feel like I need to in order to get across my thoughts on The Golden Circle)
This is probably going to be one of the harder reviews to write for me. I absolutely loved Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2014): after years of spy films taking themselves incredibly seriously, the first Kingsman took the best parts of a fun, campy Bond film and dialled them up to eleven. I remember coming out of that screen feeling like I’d seen a film that would change the genre for a long time. It had everything: great plot, stunning action, interesting characters, all the right ingredients for a great spy film.
So when I first heard about a sequel to The Secret Service with its writer and director Matthew Vaughn signed on, I was understandably very excited. Then the trailers dropped, and to me, it looked like it was shaping up to be one of the best films of the year. I was so looking forward to going to see Kingsman on opening night, but coming out of the screen, I didn’t have that same feeling the first gave me like I’d just seen a truly unique film. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn, 2017) felt like more of the same, but sadly not in the good way that it might suggest.
The Golden Circle continues the story of the British secret service organisation known as Kingsman. Having saved the world from the eccentric villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in the first film, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and the Kingsman are suddenly under threat from a new villain, Poppy (Julianne Moore) when she destroys the vast majority of the Kingsman operation. The remaining agents must team up with the Statesmen, their American counterparts, in order to defeat Poppy. It felt to me like we’d got a plot with a certain simplicity but the same Kingsman-esque madness of the first, and in a way that is what we got, just nowhere near as well executed.
The Golden Circle picks up soon after the events of the first film and begins with a scintillating opening chase. We’re re-introduced to Eggsy as he steps out of the Kingsman tailor shop, where he’s greeted by a fleet of Jaguars and an old adversary, Kingsman-reject Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft). This scene took the best parts of the original’s action, with innovative fights, fast-paced action and Vaughn’s trademark action camera all at play. This felt like the perfect way to open the sequel, and I felt like I was in for a treat.
However, there was little else to shout about. The Golden Circle plays a risky move in its first act by completely destroying the Kingsman and (spoilers from here on out) in doing so, kill off every member of the group, except for Eggsy and Merlin. This includes Roxy (Sophie Cookson), a character with whom we’d spent around three-quarters of the first film; not only was I disappointed to see her character completely wasted in this film – she’s genuinely only on screen for about five minutes’ worth of the 2hr 21-minute runtime – this decision also felt like a microcosm for most of the work (or lack thereof) done around character throughout the film.This is mainly down to the fact that these characters that we were introduced to in the first film have had their arcs’ beginnings and ends: Eggsy has already had the “rags to riches” arc play out: he’s gone from being a chav in a council estate to a gentleman working in a tailor’s shop on Savile Row.
In addition, Eggsy’s mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth) was unquestionably killed in the first film by Richmond Valentine. We saw Harry shot at point-blank range in the head, and The Golden Circle doesn’t question that. Instead, it comes up with a ridiculous way to bring him back: a gel pack specifically for headshot wounds that uses nanotechnology to restore brain tissue (don’t worry if your theories about how they brought Harry back were wrong, there was no way anyone could have guessed this.) Furthermore, they only bring Harry back to have his memory fragmented for most of the film (in a similar way Spider-Man 2 had Peter Parker lose his powers, only here it’s less impactful) and to throw in a few callbacks to the first. Initially I was looking forward to seeing how Harry would return, but instead, I was just left feeling like his arc was completely unnecessary.
Staying with characters, the Statesmen aren’t much better either. Channing Tatum, in what’s becoming a trademark Channing Tatum move, is only in the film for about ten minutes of screen time. In Act 1; Agent Tequila (Tatum) scuffles with Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong); he’s completely put to sleep for Act 2 as a result of Poppy’s evil plan (which I’ll come to soon); in Act 3, we see him dancing again as a result of Poppy’s plan, and that’s about all we get of him. It’s as if they signed him on for the sole purpose of having an extra bankable star on the poster. In fact, the only Statesman I was invested in as a character was Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) who, in a refreshing change, was not a simple double-crosser, but was instead on his own side with his own agenda. Whiskey was probably the only new character in The Golden Circle worth the audience’s time. And that says a lot when your supporting cast contains big hitters such as Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Julianne Moore to name a few.
Moore, especially, plays her character well but the role just isn’t captivating enough to be classed as a memorable villain. Samuel L Jackson’s Richmond Valentine was similar to Poppy in the sense that he was somewhat unhinged, but there was more to Valentine that made him interesting to the audience as a villain. Poppy’s plan to infect the world’s recreational drug users was somewhat unique, but not gripping. I feel like Poppy as a character could have done with a visible layer of madness underneath her calm exterior, or at least for it to have come out more.
Running the film back in my mind, I’m remembering more and more about the film that I felt rather let down by. As a result of the far-fetched resurrection of Harry, it took from the rest of the film a sense of any weight or finality in any other deaths or emotional scenes. I’m referring in the most part to Merlin’s death in the third act, where he sacrifices himself by stepping on the landmine, triumphantly singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Road” to lure in Poppy’s guards. His death was meant to be bittersweet, forming the distraction for Eggsy and Harry to begin their assault on Poppy’s fortress, but instead, there’s no weight to his death: when Harry can be brought back from a headshot wound, there’s no reason why other characters could return from similarly impossible circumstances.
The Secret Service contained “laddish” humour and dirty jokes aplenty, culminating in a rather unsavoury anal sex joke. However, I felt like this was in slightly (only slightly) better taste than the controversial scene this time around. The scene from The Secret Service felt more like a highly exaggerated callback to the Roger Moore-era Bond films; where someone would make a cheeky double entendre such as “I’m going to take her around the world one more time”, and, like the Kingsman action, it was dialled up to eleven.
Despite this, this kind of humour carries over into The Golden Circle, and it feels horribly out of place. I was somewhat defensive of it in the 2014 instalment, but here it just very uncomfortable; I couldn’t help but grimace (and my friends did the same.) In The Golden Circle, there’s a full-blown scene at Glastonbury Festival where Eggsy and Agent Whiskey are tasked with leaving a tracker on Charlie’s girlfriend, but in order to do so, they have to engage her sexually, using a special condom on a finger (you can imagine where the scene ends up.) This scene starts off as something of a callback to the training scene in The Secret Service where the three agents must seduce the same target but ends up as a completely vulgar scene, not played for laughs but instead played for emotion and shock factor. The worst part about the scene is that it leaves nothing to the imagination, with the camera following the tracker all the way, and I mean all the way. You see everything.
Another thing I could also have done with less of was the constantly repeated joke of Elton John being in the film. Granted, it was a funny cameo in some scenes (adapting Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting to Wednesday and fly-kicking a guard made me chuckle) but apart from that the joke felt forced and drawn out with Elton John continually returning to save the day or to exhibit his poor acting. Like a fair amount of content in this film, it was simply unnecessary.
Just reading this back, it reads like I’ve been harsh on The Golden Circle. But I think my sentiments are born of real disappointment after a wonderful first film. This is also one of my longest reviews to date but again I think it’s just that I’ve been so let down by this film that I had a lot to say about it. There’s a fair amount in this film to enjoy, I’m not completely slating it, but Kingsman: The Golden Circle is probably the film I’ve been most disappointed by in recent memory.