Disclaimer: It's tough to review Kingsman: The Golden Circle without divulging what some may consider to be spoilers. Even though the details in question were spoiled in the trailers, a spoiler warning is nevertheless in place.
Even though sequels have materialised for two of Matthew Vaughn's previous motion pictures, 2017's Kingsman: The Golden Circle denotes the first time that the filmmaker has returned to personally direct a follow-up to one of his own movies. A bold but distinctly organic-feeling sequel to 2015's Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Golden Circle is a goofy, enjoyable return to this world of post-modernist spy movie satire masterminded by comic-book writer Mark Millar. It's filled with flashy gadgets, bawdy humour, energetic ultraviolence, and an array of Oscar-winning actors in supporting roles - and Vaughn's directorial confidence undeniably bolsters the material. In short, fans of the first movie are sure to find some worth in this insanely fun follow-up, but it won't change your mind if you disliked the original surprise hit.
Now comfortable in his role as a world-saving secret agent, Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) also endeavours to have a private life outside of his work, maintaining a relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). But when the Kingsman are mysteriously destroyed in a coordinated attack, only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are left alive. Following their doomsday protocol, the pair are led to America where they meet with their U.S. counterpart, the Statesman. Run by Champagne (Jeff Bridges), the Statesman offer much-needed assistance to Eggsy and Merlin, with agents Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and Tequila (Channing Tatum) reporting for duty. In addition, Eggsy is reunited with his presumed-dead mentor, Harry (Colin Firth), who now suffers from amnesia. Evidence behind the Kingsman's destruction points to Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), the deranged leader of a major drug cartel who grows tired of hiding in the jungles of Cambodia to oversee her operation. Lacing her products with a highly lethal toxin for which only she holds the antidote, Poppy holds the whole world hostage, seeking to force the immediate legalisation of all drugs.
The Golden Circle is a full meal, dealing with the destruction of the Kingsman, settling in with the Statesman, Harry's ostensibly hopeless amnesia, Poppy's intricate scheme, and many other plot machinations, earning its beefy 140-minute runtime which is certainly excessive for a spy film. Its predecessor was long enough at 129 minutes, but this is even longer. Indeed, The Golden Circle is plotted much like a Roger Moore James Bond film - that is, it gets caught up in tangents that ultimately feel superfluous, taking too long to get to the story's final destination. In particular, there is a mildly amusing but definitely overlong subplot that only serves to satirise the clichéd old spy trope in which the hero must seduce the villain's girlfriend - it's dead weight despite a few funny moments. Nevertheless, the movie benefits from a goofy sense of humour, and Elton John is even included, playing himself. John may not be much of an actor, but he's a total hoot here, and the singer gets in on the action.
There was a palpable father/son bond between Eggsy and Harry in the original film, and this is furthered in The Golden Circle - the film initially deals with how Eggsy deals with the loss of a father figure, but with Harry's amnesia, the script visibly evokes dealing with dementia and Alzheimer's. It's surprisingly poignant, adding an emotional undercurrent to the mayhem, even if the movie can't really find anything new to do with Eggsy or the other characters. Still, The Golden Circle does enough to advance the franchise at large to prevent it from feeling too meaningless in the grand scheme of things. In addition, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman again manage to find time for acerbic socio-political satire between the broader gags. Hell, the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) actually sees Poppy's scheme as an ideal way to win the war on drugs once and for all. Plus, Poppy's Cambodian headquarters - an ancient temple remodelled into a nostalgia-tribute to 1950s America - represents a sly visual commentary on American-style colonialism that really deserves more credit.
Nobody can stage action quite like Vaughn, and he has a ball here, going absolutely bonkers in the major action sequences which easily surpass anything seen in the last 007 movie, the limp Spectre. The action starts early, opening with a dazzling fight scene inside a car set to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," and the sense of creativity scarcely wanes. Whereas the original movie hit a high bar with the astonishing church shootout at the end of its second act, The Golden Circle saves the best for last. The extended assault on Poppy's jungle HQ is a total gas, combining thrilling fisticuffs with ultraviolent gunplay, backed by a selection of Elton John hits which really tops it all off. There are a fair few catchy tunes throughout, even making terrific use of "Word Up" by The BossHoss, amplifying the sense of goofy fun. And best of all, the set-pieces aren't cut to ribbons - Vaughn uses his trademark swirling tracking shots, allowing you to see and enjoy every frame of the mayhem without struggling to figure out what's going on. Vaughn retains his proclivity for enhancing the action with obvious CGI, but this is part of his comic-book style, and it distinguishes the film from many of its contemporaries. What matters is that The Golden Circle is genuinely thrilling throughout its action set-pieces, serving up more of what you loved about the first movie.
Moore is hugely appealing and eminently watchable as Poppy, projecting a buoyant, optimistic attitude while something more sinister bubbles underneath. She's a treat. Egerton can do this type of material in his sleep now, and he remains a charismatic hero, while Strong provides excellent support. Firth was the surprise standout of the original movie, reinventing himself as an agile action hero despite being in his 50s, and his return here is very welcome. Although some may feel that his survival comes across as cheap and unrealistic, can you really complain too much when Firth is this much fun? Besides, the movie is one big cartoon, who really cares about realism? In spite of what the marketing would have you believe, Tatum and Bridges have very little presence in the movie, amounting to extended cameos which will presumably lead into another sequel or even a spin-off. Pascal gets the lion's share of the screen-time here, effortlessly pulling off a wonderfully cartoonish American cowboy archetype, and sharing more than a passing resemblance to Burt Reynolds with his moustache, while the movie makes good use of Berry as well. Also keep a look out for Bruce Greenwood and Emily Watson as the President and his Chief of Staff, respectively.
Although Kingsman: The Golden Circle falls short of its gleefully left-field predecessor, it is a worthy follow-up in spite of its overlong runtime and scripting shortcomings. The movie plays smoother on repeat viewings and doesn't fall apart in hindsight, as silly as it may be. There is still enough inspiration in the action and comedy to ensure that another instalment remains an exciting prospect.