When Kingsman: The Secret Service arrived in theaters a scant two years and seven months ago, it had the benefit of gliding in with little to no pre-existing expectations (or pre-existing audience, for that matter). All we knew is that it was an action flick from Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn, and it was based on a comic book few people had even heard of, written by the guy who created Wanted. I'm willing to bet that precise lack of pre-release fanfare was as big a factor as any in making the spritely spy picture starring Colin Firth and Taron Egerton break out the way that it did. All told, the first Kingsman cleared more than $400 million worldwide against an $81 million budget.
In addition to the obvious monetary success, it was also boosted by critics and embraced by auds, which made a sequel inevitable. And an inevitable sequel inevitably means "bigger" and "splashier." And so here we are with Kingsman: The Golden Circle, still directed by Vaughn, still starring Firth and Egerton, but with a budget and scope that's suitably indicative of the heightened prestige accorded by home studio Fox to their newly-birthed franchise. In addition to the many returnees in front of and behind the camera, this entry also adds high profile guest stars like Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and most prominently (in the advertising, anyway), Channing Tatum.
With a script once again by Vaughn & Jane Goldman, the sequel picks up one year after the events of the prior entry (which, for the uninitiated involved Egerton's Eggsy Unwin -- a.k.a. Agent Galahad -- going from street tough to superspy, and eventually taking down world-beating entrepreneur Richmond Valentine, played by Samuel L. Jackson). Firmly ensconced in his deep cover role with the Kingsman spy agency, Eggsy spends time taking down various ne'er-do-wells in stylish fashion, all the while making time for an ongoing relationship with his girlfriend, Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), whose acquaintance he first made at the *ahem* end of the last movie.
When a surprise attack leaves the Kingsman HQ decimated, Eggsy and erstwhile quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong, given an expanded role for this second stint) make their way across the pond, where they encounter their Kentucky-based counterparts the Statesman, led by Champagne (Bridges, at his most Jeff Bridges-iest) and staffed by Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and Whisky (Pedro Pasqual). The two teams eventually learn of a plot by drug maven Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), who has created a virus that will kill all recreational drug users afflicted unless her ransom demands are met by the President (Bruce Greenwood). Meanwhile, Colin Firth's Harry Hart, who was extremely dead following a bullet to the head, is back and sporting one heck of a shiner.
(Oh, and did I mention that Elton John is in this? Because he is. And if you've secretly longed for decades now to see the "Rocket Man" singer engage in wire fu action antics, then hoo-boy has your ship ever come in.)
As mentioned up-top, a big part of the first Kingsman's success came from the way it seemingly arrived out of the blue and gave us something new and clever. It managed to strike a perfect tonal balance that made it feel like send-up, pastiche, and homage to the James Bond canon all at once, all the while taking itself seriously enough that it never quite tipped over into self-parody. The Golden Circle still manages that feat, albeit a bit more precariously. At 141 minutes, it feels about twenty minutes longer than it needs to be, with action sequences that are fun, but which at times stretch past our tolerance for frantic CG-aided stunt and camera-work.
As with last time, the story construction is such that you can call out most of the big plot turns pretty far in advance, so a lot of it is a waiting game as what you know is going to happen plays out. That's not necessarily a bad thing, by the way, if the unfolding film is enough to keep you watching, and it is that. Also, they have a genuinely engaging young lead in Egerton whose journey we actually feel some connection to separate from the running-and-punching stuff. I won't go into the details of how Firth's character -- Galahad 1.0, let's call him -- rejoins the land of the living (though the ads have sure spoiled the crap out of that), but it worked for me even though I was initially resistant to the idea after what I felt was a pretty effective death for the character.
And while we're on the subject of mishandled advertising, let's talk about Channing Tatum's role in this thing. If you were to see any of the TV spots or posters, you'd think this is a full-on team-up between him and Egerton. His character, Statesman agent Tequila, is omnipresent in most of the marketing (understandably so, given his marquee value), but if that's your impression going in, you should divest yourself of that. His skimpy screentime renders his presence little more than a glorified cameo. That's not to say there isn't room for him in future entries should they materialize, but this one is running a pretty big Tatum deficit. Unacceptable, I say!
Still, that's a very small quibble about a movie that I unquestionably enjoyed. In some ways, this franchise's first two entries feel a bit like another series famous for riffing on James Bond (albeit in more deliberately comical a fashion). Like Kingsman, the first Austin Powers arrived with no expectations (though it was the furthest thing from a theatrical hit, becoming one only after landing on home vid). By the time of the sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, it had a scope and budget reflecting its new place as a cultural force, but was a little top-heavy as a result. There's a bit of that here too, but not enough that it's not worth watching. The Golden Circle isn't as lean and mean as its predecessor, but it's welcome encore that's stylish and playful in its own way. B-