The 2015 film Kingsman: The Secret Service was mainly a showcase for director Matthew Vaughn’s penchant for outpacing his incompetent sense of choreography and structure with sheer excess. The film matched the frivolity of its source comic, capturing how writer Mark Millar’s overinflated tendency toward exaggeration disguises, at its core, a satire that embraces rather than ribs the ethos of the James Bond series. In the thug cum gentleman spy Eggsy (Taron Egerton), The Secret Service offered only a modestly class-revisionist update of the similarly suave brute 007, while its humor leaned less on double entendres and punnery than it did on the scatological. The film was a self-contained but incoherent mess, and one whose beats are completely replicated by its sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a parody of a parody so soulless that it makes its predecessor seem like a classic in retrospect.
The film’s opening sees Eggsy fighting old foe Charlie (Edward Holcroft), now wielding a powerful robotic arm, in the back of a gadget-filled cab as SUVs with mounted, ever-firing mini-guns trail behind. That’s a lot of moving parts, and the sequence never collapses into confusion, an impressive feat given the intricacy with which visual gags are set up, like the cab door that’s torn off its hinges and ridden by Eggsy like a sled so as to prevent himself from being flattened. But from the outset, The Golden Circle’s grandiose but monotone action lacks spark, never raising any stakes because of how it begins at a fever pitch, a buoyancy that the film doesn’t work against or come down from.
This opening foregrounds a wacky tone that extends to the characters, like Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a cartel leader who taints the global drug supply in a scheme to legalize—and, weirdly, regulate and tax—drug sales. She dwells in a town of her own design, mocked up in 1950s kitsch and nestled away in the Cambodian jungle. Poppy isn’t unlike Samuel L. Jackson’s villain from the first film, an embodiment of deluded neoliberal interventionism that sees abject chaos and mass murder as an act of perverted philanthropy. Moore hits the film with an immediate jolt of scenery-chewing intensity as Poppy forces a new hire to kill, then eat, his friend, and the actress looks on with the blank smile one might expect from a ball-busting company president. Moore gives Poppy a wild-eyed insanity that undercuts the calm of her vocal delivery, yet Vaughn’s direction never synchronizes with the cracked intensity of her performance, instead framing her in placid long shots that call more attention to the one-note joke of Poppy’s retro surroundings.
Despite delivering her drug ultimatums exclusively to the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood, playing a Bush parody that underscores just how out of step the film is with the present), Poppy inexplicably targets the British intelligence agency Kingsman for attack. Poppy wipes out the organization’s members save for Eggsy and quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong), who make their way to America to link up with Statesman, Kingsman’s Yankee equivalent, and discover old colleague Harry (Colin Firth) retconned back to life with the help of gadgets after his explicit execution in The Secret Service. This section of Golden Circle miserably bogs down in plot exposition, as well as setup for characters who in some cases, like Channing Tatum’s Tequila, hardly appear in the rest of the film. Statesman, hidden within a distillery in much the same fashion that Kingsman exists behind a tailor shop, barely hints at the widespread organization it’s meant to be; even when the film moves into war rooms and equipment lockers, it feels as if we’ve only scratched the surface of what these spy networks look like.
With both spy groups teamed up, the rest of the film unfurls as a series of action sequences that spotlight Vaughn’s ability to layer multi-stage mayhem and, perversely, derive no actual thrills from it. Vaughn loves to especially home in on Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) as he wields a rope lined with a laser edge that can dice foes, but shots of the Statesman in combat favor darting pans that insistently follow the point of his whip like a dog that can only look at your finger pointing and never to whatever it is you’re actually pointing at.
Later scenes magnify the business of the opening sequence, cramming as many objects into the frame as possible, from robot-dog grenades that explode in giant gobs of encasing sludge to, in the film’s only inspired gag, an imprisoned and pissed-off Elton John doing wire-fu fighting. Once again, though, Vaughn’s sense of action displays a fundamentally false equivalence between decadence and delirium. The show-stopping sequences are certainly the former, all cluttered images and fast movement, but there’s no sense that the film might give in to its bewildering bricolage in the way that Neveldine/Taylor, the Wachowskis, or even Michael Bay would have.
The hollow grandeur of the action only gives the proceedings a glib undertone that also undermines the rare occasions of earnestness that the heroes exhibit toward fallen comrades. These moments of mourning exist solely because a film like this should have them. There’s no honest sentiment to the commiseration because art that doesn’t respect life cannot glean power or meaning from death. Compare the half-hearted scenes of tribute to the full investment in inane provocations such as a scene in which Eggsy and Whiskey, attempting to plant a tracking device on a woman, woo her in order to stick it inside her vagina. The latter detail neatly summarizes The Golden Circle, a childish display from a third-rate Tarantino knock-off whose feverish but dull action sequences stand as testaments only to his lack of imagination.