Released two-and-a-half years ago, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a bold, enjoyable alternative to a spy genre that had become deadly serious with the Jason Bourne series and the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. Clearly, director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman (inspired by the graphic novel from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) welcomed the opportunity to create a spy movie that wasn’t so grim and brought the fun back to international espionage. More importantly, Secret Service emphasized its style with operatives that were not only lethal combatants and assassins, but conducted themselves as gentlemen and ladies in the process.
I thought the first Kingsman film was a bit too heavy-handed in criticizing the current state of the spy movie genre (which now includes films like Atomic Blonde and American Assassin), taking every opportunity to remind viewers that Bond movies in the 1970s and 80s were much more cool and fun. There was even a scene in which Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson were talking about it, in case you didn’t get the point of what Kingsman was trying to accomplish.
Yet Secret Service was still very clever, giving us more of a mythology and origin story for a spy agency than Casino Royale provided. (Vaughn was already experienced with the heroes-in-training story with 2011’s X-Men: First Class.) Casting Firth as a gentleman spy was a nice touch, putting him in an action role that we’d never seen him in before. And Jackson made an intriguing villain as a Russell Simmons-like mogul who was a striking visual counterpart to the buttoned-up demeanor of the Kingsman.
Unfortunately, Kingsman: The Golden Circle undoes arguably the most memorable moment of Secret Service in its story. It’s a development that should be a spoiler, but 20th Century Fox had no problem giving away the surprise in its marketing by revealing that Firth’s character, Harry Hart, is still alive despite being shot in the head — right through the eye — by Jackson’s Richmond Valentine. It was a shocking moment that showed the stakes of this series were high. These spies could be killed in action, rather than just jump over to the next globe-hopping adventure. Killing Firth off also made Taron Egerton’s Eggsy a significantly more interesting lead character. How would he fare without his mentor? Was he capable of being the Kingsman’s best agent?
As we see when Golden Circle begins, picking up about a year after the first film, Eggsy has indeed become the star of the show. He’s taken Harry’s codename and title of Galahad (all of the Kingsman agents are named after the Knights of the Round Table), and has retained everything his mentor taught him and more. Previously, Eggsy might not have been able to take on a whole brigade of rogue operatives looking to wipe out the Kingsman (led by a former trainee who didn’t make it through the program). But in a thrilling sequence set to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” Eggsy fights his former classmate, Charlie (Edward Holcroft), in the back seat of a car while two SUVs are in pursuit.
The opening scene demonstrates that Eggsy isn’t just a street-smart brawler anymore. He’s a skilled fighter who’s aware of his surroundings and any advantage — or escape — they may provide. Fight scenes in cars have become popular (we might have to rank them here at The Comeback), and Vaughn (with cinematographer George Richmond) fits as much action as he can into that tight space — with the help of digital effects — while also occasionally taking the action outside the car. It’s a bombastic way to start the movie, pushing viewers back into their seats before they’ve had a chance to settle in. Yet it also throws off the pace of the film a bit because it can’t keep up that level of action and excitement, though Vaughn certainly tries to keep the pedal to the floor.
Vaughn and Goldman bring in reinforcements to keep the action at a high level and moving at a fast pace, introducing Statesman, the American counterpart to the Kingsman. Where the British spy agency uses an upscale tailor shop as a front for its operation, the American spy group is a far bigger and ambitious venture. Housed in a gigantic Kentucky whiskey distillery (a much more lucrative business that can fund a greater wealth of resources), the Stateman’s top agents are code names Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal, Narcos). Running the show from high above is Champagne, played with every bit of lip-licking, whiskey-savoring chill by Jeff Bridges. Also adding to the star power is Halle Berry as Ginger Ale, who provides the technical support and scientific know-how behind the scenes. Later on, she and her British counterpart, Merlin (Mark Strong), make a fun pairing.
The big-name guest stars added to the cast is a bit deceiving, however. Despite what the trailers and marketing may try to convey, Tatum and Bridges aren’t major parts of the movie. (Though there’s another surprise star who isn’t given away in previews.) Their roles are almost extended cameos. Berry is more of a factor and has a bit of a backstory that makes her intriguing. But some people will surely object to how her character is marginalized throughout the narrative. (After two films, I think it’s safe to say that the treatment of female characters in the Kingsman series is problematic. Which is interesting, considering the scripts have been co-written by a woman.)
Perhaps that’s countered by the villain of the story being a woman. Julianne Moore’s Poppy is every bit as comical and intriguing as Valentine because she’s an unconventional megalomaniac. Poppy is your friend’s mom deciding to take over the world. While she runs an international drug cartel that’s made her enormously wealthy, her secret lair is an island that’s been populated with the amusements and icons of her 1950s childhood. It’s almost Pleasantville set on a remote tropical island, except for her operatives populating the park. She also has a preference for lethal killer robots as her minions, since they won’t betray her or suddenly feel any sort of morality. (The choice of robot dogs for her henchman is questionable largely because the beasts seem like they were taken from a Transformers movie.)
The best new addition to the Kingsman gang is Pascal, whose Whiskey is every bit the cowboy gentleman. He has a nice callback to the first film when Harry showed Eggsy that he wasn’t just a dandy in a nice suit and taught some manners to a bunch of blokes. Whiskey’s weapons of choice — a lasso and whip — set him apart from the other spies and give him a distinct identity. They also make for some fun moments in fight scenes, even though the special effects get a little bit carried away in illustrating the carnage that lasso and whip can inflict. But his cowboy bravado balances nicely with the cool of the British agents, especially when he ends up humbled in the field in a non-combat situation. Whiskey could be the breakout character from the movie, if the script allowed it. (Pascal will be worth watching in whatever he does next, though.)
As entertaining a counterpart as the Statesman present with the Kingsman, however, bringing a new set of spies to bail the main heroes out after they’re demolished by Poppy negates what could have been a truly compelling storyline. The Kingsman are a state-of-the-art spy agency outfitted with the latest technology. So what would happen when those resources are taken away. Just how good of a spy is Eggsy without his gadgets and weapons, without Merlin in his ear advising him? We don’t really get to find out except for a brief stretch in the second act of the film. The Kingsman’s contingency plan is also a safety net for the story, made even more dazzling by the star power of Tatum, Bridges and Perry.
But all of these characters are entertaining enough for another sequel, if the box office is big enough. (The Golden Circle did finish No. 1 at the box office, generating a $100 million worldwide gross and finally knocking It out of the top spot.) Vaughn is becoming an increasingly busy guy, however, rumored to be circling projects such as a Superman movie and Flash Gordon reboot. Yet he seems to consider the Kingsman franchise his baby and if he’s inspired to team up with Goldman for another movie, the series fills a void left by the Bond and Bourne movies. Audiences enjoy some style and fun with their spy adventures, and there could be plenty more material to mine from partnering upper-crust British operatives with whiskey-flavored American agents. A better story would maketh a better movie, though.