Puppies. They piss on rugs, chew what you cherish and sometimes behave in ways you will not like. And yet, across new homes, jobs, responsibilities or stages of life, you love them anyway and usually replace them when they die. Why? The promise of what they will become, the joy of just seeing and spending time with them. Not a dog person? The same goes for fish in a tank, chinchillas in plastic balls, and cats who mostly ignore you once they figure out where to crap and eat in your house – just less messy.
Each new companion has unique growing pains and personalities, but they eventually offer their own pleasant variation on the original feeling … even if it takes them, or you, longer to get there over time.
There’s a far heavier puppy presence – literally and figuratively – than you might expect from Kingsman: The Golden Circle, two adorably fluffy floofers especially (13/10 would snuggle again). We don’t see these animals learn from piddling on floors or gnawing furniture. We see co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn do it, occasionally, housebreaking himself across 141 simultaneously swift and overstuffed minutes of sequel territory.
With his sequel aversion oft on the record, Vaughn is one of several principals returning in front of, and behind, the cameras after 2015’s rowdy, raucous blast Kingsman: The Secret Service – a laddish party-crashing of the 007 aesthetic in which perfectly mannered and manicured British secret agents saved the world amid a swirl of psychedelically popped colors and graphic violence.
Amid this film’s early, disjointed stages, you may wonder what, exactly, wooed Vaughn back. It takes a while, but it hits you: Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman have more or less fashioned a sequel about how we craft sequels in life and art; hell, the actor playing the new Arthur character here alone is a melancholy meta joke unto itself. It’s about how more isn’t always better but is sometimes. How an inevitable sameness of experience and the steps lost to that threaten to subsume life’s surprises. How a companionship to cherish – human or otherwise – is a comfort worth the cling that makes it bearable.
Make no mistake. The Golden Circle is still very much an action movie with a spatter-pattern sense of goofiness that tweaks, in particular, the gimmickry and gadgetry of You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” accompanies the film’s prologue. By the end, as drill-toothed robot dogs named Bennie and Jet with prime directives to protect Sir Elton John at all costs gnaw away at the Kingsman’s last defenses … well, to paraphrase the Great Purple One, you’ll be looking for the purple banana until they put you in the truck, too.
While nothing tops the pop of the original’s redneck-racist church massacre, which played like Colin Firth in The Raid, they’re flashy and fun enough. The best bit converts a cable car lift into a malevolent mountaintop midway ride, punctuated by Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman’s own piquant punchline. But the thrills feel like afterthoughts to a focus on the experience of revisiting things – personal trauma, saving the world and, yes, puppies.
In other words, The Golden Circle is a mess but an interesting, entertaining and endearing one.
The film’s most dunderheaded decision is its most heavily advertised – a Kingsman counterpart in “the colonies” with the Statesman organization. The Statesmen work under cover of a Kentucky distillery instead of a tailor shop, have built their multibillion-dollar formula on the vice of drinking rather than bespoke fineries, wield electric lassos and baseball hand grenades instead of umbrella shields and shoe daggers, and derive their code names from beverages rather than Arthurian knights.
The problem is that Statesman honcho Champagne (Jeff Bridges), bad-boy Tequila (Channing Tatum) and tech support Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) represent a bevy of famous faces in drip parts. Sir Elton is in it more than most of them and leaves a far stronger impression.
Their respective merits can be summed up thusly: Tatum gets the biggest laugh, Bridges gets the goofiest hair and makeup and Berry gets perhaps her most thankless franchise role yet because … Vaughn liked her in the X-Men movies? The most substantial Statesman – senior agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal, late of Game of Thrones) – more or less shows up “from the New York office,” inserted with little flair or fanfare into the narrative.
After a sneak attack wipes out most of the surviving Kingsmen, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) implement the enigmatic Doomsday Protocol. While it eventually leads them to their stateside sidekicks, it’s the first moment you sense Vaughn and Co. are up to something more sneaky than cheeky: They must get to the bottom of a bottle – with toasts and tears to mourn the dead – before they get to the bottom of the plot.
On that front, Julianne Moore gamely adds a new dimension to Samuel L. Jackson’s cheerily moralizing psychopathy from the original. Poppy Adams is the world’s most successful drug queenpin, hiding from the authorities in a jungle lair best described as Pleasantville meets Jurassic Park. Swaddled in 1950s nostalgia – with soda fountains, movie palaces, hot dog stands and henchmen in letter jackets – this setting reminds us that since the post-war boom, we’ve been OK with the sort of violence Poppy pushes, but not her vices. It’s a pleasure to watch Vaughn and Goldman take the piss out of us Americans.
But why should Poppy, the planet’s greatest entrepreneur, have to hide her business while the Statesmans of the world push their poisons for on-the-level profit? It’s a grievance given teeth as sharp as Poppy’s robot dogs when Vaughn and Goldman push all their chips in on the political satire behind her unique ransom demand. On one hand, you’ll hear conservatives’ brains in the audience bubbling over the sound of your laughter. On the other, you worry Jeff Sessions will take notes.
Enough about the new people, right? What about the characters we like? Thankfully, Vaughn and Goldman like them, too – enough to let the earnestness of their fears and foibles land with some force. Vaughn also lets Strong look straight fire in a suit and belt out the best John Denver-song moment in a year that is, surprisingly, full of them. (This is the second in a month alone that co-stars Tatum.)
Now a full-fledged Kingsman rather than a fresh-faced recruit, Eggsy is having a hard time coping with the loss of his mentor, Harry aka Galahad (Firth) – last seen shot in the head outside the aforementioned Kentucky church. Eggsy is the new Galahad and living in Harry’s house, where Egerton lets enough hitches in Eggsy’s countenance and confidence show that he feels like a ghost of sorts while still embodying leading-man swagger.
Eggsy has also taken up with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), the Swedish royalty he, uh, romanced in the end of the first film. Any anxiety he feels about taking things to another level with her is wisely rooted not in losing freedom to pursue other paramours but the pressure of, well, becoming the freaking Prince of Sweden. It’s an interesting development that Vaughn and Goldman come perilously close to ruining during a dangerously insulting bit that makes their earlier sex jokes feel like church-comedian riffs.
It’s no spoiler at all to say Harry is very much alive – hmm, who else do we now know is in Kentucky? – but not quite as suave as we, or Eggsy and Merlin, remember him. To watch the process through which Vaughn and Goldman reinsert Harry into the action is most interesting if you view it as Firth’s thought process in considering an offer for the first film – i.e., “You want me to do what?” Firth is just as much fun here, albeit in a time signature similar to his more usual roles that lets him struggle with surrogate fatherhood to Eggsy, what you’re supposed to give up to do a Kingsman’s job “well,” and the mistakes he’s made in the past that are turning up tenfold now and perhaps even harder now to overcome.
Sir Elton is the only one that breaks the fourth wall here. But as a movie in which the heroes require (maybe a bit too much) time to learn from errors and triumph, Vaughn winks at you from Video Village, too. He knows The Golden Circle is not as nimble as The Secret Service and that its pleasures are certainly less superficially apparent. But give him time: Like that puppy, he more or less figures it out.