A new action-spy-thriller franchise was (somewhat surprisingly) born in 2014 when Kingsman: The Secret Service became one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Making something of a star from leading man Taron Egerton and continuing the genre's renaissance with a refreshing R-rated angle, The Secret Service and the birth of the Kingsmen series provided the genre with a darker, funnier and more violent tone than your typical Bond, Bourne and Hunt vehicle. Matthew Vaughn's 2014 feature-length was a critical and commercial success, leading us to instalment number two (subtitled The Golden Circle), a planned sequel and rumoured spin-off. Does The Golden Circle reach the heights of its predecessor and will it encourage audiences rush out when it happens all again down the line?
The Golden Circle sees the Kingsmen team up with their American counterparts, the Statesmen, when a new evil makes an attack and holds the world hostage to a deadly threat. Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Edward Holcroft and Sophie Cookson reprise their roles from the first film, while Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Elton John join the cast for round two. Fit to burst with talent in front of the screen, Vaughn also returns to direct and co-write the film alongside Jane Goldman - and is a little bit trigger-happy the whole way through.
The Golden Circle's main problems is its lack of control, restraint and focus: it's too long, too scattered and too cluttered. At the hands of the misguided script, it introduces too many new characters only to have them widely sidelined to focus on Firth's returning Harry Hart and his journey to full-health. It's a case of throwing so much at the wall with the blind hope that some of it sticks - it does, but not nearly as much as we had hoped. Despite the insane ensemble cast (it was really shaping itself up to be one of the strongest of the year), what we essentially see - emphasised most by an under-utilised Bridges - is a number of glorified cameos from famous people peppered across the film's extensive, bloated runtime.
It's rather disappointing that we rarely dive into these new, promising characters; Berry's Ginger wants to get be in the field rather than behind the desk (think a watered-down version of Spy) but it doesn't really capture her drive or will to do so outside the occasional throwaway comment operating to set up Kingsman 3; Tatum is the Statesman's 'bad boy' but little beyond that is mentioned about his character's behaviour or actions; and one late-in-the-game twist tries to give weight to a change in tact for one character but it doesn't really stick the landing, coming off as clumsy and desperately pulled together to give the bait-and-switch some merit. It is underwhelming that the film cannot control its pieces. Its struggle to balance the old and the new interrupts what is an otherwise enjoyable romp.
Julianne Moore's Poppy is a camp and garish villain who comes across as genuinely threatening and intimidating - one area of the film where balance is achieved. While her arc mimics that of the first film a little too closely, Moore brings an infectious, deadly charm to proceedings. Likewise, and despite the script doing little to develop his character this time round, Egerton is every bit as delightful as he was in the first film, demonstrating once again that he is a leading man who can take charge of the picture and run with it in the right direction. His relationship with Tilde is oddly endearing, even with act two complications rendering it a little predictable, dull and unfocused.
Another downside to Kingsman 2 is the sheer volume of set pieces, cobbled together with little in the way of coherence. Vaughn's enthusiasm and excitement is clear as numerous set pieces are served up to audiences completely willing to lap it up; in the moment, most are thrilling (even when the CGI is strikingly obvious or distracting), and a real treat to spectate - but they are all very loosely connected and feel ostentatious rather than serving a purpose beyond extending the film by another ten minute, which becomes increasingly frustrating upon reflection.
The impact of having ten smaller-scale action sequences is considerably weaker than having just a handful of bigger, bolder and more smoothly executed sequences, illustrating the issue Vaughn has with restraint and focus once more. It is particularly noticeable in act two and the cracks in the narrative really begin to show - although act three helps pick up the pieces. Sometimes less is more and while I would never want to rain on the parade of a director having fun with his movie, Vaughn could create a far tighter end-product if he reflected upon that well-known saying.
Vaughn's direction is as solid as it was first time out, even with a couple of poorly-paced, over-stylised action sequences sticking out like a sore thumb. As an example, the ski break positioned in the transition from act two to act three feels largely unnecessary and could easily be condensed to provide the film with some energy and momentum; another mid-film scene recreates a sequences almost shot-for-shot from the first film and while that effect is intended and nostalgic, it feels like a drain on our time and resources which could be dedicated to making the other scenes stronger.
But, The Golden Circle absolutely has its moments. The opening sequence of Egerton jumping out of his taxi, swan-diving into the air and landing on top of the roof as another car smashes into the side-door, is inventive and, like Egerton's Eggsy in those opening five, mainly sticks the landing. Similarly, and with a huge thanks to the art department and set designers, Poppy's Columbian paradise is gorgeous and so vividly imagined, matching her pristine, facetious personality perfectly. It is detailed with a number of artistic flourishes which makes every trip we take to her part of the world visually enjoyable and captivating.
Even when the film goes all-but-the-kitchen sink and suffers for its stuffiness, it remains witty, fun and admirably ambitious. It's undeniable fun throughout, with some solid humour incorporated - I, for one, found Elton John's appearance rather funny indeed - alongside some valid emotion that continues the year's trend of 'A Channing Tatum-starring film featuring an emotional rendition of Take Me Home, Country Roads''. While hardly subtle, there a few timely references contained within that demonstrates at least some sharpness from the screenplay writers. As with The Secret Service, I could do without the vulgarity - it's worse here - but I'll let it pass as long as it promises not to do it with Kingsman 3...
Almost every issue in Kingsman 2 could be amended if some restraint was exercised. Too long? Cut it down by 25 minutes and tighten it. Too cluttered? You could feasibly remove any of the new Statesman, adjust the story only slightly and cut the load considerably. Too scattered? Remove a set piece or two and focus in on bigger, bold and smoother, linked with more coherence. Even with its rocky patches though, Kingsman; The Golden Circle turns out to be fun and its third act learns from the mistakes of The Secret Service's finale, keep it located in the one place and, very much unlike the rest of the picture, somewhat focused. As we jump from set piece to set piece, you cannot help but wish it did so with a greater control and restraint - but there's enough here to keep your interested in the franchise and tide you over until the next instalment.
Summary: Kingsman: The Golden Circle is unfocused, unrestrained and lacking a control that prevents it (finale aside) from reaching the heights of its predecessor - but it is just about fun enough, thanks to some great performances, to be worth the effort.