"Kingsman" Sequel Mostly Lives Down To Its Putrid Predecessor

The last we saw of smarmy British superspy Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), he had just saved the world and was off to collect his bounty: anal sex with a Swedish princess (Hanna Alström). It was a puerile punchline befitting the rest of “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” writer-director Matthew Vaughn’s glib, ultraviolent James Bond remix. On top of treating its female characters like meat and repeatedly playing violence against animals for laughs, the film brought zilch to the spy movie cosmos, landing somewhere between “Austin Powers” without jokes and an R-rated “Octopussy.” Heaven help us.

On the other hand, if its target audience was “middle schoolers taking a break from watching racists play video games on YouTube,” mission accomplished.

$400 million in box office receipts has inevitably led us to sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” a follow-up that’s a little less vile, a little more competent with its action sequences, but every bit as pointless as its predecessor, spreading out an unusually leaden spy story over 141 long minutes.

Taron Egerton proved a qualified lead in lightweight sports pic “Eddie The Eagle,” but Eggsy is a different beast. The character’s defining characteristics remain an incorrigible potty mouth and gravitation for CGI-laced mayhem. Beyond that he’s a husk, a mostly nondescript young man dropped into a life of cartoonish espionage where nothing is real. Not even death.

Eggsy’s mentor, Colin Firth’s Harry Hart, is back after being shot in the face in the original film. The explanation for his return is hardly worth mentioning, except that he is, in fact, the same Harry only without his memory of being a Kingsman. Ironically, “The Golden Circle” is at its worst when it drops the juvenilia and fumbles for our heartstrings, be it playing up Harry’s memory-triggering recollection of his childhood dog Pickles or saddling Mark Strong’s Q stand-in Merlin with an unbearably dopey send-off set to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Certainly no one is watching these films for the characters; why waste time on half-assed emotionality in a universe where death is merely an inconvenience?

The movie’s special effects are at their rubbery worst right out of the gate, as Eggsy is thrown into a visually garbled car chase crassly scored by Prince classic “Let’s Go Crazy.” Hereafter, missiles wipe out most of the Kingsmen, an attack made at the behest of a sociopathic drug peddler named Poppy (Julianne Moore). As Poppy preens in her elaborate, theme park-like hideout in Cambodia, Kingsmen survivors Eggsy and Merlin follow their outfit’s doomsday protocol and are led to Statesman, a whiskey distillery in Kentucky that doubles as the American equivalent of Kingsmen.

Here our hero and his sidekick meet Statesman agent Tequila (Channing Tatum), head honcho Champagne (Jeff Bridges), and techie Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), none of whom meaningfully figure into the rest of the film.

After Eggsy’s reunion with an amnesia-stricken Harry, we’re introduced to the film’s brightest spot: Statesman agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), a mustachioed cowpoke with a serious talent for lassoing. Pascal imbues the character with an allure that no one else among the cast can muster, helped along by an air of mystery and an especially badass ace up his sleeve. His is no mere lasso; it’s electrified, capable of halving evil henchmen with a flick of the wrist.

Pascal can only detract from the sleepy narrative so much, though. It’s not until an admittedly impressive action sequence set at a ski resort that his character is given much to do, setting off a twenty minute stretch that marks the high water mark for the “Kingsman” universe to date. Said thrills are inevitably short-lived, giving way to an extended Elton John cameo that isn’t a quarter as endearing as it should be (he’s curiously made to share the screen with two robotic guard dogs) and a climax replete with halfwitted moralizing and a most unwelcome cover of 1986 funk hit “Word Up.”

The only real surprise in “The Golden Circle” is that its obligatory ugliness – Eggsy is tasked with placing a tracker inside a target’s vagina – isn’t its biggest dealbreaker. The storytelling is numbingly linear; singularly dull within the genre its supposedly taking the piss out of. The whole is less boorish than the original and a few action beats are liable to get the heart racing. But for a series to run out of narrative gas this quickly is revealing.

If it wasn’t clear from the beginning, it’s crystal now: Vaughn and company have nothing more than cheap, infantile thrills to offer with the Kingsmen. The time to get out is now. For all parties involved.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: September 22, 2017
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriters: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman
Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Hanna Alström, Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Elton John
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout and some sexual material)