Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) is one of the key cinematic texts of our time.
It is based on a comic and intended to birth a franchise, yet felt refreshingly vibrant in a marketplace jammed with increasingly dull comic book franchises. It luxuriates in ironic fascination with old-fashioned spy movies while un-ironically hewing to old-fashioned virtues of honor and gentlemanly comportment before capping things off with an amusingly new-fashioned vulgarity. It imagines a global elite conspiring under the auspices of global warming alarmism to make life harder for the uncouth poors surrounding them. If there's a key to unlocking our populist moment, it could be located somewhere within Matthew Vaughn's surprisingly popular action-spy-spoof.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is at its best when it embraces the nutso vision of its predecessor. Such moments are, unfortunately, a bit overwhelmed by the soggy pacing dictated by the desire to bring back a fan-favorite character that probably should've stayed dead.
The film kicks off when Eggsy, a/k/a Galahad (Taron Egerton), is attacked on the streets of London by failed Kingsman recruit Charlie (Edward Holcroft, returning from the first film). Tearing through the crowded city streets in a black cab, Vaughn leans into the hyperkinetic action sequences: the camera is in motion yet controlled, pushing in and out in concert with the flying fists and diving bodies. Eggsy's training and the flashy gear from his nongovernmental spy agency help him elude his would-be assassins—but not without cost.
From there we see glimpses of Eggsy's private life. He and Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), whom we saw at the end of the first film giving Eggsy a very special reward for rescuing her and saving the world, are living together, which forces Eggsy to balance his hard-drinking, chavvy friends with the demands of playing a posh, would-be royal. When the Kingsman organization is wiped out by Poppy (Julianne Moore), a lunatic drug dealer holed up in Cambodia with the skills of a multinational CEO and a fetish for 1950s Americana, Eggsy's balancing act becomes even more difficult.
The first Kingsman was rather ingeniously plotted. Dribs and drabs of information were doled out about the privately held spy outfit as the film went along; we more or less learned about Kingsman at the same time as novice spy Eggsy and maniacal eco-villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Poppy's preemptive strike against the outfit makes less sense. It's entirely unclear why she would wipe out the organization before unveiling her evil plan, which involves poisoning drug users and then blackmailing the world government into legalizing drugs.
But who cares about little things like coherence, really, since this decapitation gives Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) an excuse to head across the pond to meet their brothers-in-arms the Statesmen, American versions of the Kingsmen. Rather than Savile Row tailors, the Statesmen are bourbon distillers. Instead of sporting high-tech umbrellas, they unfurl electrified bullwhips. Baseballs that are actually hand grenades, bats that double as minesweepers. Champ (Jeff Bridges), short for champagne, heads this group of cowpokes, which also includes Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal).
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is most entertaining while reveling in the inherent nuttiness of its world, when exploring the nightmare nostalgia of Poppyland, when showcasing spies battling with bullwhips and umbrellas, or going inside the horrifyingly amusing way the government warehouses the drug addicts infected with Poppy's disease. There's something gloriously insane about the whole thing, a sort of luminous hyper-reality ramped up by Vaughn's dynamic camerawork.
The sequel is at its worst when it's trying to force Eggsy's mentor, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), back into the action. Harry, you may remember, was shot in the head and left for dead by the previous film's villain. He should have stayed dead. The Eggsy-Harry relationship is by no means the most interesting one in this film, and excising his resurrection could've easily slimmed down The Golden Circle‘s overly indulgent 139-minute running time.