Blithely misogynist and glibly sociopathic, Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was the definition of a problematic fave, an over-the-top sendup that embodied everything it pretended to critique. Right up to its final moments, in which Taron Egerton’s swaggering spy, Eggsy, is rewarded for saving the world with a comely blonde’s offer of anal sex, the movie was insistently, gleefully tasteless, like a lad-mag version of Pink Flamingos. With its nattily attired secret agents and world-destroying villain, the movie’s burlesque of James Bondian excess was so blunt it barely qualified as satire, but its agreeable slickness and the sight of Colin Firth felling enemies with a high-tech umbrella made it impossible to wholly dislike—if only because it seemed so desperate to get a rise out of you.
With Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Vaughn and his returning co-writer, Jane Goldman, know exactly which buttons to press, and they don’t waste any time jabbing at them. Vaughn throws us right into a blender with a vertiginous fight scene scored to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” the camera pinwheeling as Eggsy does battle with a foe and his robot arm in the back of a speeding London taxi. (Vaughn has claimed in interviews that this is the first time Prince’s back catalog has been licensed to a film, but the song’s tempo fits the scene so badly it feels like a posthumous insult.) Within minutes, most of the first movie’s cast has been disposed of, blown up by Julianne Moore’s kitsch-loving drug lord, Poppy, to make room for a more high-powered cast of characters. Gone, with few exceptions, are the Brits—only Mark Strong’s Merlin survives the carnage, with Edward Holcroft’s Charlie promoted from Kingsman wannabe to cybernetic henchman—replaced by a slew of franchise-hopping Yanks.
Once Poppy, who favors patterned suits and directs her criminal empire from an ersatz 1950s diner in the Colombian jungle, has bumped off most of the first movie’s unmemorable supporting cast, Eggsy and Merlin head to the U.S. for reinforcements, where they discover Kinsgman’s American equivalent. Headquartered in a Kentucky whiskey distillery instead of a Savile Row tailor’s shop, Statesman promises to lampoon yee-haw Americanism the way Kingsman did posh toffs, but it can’t seem to settle on a target. Pedro Pascal’s Whiskey has a deep mock-Texas twang and does battle with an electrified lasso that can cut people in half; Channing Tatum’s Tequila is a good ol’ boy who’s (literally) put on ice shortly after he’s introduced in preparation for a possible third film in the series; Halle Berry’s Ginger Ale, Statesman’s in-house techie, is a woman, and that’s about as developed as her character gets.
Like the first Kingsman, The Golden Circle is outwardly bro-centric but makes periodic nods to more progressive points of view. Eggsy’s reformed his blokey ways and gotten serious with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), who previously offered him her bum hole as a prize. Poppy’s fiendish scheme, which involves poisoning the world’s drug supply and blackmailing heads of state into legalization, is spawned by her inability to be taken seriously as a businesswoman. (There’s leaning in, and there’s leaning in.) But then there are scenes like the one where Eggsy has to locate Poppy’s henchman by planting a tracking device on his girlfriend (Poppy Delevingne), and the tracker has to be placed on a mucous membrane, and, well, he’s not going to stick his finger up her nose. As the camera follows his index finger down her belly and past the edge of her underwear, you may roll your eyes or fight your gag reflex, but when it plunges forward and actually starts zooming around her insides, you have to respect the commitment to the bit. (OK, you don’t. I do.) The last thing anyone expected from a Kingsman sequel was for it to go full Enter the Void.
Vaughn is clearly trying for a kind of maximalist subversion. If you’re turned on by the thought of Eggsy fingering a hot blonde, try keeping it up when you’re looking at a computer-generated cervical canal. That’s the movie’s method in miniature: Leer at an attractive woman in her underwear, then pretend it’s only leering ironically. (Never mind that even though Delevingne’s character is cast as the sexual aggressor—even when Eggsy tells her he has a girlfriend, she’s still hot to trot—sticking an electronic device inside her without her consent is still a form of sexual assault.) Regardless, the movie itself goes limp when it strays too far from the genre’s bedrock. Its emotional beats play as if they were copy-pasted from other movies. They have the shell of sincerity but can’t be taken seriously, so they end up as vast stretches of nothingness. The first movie was swallowed by its own misanthropy about the time Vaughn staged a scene of mass execution to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” but at least it was true to its humanity-hating ethos, climaxing with a colorful riot of exploding heads that included Barack Obama’s. (Take that, Kathy Griffin.) The Golden Circle’s climax includes Elton John—both musically and in person—and Colin Firth fighting robot dogs. Vaughn hasn’t only run out of things to say but people to hate, and without that underlying aggression, the movie feels like it’s just going through the motions. Better luck next time, bruv.