When the director of "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" walked out to greet the audience at the film's London premiere, he was introduced by the hired presenter as "the legend Matthew Vaughn," an assertion that drew an audible snort from the critics who sat near me.
Whether or not Vaughn believes himself to be a legend, his latest film certainly suffers from being rather too pleased with itself.
2014's "Colin Firth made a surprisingly steely secret agent, while debutante Taron Egerton burned up the screen as his streetwise protege. Packed with nifty, adrenaline-pumping action, it was fun and funny and successfully transcended its spoofy James Bond roots to create a world of its own. "Kingsman" became a deserved breakout hit.", directed by Vaughn from a screenplay co-written with Jane Goldman and based on a comic by and Dave Gibbons, was a riotous spy spoof.
New sequel "The Golden Circle", again written by Goldman and Vaughn, one-ups the original film with the introduction of a team of American spies, a new villain and even more kinetic action. But it seems to believe its own hype, doubling down on the first film's excesses without a tight narrative to tie it together.
The first film gave us the Kingsmen, a society of spies outfitted with British-isms that turned into weapons -- armoured tailoring, high-tech London taxis and bulletproof umbrellas. The sequel does the same for American iconography, introducing the all-American Statesmen decked out in souped-up Stetsons and electrified lassos. These gimmicks are as broad, silly and enjoyable as the first film's. A shootout involving twirling six-guns is one highlight.
Following the first film's teaming of iconic stars Michael Caine, Samuel L Jackson, Mark Hamill and a host of celebrity cameos, "Kingsman 2" turns up with a frankly extraordinary cast. Julianne Moore is icily saccharine as the sweet-smiling villain, joined by -- deep breath -- Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Michael Gambon, Pedro Pascal and, believe it or not, Elton John. They all seem to be having a blast -- especially Pascal channeling a moustachioed Burt Reynolds -- but none of them are particularly stretched. Berry is particularly neglected, in a role that comes nowhere near making up for her part in the worst Bond film ("Die Another Day" -- don't @ me).
In the first film, the great cast and fun gimmicks were window-dressing to a compelling story based on the conflict between teen delinquent Eggsy and the stuffy Kingsman establishment. The sequel gives us the gimmicks but no interesting conflict.
We meet the villain right at the start but don't find out her plan until much later in the film. A couple of the big-name characters are introduced then pretty much disappear. Both the goodies and the baddies spend a surprising amount of time lounging about in their respective bases. All told, they just sort of move in circles around each other without much narrative urgency.
Slow film, fast action scenes
Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, "The Golden Circle" runs only 10 minutes longer than its much brisker-feeling predecessor, but it feels like the runtime stretches for eternity. It feels baggy, with too long between the action scenes.
Still, when they arrive, those action scenes are almost worth the wait. "The Golden Circle" opens with one of the best action scenes of the year, an acrobatic punch-up in a speeding cab that's easily up there with the fights in "", " " or " ". The camera spins and spills with the characters, tumbling with them as they rumble, all set to the strains of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy". It's pulse-quickening stuff.
The remaining action scenes -- all set to various retro-pop tunes -- are as kinetic, energetic and thrillingly constructed. But they rely too much on gadgetry. I'm all for cool spy gadgets, but on two or three occasions our heroes save the day by pulling out gadgets that haven't been seen or mentioned previously, which is just cheating by the filmmakers.
Then there's a bizarre scene everybody will be talking about. A lot of viewers were bemused by the risque joke at the end of the first film, and the sequel doubles down with a crude sequence in which Egerton's spy has to seduce a target, played by model Poppy Delevingne. Where the first film's sex joke was an exaggeration of James Bond's "attempting re-entry" gags, the sequel's sex scene feels laddish and crudely male gaze-y, not to mention cringingly manufactured.
"Kingsman: The Golden Circle" has all the gimmicks that made "The Secret Service" so much fun but seems to think that's all it needs. There's gold in the action and the iconic cast, but the unfocused story leaves them running in circles.
"Kingsman: The Golden Circle" is in theatres in the US, UK and Australia this week.
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