When does a good thing become too much of a good thing? When is enough enough? That's the main question hovering over Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the spirited continuation of Matthew Vaughn's disarmingly clever 2015 introduction of the bespoke-suited British secret agent that, as with many successful series before it, has already begun to err on the side of overkill with an unnecessarily long 141 minutes. Still, this fleet-footed, glibly imaginative international romp stays on its toes and keeps its wits about it most of the time, with entertaining and pointedly U.S.-friendly cast additions that should provide an uptick from the $414 million raked in worldwide by Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Using the James Bond-established opening teaser template, the action-for-action's-sake curtain raiser re-emphasizes the series' firm commitment to ignoring the laws of time and physics as it presents a nocturnal London car chase of beyond-the-pale preposterousness between two enemies with unknown motives. The pyrotechnics may be impressive as the sequence tops itself over and over again but, without rooting interest or stakes firmly established, it feels pointless, showy and silly; presumed viewer identification with the “good guy” is perhaps insufficiently firm to justify this sort of very cold open.
The good guy is the unappetizingly named “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), the lower-class bloke trained in espionage, combat and, above all, sartorial style in the first outing by gentleman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who appeared to have expired and passed the baton to Eggsy at the end.
But, in a heartening move characteristic of the series' highly elastic definition of mortality, it doesn't take too long for Harry to turn up again, although not quite in the tip-top mental or sartorial condition to which he is accustomed. Still, there are preliminaries to be disposed of: The world at this moment is being threatened by arch-villain Poppy (Julianne Moore), a perky lady whose sweet, wholesome looks and chirpy voice co-exist with malevolence on a massive scale. She's the boss of the Golden Circle, the world's No. 1 drug cartel who, in the course of things, essentially blackmails the (equally conniving) U.S. president (Bruce Greenwood, who 17 years ago played JFK in Thirteen Days) into legalizing drugs.
With cutesy inspiration, this very nasty lady presides over a jungle compound named Poppy Land that looks like a 1950s Middle-American theme park; she's reproduced it all, the cheery, jukebox diner that doubles as her office, the old-time movie house, everything she relished as a kid. And on hand to perform at her beck and call in a grand theater is none other than Elton John (the real deal, bedecked in outlandish feathery attire), his greatest hits occasionally used as aural counterpoint to what's going on.
The cleverness with which John is used extends to the highly calculated way Vaughn, along with his frequent writing partner Jane Goldman, has conceptualized and then accoutered the series; the format is thoroughly Bondian, the British characters are split high/low in class (in Eggsy, it's both within the same person), the villains are American (Samuel L. Jackson in the first outing) and considerable shrewdness is applied to the conception and execution of nearly every scene to make this old spy stuff feel fresh, which it mostly does.
The wild card here is the introduction of an entirely unexpected U.S. counterpart to the private British espionage organization. When Poppy shockingly destroys the Kingsman organization, including its tony Saville Row clothing shop, the lone survivors, Eggsy and tech wizard Merlin (Mark Strong), hightail it to, of all places, Kentucky, where Bond once found Goldfinger, Pussy Galore and Fort Knox. But what the new crew finds is one-eyed Harry in a comfortable padded cell and unable to recall his former exploits or draw upon his customary expertise.
Harry is the honored guest of Statesman, a longtime whiskey company whose folksy, shrewd gazillionaire boss (Jeff Bridges) oversees his own staff of down-home secret operatives with boozy names like Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). There's a wild barroom fight scene in which some beefy down-home boys pick a fight with the sissy-talking Brits, with Whiskey demonstrating his special talents yielding a whip more lethal than that of Indiana Jones. And while everyone waits to learn if Harry will recover his memory in time to save the world (Halle Berry, as Ginger Ale, is instrumental in overseeing this process), the macho boys traverse the globe while millions of drug users worldwide begin coming down with deathly symptoms induced by Poppy's drugs (and which will end in the deaths of millions unless the U.S. president agrees to her terms).
Goldman and Vaughn have a nifty knack of concocting scenes that at first seem totally arbitrary and yet eventually reveal a narrative purpose. This certainly applies to what initially looks like a gratuitous plug for the Glastonbury Music Festival, where Eggsy shows up and encounters a hot-to-trot babe (Poppy Delevingne) with no evident connection to the plot. Then there's what seems like a pointless trip to a spectacular Italian mountaintop ski station that at first smacks of a homage to On Her Majesty's Secret Service but then turns out to hold the potential solution to the world's great dilemma. And Eggsy's serious romantic interest, who's cut away to repeatedly, is none other than the princess daughter of the king and queen of Sweden; the seemingly inconsequential scene with the latter also has its serious, if humorously presented, intent.
There is, then, an endearingly goofy method to the writers' fervid madness that serves the material well and, as ever, Vaughn puts it all up on the screen with boisterous but carefully calibrated enthusiasm. Unlike some other directors of big franchise extravaganzas, Vaughn actually seems to prefer character, dialogue and humor to chases and explosion, and he makes mostly very good use of his almost invariably well-chosen actors by identifying their appeal and drawing out their humor.
No surprise that, when the survival of much of the world's population hangs in the balance, Harry gets his memory back to help out, and it's in the climactic action set at Poppy Land that Sir Elton gets to bust through musically to big dividends. After having been decimated and physically wiped off the map, it's also little surprise that, by the end, the Kingsman line is back and will henceforth benefit from the addition of a brawny American partner with a distinct Southern accent.
What seemed, at the outset, to be too, too much finally feels quite all right by the end. Still, there are lessons to be kept in mind: Except for the water-logged Thunderball, all the Connery Bond films ran less than two hours and were better for it, while the initial Indiana Jones and and first two Star Wars chapters were kept within a couple of minutes of two hours either way. If they can do it, future Kingsman outings certainly can, too, and would be better for it.
Production company: Cloudy Productions
Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal, Edward Holcroft, Hanna Alstrom, Emily Watson, Sophie Cookson, Elton John, Bruce Greenwood, Poppy Delevingne
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriters: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons
Producers: Matthew Vaughn, David Reid, Adam Bohling
Executive producers: Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, Stephen Marks, Mark Millar, Claudia Vaughn, Pierre LaGrange
Director of photography: George Richmond
Production designer: Darren Gilford
Costume designer: Arianne Phillips
Editor: Eddie Hamilton
Music: Henry Jackman, Matthew Margeson
Visual effects supervisor: Angus Bickerton
Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton
Rated R, 141 minutes