The ultimate allure of the spy movie lies in its fantastic elements. When you strip the genre down to its essentials, you have colorful villains with ludicrous plots facing off against suave gentleman armed with classic good looks, charisma and ultra-hi-tech gadgets. In other words, you have "Kingsman."
"Kingsman: The Secret Service" opened in 2014 to modest buzz but quickly developed a large fanbase declaring their love from the social media mountaintops. It's easy to see why the film generated such enthusiasm; crafted as a love letter to the James Bond films of yore, it stars dapper Brits (Taron Egerton, Colin Firth) that prioritize dressing well and preserving chivalry as much as they do kicking ass. With a delightful Samuel L. Jackson as the quirky villain, some absurdly cool concepts (a henchwoman with swords for legs, for instance) and hyper-violent, tightly-choreographed action, "Secret Service" was an immensely entertaining ride that earned its place in the annals of spy film history.
Given the opportunity for a second go-around, director Matthew Vaughn decided to take every idea from the first one and double down. "The Golden Circle" finds protagonist Eggsy (Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) as the sole survivors of a devastating attack on Kingsman locations around the globe. Their search for the perpetrator leads them to a maniacal drug cartel leader, played with seriously creepy faux-charm by Julianne Moore. To stop her genocidal plot, they must enlist the help of the Statesmen, the American spy organization headed by agents Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and Champagne (Jeff Bridges). Plus, Elton John plays himself, and Firth's Harry Hart returns from the dead.
Sound like a lot? Well, it is -- "Golden Circle" keeps adding more and more to its plate, offering an even higher dose of its already-highly concentrated take on the spy movie. There's a lot happening, and more often than not, it buckles under the pressure. The reasoning behind why some characters who were presumed dead return is questionable at best. Very few of the new characters get time to develop; if you're here to see Tatum, you better stay away, because he's left off-screen for a decent chunk of the movie.
What's worse is the plot is often reduced to a mechanism by which Vaughn takes us to the next locale, for the next fight. Many of the character's intrapersonal conflicts feel forced and take the viewer out of the experience, rather than further investing in the story. Attempts at humor and outrageous political satire land with relative frequency, but these scenes often feel at odds with what are supposed to be more serious moments of character drama. At times, I found myself simply counting the minutes until the next fight scene.
Credit must be given where it's due, and "Golden Circle" ups the ante when it comes to action. While it never reaches the shocking level of the church scene in its predecessor, this film is loaded with high-adrenaline, inventive showdowns. Electrified whips, robotic arms, weaponized briefcases and giant rolling donuts kept the fights exciting and fresh. The pacing is such that none of the fight scenes overstay their welcome, nor do they feel too spaced apart. People are coming to watch guys in suits fight, and dammit, that's what they'll get.
But even the film's highlights are victims of excess. In this case, the problem lies in the visual effects. Where "Secret Service" prioritized stunts and used effects sparingly, "The Golden Circle" is laden with effects for the majority of its runtime. These visuals are neither breathtakingly realistic nor unique and eye-catching. Rather, they are middling and illusion-breaking in some crucial moments. Is the problem one of budgeting, where landing such a star-studded cast lead to reduced money elsewhere?
Lying at "The Golden Circle's" core is a rock-solid concept -- the hardcore application of an age-old genre that has stood the test of time. And the movie remains fun when a wild new gadget is introduced, or when a classic song soundtracks an intense scene (the opening car chase set to "Let's Go Crazy" is a standout scene). But there are some clear cracks in this film's foundation. While it manages to capture some of the first one's fun, the franchise is losing its luster.