Dumber and less stylish than its predecessor, Kingsman: The Secret Service, the cartoonish secret-agent pastiche Kingsman: The Golden Circle is also even more of an incoherent right-wing text, an exaggeration of the James Bond movies’ violence, fashion sense, and sex that keeps trying to pass off its ham-fisted conservative attitudes as smirking nihilism. The first film at least bested the latter-day Bond movies in plastic spy-movie pleasures—spiffy gadgets, goofy bad guys, over-compensating production design—and had a more or less consistent narrative, with working-class English delinquent Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) learning to become an agent of Kingsman, a shadowy “independent” intelligence agency disguised as a Savile Row tailor shop, under the tutelage of gentleman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth). But anyone put off by the first film’s patrician politics will find even less to like in this lurching sequel.
The villain this time around is Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a kitsch-loving billionaire drug trafficker who runs her empire out of Poppy Land, a retro-futurist theme park hidden in an unknown jungle; her office is a ’50s diner where disloyal underlings are ground into burger meat, just up the street from the private theater where she enjoys nightly performances from a kidnapped, indignant Elton John. Poppy’s dastardly plan: poisoning her own product in order to force the leaders of the world into decriminalizing and regulating recreational drugs. Oddly, director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer, Jane Goldman, seem to recognize that this isn’t the worst demand ever made by a supervillain—never mind that it makes less sense than whatever Auric Goldfinger was up to when he tried to irradiate Fort Knox. The villain of the first film—which was actually pretty funny—was an environmentalist who turned the teeming global masses into rabid killers by giving out free phone and internet service; one presumes that the next Kingsman (already in development) will take on universal healthcare.
At least some of The Secret Service’s outrageousness has carried over: Poppy Land, with its murderous android hairdresser and letter-jacket-clad goons; a grotesque Bond-style opening that pits Eggsy against Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a failed Kingsman recruit who sports a killer cybernetic arm, inside of a veering, bulletproof London minicab; the camera gliding through a pair of red panties mid-third-base to a gush of John Barry-esque brass. But for the most part, the movie is too busy with its ungainly, underwhelming plotting to be even stupidly fun. The class discomfort is basically identical to the first movie; Vaughn caricatures politicians as cynical opportunists and the people who elect them as mindless mobs, while his camera bends down to lick the dirt off his posh old-money conspirators’ black leather Oxfords. The politics of Bond—a Tory creation, the alpha male forever fighting megalomaniacs, traitors, and modernist architecture—were never this literal or important.
For reasons that are never explained, Vaughn and Goldman have Poppy kick things off by obliterating most of Kingsman’s staff in a volley of guided missiles, leaving only two agents to foil her: the tech specialist Merlin (Mark Strong), who wasn’t considered important enough to kill; and Eggsy, who was out at the time having dinner with his girlfriends’ parents, the King and Queen Of Sweden, who have been led to believe that he is a tailor. (Relationship woes involving Eggsy and his royal Swedish ladylove take up an inordinate portion of this film’s 141-minute running time.) Retconning the backstory of The Secret Service, The Golden Circle then sends these last remaining Kingsmen off to the former colonies in search of Statesman, a hitherto unknown American counterpart organization disguised as a distillery in Kentucky, with cowboy agents code-named after beverages: Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), Tequila (Channing Tatum, in what turns out to be a glorified cameo), and the head honcho, Champagne (Jeff Bridges), who goes by “Champ.”
None of these characters are actually interesting, and, compared to the giant pneumatic tubes and high-tech combat umbrellas of the Kingsman-verse, the American setting comes across as a failure of imagination. But, as luck would have it, Firth’s likable Harry Hart—who was ostensibly killed by a shot to the head in the first film—turns out be alive and almost well, kept in a padded room in Statesman’s unremarkable underground headquarters, one-eyed and suffering from amnesia. Having forgotten his time as a soldier and spy, he has reverted to his childhood dream of studying butterflies, leading the Statesmen to refer to him as “the lepidopterist,” a word that is relished by Tatum’s exaggerated drawl, a bit like the actor’s bouncing delivery of “Charlotte Motor Speedway” in the recent Logan Lucky. (By some coincidence, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is featured prominently in both Logan Lucky and this film.)
Toss in a baffling side trip to the Glastonbury Festival, frequent cuts to literally catatonic side characters and exposition being delivered via Fox News, and an extraneous subplot that puts the blame on politicians looking to rid their countries of junkies and potheads, and what you end up with is more plot than a clever movie could probably handle, let alone one that’s as narratively clumsy as The Golden Circle. Attentive viewers should have fun figuring out how this thing was re-cut by paying attention to costume changes. The rest can fidget through the many boring stretches, wishing they still had a wristwatch to check.