'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' is classy fun

The most common complaint for any film sequel is that it just doesn’t hold up to the original. When Matthew Vaughn’s tongue-in-cheek spy thriller, “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” debuted in 2014, it was an unexpected breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by Daniel Craig’s uber-serious Bond films.

The film’s quick wit, excellent cast and well-shot action caused it to burst onto the spy scene in a way that left audiences begging for more. The recent sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” is releasing to a very different environment, where cheekily self-aware action-comedies à la “Deadpool”and “Guardians of the Galaxy” are already well-established forms of the medium. Even though “The Golden Circle” features the same smarmy Britishness and breakneck action as the original, it lacks the newness that made the first film stand out.

This film picks up shortly after the first one left off, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) working as a full-fledged member of the Kingsmen alongside tech wizard Merlin (Mark Strong). Also returning from the previous film is Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), who plays a much larger role in this film than in the original.

Eggsy’s world is literally shattered by the machinations of Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), the head of the world’s largest drug cartel, as she launches an all-out-attack on the Kingsmen. To combat this new foe, Eggsy and Merlin must seek out the Statesmen, who are the Kingmen’s American brothers.

With this strong premise, Vaughn is able to frame another globe-trotting spy adventure. The Statesmen are easily the best addition to the mythos of the series, allowing the franchise to take the same satirical lens towards the Southern gentleman as the first film held up to the smarmy upper-class Brit. Channing Tatum and Pedro Pascal's Statesmen field agents play wonderfully off Eggsy and Merlin in some of the film’s most clever dialogues.

Taron Egerton remains the film’s greatest strength, channeling an inherently likeable persona as Eggsy. Egerton feels equally comfortable as the gentleman superspy and the middle-class pleb, and his charming performance ensures the audience legitimately cares about his character's problems. Mark Strong, unsurprisingly, also shines as Merlin, letting us glimpse the emotion behind the focused, measured character of the first film. Hanna Alström is also given considerably more to do in this film, although she remains more of a plot device than a character.  Alström makes the most of her limited material and manages to sell the idea that she and Eggsy have enough chemistry to build  a fulfilling relationship after their encounter in the first film.

The only real weak link in the cast is Julianne Moore’s Poppy Adams. Nobody comes into a Kingsman movie expecting deep, well-developed villains, and yet Poppy comes off so over the top it’s almost impossible to take her seriously. Right at the beginning, she takes the “villain kills their own henchman to prove how bad they are” cliché to a whole new level, ruining any chance at giving the character any sort of empathy. Poppy receives almost no development beyond her quirky obsession with the fifties.

The most unexpected star of this film comes in the form of Sir Elton John, whose role transcends a mere cameo to make for some of the most hilarious scenes in the film. If you’ve ever wanted to see Elton John kung-fu kick a terrorist in slow-motion, this is the film for you.

Of course, the real star of the Kingsman franchise is Matthew Vaughn’s electrifying fight scenes. The excellent choreography and faux-long take brawls that made the first film so memorable are once again the highlight in the sequel. The Statesmen bring their own unique fighting style to mix, with Pedro Pascal's Agent Whiskey marking the second blockbuster character this year to use a lasso to distribute beatdowns. That said, none of the fights quite stick with you the same way the church scene from the first Kingsman did. Vaughn seems to use more obvious CGI in this outing, which removes some of the punch from the original scenes in exchange for a sense of spectacle and over-the-top set pieces. It’s still more coherent and interesting than Michael Bay-esque chaos, but it lacks the intensity and class that defined the first film.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is not a perfect film. A weak villain and unfocused action bog down the film, not to mention another raunchy scene that will doubtlessly garner just as much controversy as the original Tilde gag from the first film. Yet, the Kingsman sequel never loses the sense of fun that made the original so exciting, and the leads (both returning and newcomers) carry the absurd plot with strong performances that create pathos as well as satire. Kingsman is as fun as it ever was; we just saw it coming this time.

Also, Elton John kicks someone in the face in slow motion. That alone is worth the price of admission in my book.

The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Torch.

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