At a time when studios pour out movies about zombies and vampires in such large numbers, the resuscitation of dead characters has become an everyday occurrence. But unless you want to go the horror route, “undeading” someone you’ve ostentatiously killed off in one movie in order to justify a sequel is an iffier proposition. Of course, when potential profits are concerned, a solution, however farfetched, must be found.
That explains why Harry Hart, the dapper character played by Colin Firth who was shot in the head and left for dead in 2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” is revived through a deus ex machine mechanism in Matthew Vaughn’s sequel “The Golden Circle.” But he’s not the only character from the first movie who’s brought back to life here. There’s also Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), one of the unsuccessful candidates for admission to the Kingsman group in “Service”—who was pretty decisively dispatched in that picture and is back as well. Whether their return represents the resuscitation of the franchise is, however, a more doubtful proposition.
Hesketh, in fact, is a major figure in the action spectacular that opens “Circle”—a car chase that reestablishes the cartoonish nature of the property. Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), the lower-class lad whom Harry trained as a member of the Kingsman group of well-dressed independent agents, is abducted by Charlie, who is now equipped with a mechanical arm and hand. Their taxi ride turns into a mad battle eventuating in the cab being pursued by a trio of bomb-spewing cars. No points for guessing that Eggsy survives the encounter, but it turns out that Charlie’s real purpose is to use his arm to hack into the Kingsman computer system to target all its members and annihilate them—a ploy that succeeds, leaving only Eggsy and Kingsman general factotum Merlin (Mark Strong) alive (at least for now).
To regroup to some degree, they’re off to the States to link up with sister organization Statesman, which turns out to be led by a chap called Champ (Jeff Bridges) and includes operatives Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), as well as a tech whiz called Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). At their Kentucky lab they’re also acting as hosts to Harry, whom they saved but is suffering from amnesia and must be shocked back into recall before he can become part of the team again.
That’s important, because the world is facing a crisis brought about by Charlie’s boss, the arch-villainess of the piece, a crazy lady named Poppy (Julianne Moore), who from her secret base in Cambodia (where she has turned a temple complex into a berserk facsimile of a 1950s American small town) has cornered the world market in illegal drugs and intends blackmailing the US president, played as a sleazy southerner by Bruce Greenwood, into legalizing them all. Her scheme involves contaminating all the drugs she peddles with a fatal malady and then requiring legalization to provide the antidote to the millions affected by it. Our heroes will have to infiltrate her lair and stop her, though the president is less determined to do so, for reasons that disturb his chief of staff (Emily Watson). As if all that weren’t enough, Poppy’s plans also directly threaten Eggsy’s royal fiancée Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom).
That’s an awful lot of characters to keep juggling, and some of them—Champ, Tequila, Ginger Ale especially—are relegated to the sidelines, while others—like Tilde—have to content themselves with occasional interjections. Even Poppy is given surprisingly short shrift, though Moore does try to ratchet up her scenes with an abundance of dastardly overkill. The plethora of folks on hand is exacerbated by an extended cameo by Elton John, who pops in occasionally as himself, a captive of Poppy’s who also serves as a medical guinea pig. Those inserts are supposed to be hilarious, but John’s obvious discomfort before the camera undermines them.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that “Circle” runs way too long—the first picture was overextended at a bit more than two hours, but this one, as edited by Eddie Hamilton, lumbers on to nearly two-and-a-half—and devolves into a busy mix of exposition sequences (surprisingly low on wit, and sometimes too high on the gore that’s meant to be amusingly campy but is often cringe-inducing, like the burgers Poppy serves at her diner) and furious action sequences (vehicle chases, one-on-many fights, and a protracted encounter at a ski resort that includes an out-of-control lift and lots of gunfire). Though Vaughn tries to maintain the colorful, over-the-top comic-book style that marked the first film and generally succeeds; the formula is showing signs of tiring even on only a second outing, however, and though a major character dies in the course of the outlandish mayhem, that’s clearly no cause for alarm after the present installment has played so fast and loose with death.
Firth looks a bit more gaunt than he did in the first go-around, but his prim façade remains fun to watch, and though Egerton is no more charismatic than before, he’s settled into the role. The real scene-stealer remains Strong, who continues to exhibit comedic chops one might never have expected from his earlier action movies. Pascal makes less than you might hope of the Burt Reynolds clone, Whiskey. Visually the picture is top-drawer, in the gaudy fashion Vaughn has chosen for it; Darren Gilford’s production design, Arianne Phillips’ costumes, and George Richmond’s cinematography all offer a lot of eye candy.
But the luscious widescreen images don’t make up for the cartoonish hollowness of this cluttered, overstuffed exercise in hyperkinetic spycraft, which is accentuated by the excessive running-time. The drop-off from original to sequel is considerable, though not as severe as in the “Kick-Ass” pictures (though admittedly Vaughn had little to do with the second one in that case). “The Golden Circle” winds up as something like the “Modesty Blaise” of 2017—and that’s no compliment.