It took the Bond series 15 years and 10 movies to get to the ridiculed “Moonraker.” The laddish spy franchise “Kingsman: The Secret Service” series, based on Mark Millar’s comic book, has done it in one leap with the bloated, inexplicably un-entertaining follow-up “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”
Given that the movie struggles to justify its existence from scene to scene, and so ill-uses a VIP table’s worth of stars/actors — Elton John, Halle Berry, Julianne Moore, Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges — the better comparison might be to “Cannonball Run II.” At least “Moonraker” had Roger Moore’s bespoke suavity as a safeguard against series rot; this “Kingsman” seems to have gone straight from tailored to off-the-rack.
Returning to the director/co-screenwriter chair is Matthew Vaughn, his penchant for cartoonish violence, reactionary messaging and female-orifice-invasive humor intact, but his action chops and visual style sacrificed ever further to the glossy void of tension-free CGI. For a guy who had already shown he could jazz up an established franchise with “X-Men: First Class,” he seems bored here with his own start-up upon re-entry (to rehash a “Moonraker” joke).
Case in point: while there’s yet to be an unexciting ski chase in the 007 movies, the first time this series’ group of lethal spies, led by star recruit Eggsy (Taron Egerton), is sent to a snowy mountaintop stronghold in Italy to retrieve a world-saving antidote, the sequence’s mechanics — too-easy infiltration, spinning ski-lift, dull cabin shootout — are about as thrilling as a game of hangman with a seven-year-old.
The shot in the arm this time around was supposed to be the introduction of the Statesman, the bourbon-swigging, cowboy-clad and equally covert American espionage equivalent to the mannered, Savile Row-attired Kingsman. (Where the British agents use tricked-out umbrellas, the Statesmen wield enhanced lassos. Their commonality? Guns, guns, guns.)
The transatlantic spy merger is forced when a coordinated attack on Kingsman decimates their home base and wipes out their agent roster, save the organization’s tech guru Merlin (Mark Strong) and Eggsy, who was in Sweden meeting the parents of girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alström), the princess from the first movie with a peculiar reward incentive for heroism. (That controversial sexual-favors bit, incidentally, gets two callbacks this time around, neither one amusing.)
The surviving pair of Kingsman agents hightail it to the Kentucky distillery that acts as Statesman’s front business, where they meet their counterparts: rootin’ tootin’ spies Tequila (Tatum, phoning it in) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal, “Narcos”), gadget maven Ginger Ale (Berry, better served when she was a Bond gal), and top dog Champ (Bridges).
After a series of lame whose-whiskey-is-better jokes and the not-so-surprising re-introduction of Colin Firth’s veteran Harry Hart as having survived his shot to the head, the buddied-up agencies set their sights on the suspected supervillain: drug kingpin Poppy Adams (Moore), a malt-shop-cheery sociopath operating out of the Cambodian jungle in a makeshift ’50s-Americana village called Poppyland, complete with diner, bowling alley and theater, where a kidnapped Elton John — certainly one way to view his participation in this movie — is forced to perform every night for her.
The movie’s subtitle refers to the name of Poppy’s criminal enterprise, employees of which bear a gold-injected raised tattoo ring. For some reason. Poppy also likes to stuff miscreant henchmen into the diner’s meat grinder and make other henchmen eat them in burgers. But Poppy, a waste of Moore’s comedy skills, is also a Harvard grad, called “the most successful businesswoman in the world,” and “ambitious,” and has a psychotic scheme to poison her global consumer base (both the recreational and the addicted) so she can dangle the antidote and force legislation to end the war on drugs.
Let that one sink in as you remember how the first movie made its megalomaniacal baddie a black tech giant (Samuel L. Jackson) who wanted to end global warming by killing everybody. This series, after only two movies, never met a progressive cause, or powerful non-white-male person, it didn’t think was worthy of portraying as extreme evil worth vanquishing.
Even with its queasy right-wing undertones and blasé gore, the first “Kingsman” had about 40 minutes of snappy fun in unveiling its hidden world of transformed louts and refined assassins. Now it’s choppy, unapologetically dumb, and stuffed with sloppy digitized backdrops, to the point where I scrutinized Jeff Bridges to see if he was computer-rendered. The core holdovers — Egerton, Strong, and Firth — evince none of the spark they did when introducing their characters.
Only music superstar John’s catalogue of hostage sighs and profane outbursts, which practically count as deadpan humor here, come closest to possibly mirroring how the audience might feel at any given moment. And one does get the chance to hear John’s retro rock corker “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” over the climactic, if never cathartic, compound raid. The use of John Denver songs, on the other hand — this movie year’s contrapuntal pop callback of choice — isn’t as inspired as it was in “Okja.”
Then again, the prospect of a third “Kingsman” movie might call up another Denver vehicle: “Oh God!”