There were no terrorist attacks in London in 2014, the year Matthew Vaughn premiered his laddish spy caper Kingsman: The Secret Service. This year, there have already been four. We’ve all been shaken by a resurgent Cold War that relies more on intelligence than armies, the cocktail that gave us James Bond. Retro Bond was a welcome delight, a scamp in a tux. Today, he’s gone cynical and brooding, and drawn knock-offs Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer into his funk. Like bloodhounds, they chase the bitter truth until, at the end of their adventure, they limp off, bruised and hopeless. None of them seem to believe they can save the day. At best, disaster takes a raincheck. When even cartoons like Captain America and Dominic Toretto are grimly fighting terror, someone’s gotta have some fun.
The plucky, brave and well-dressed agents of Vaughn’s sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, strut into theaters knowing that audiences need to cheer. I wasn’t expecting to. The first film, in which posh operative Harry Hart (Colin Firth), aka “Galahad,” gave car-thieving chav Eggsy (Taren Egerton) a killer upper-class makeover, was a sloppy collage of cliches glued together by bravado, as though the film drew power from how much it convinced the studio to let it get away with. Cast Samuel L. Jackson as a McDonald’s-chomping techvangelist named Valentine? Check. Give the female assassin razor blade legs? Snikt. Spend 20 minutes of the movie discussing men’s suits and accessories? Whatever, fine. Secret Service wasn’t good, but it was never boring, the movie version of the pest in the back of English class who doesn’t know when to stop. And so it ended on a low when Eggsy’s reward for saving the day was anal sex with a Swedish princess, a spit-wad that took Secret Service from brash to boorish.
The Golden Circle has matured just enough. It’s doubled down on the mayhem and hammered out the tone. Everything is sincere even when it’s insane. In the opening brawl, Eggsy and failed Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft), the crybaby from the first film’s train tracks test, trade blows in a speeding taxi. As they Tottenham drift through London, the camera gleefully swoops around the lorry while the brawlers inside, and then dangling outside, and then clinging to the bumper, remain deadly serious. It’s funny and violent without being slapstick. The humor is woven into the premise like the pinstripes on Eggsy’s expensive suits. When Merlin (Mark Strong) advises Eggsy to drive underwater holding his breath, there’s no oxygen countdown, no dramatic CPR, no phony panic. Of course, he’s fine. We’re 10 minutes into the movie. But we remember his blasé reaction a few scenes later when a Kentucky spy named Tequila (Channing Tatum) soaks Eggsy’s Saville threads with bourbon. Now he yelps. And that’s the punchline.
Here, our main villain is billionaire drug lord Poppy (Julianne Moore), a demented Donna Reed who’s transformed her jungle hideout into a kitschy ’50s town with robot dogs and mercenaries in letterman jackets. (It’s the jukebox version of Henry Ford’s abandoned suburb Fordlândia in the Amazon.) Poppy loves red vinyl, shiny chrome, cannibalism, and pressuring the American president (Bruce Greenwood) to legalize narcotics. Instead of mustache-twiddling arms dealers, Kingsman picks criminals with stances the audience might agree with. Valentine was alarmed about climate change and overpopulation. Poppy decries the hypocrisy of restricting cocaine and weed when sugar, alcohol and tobacco kill thousands more every day. When she launches into speeches, we nod along until she gets to the part about mass murder. And the script ticks off all the Drug War’s contradictions: it’s expensive and futile, but do we really want Eggsy’s mate Liam (Thomas Turgoose) ruining his life with crack? Unlike the robotic arm Poppy slides on a henchman (“I call it arm-ageddon!” she snorts), the solution isn’t one-size-fits-all.
Golden Ring is loud and flashy without being false. The entire framework is a send-up of reserved, status-conscious Brits. Now that Secret Service‘s overlong character introduction is over, Vaughn finds a surprising depth of emotion in people who aren’t comfortable revealing any. When tragedy strikes, it’s not protocol to cry. Later, there’s a small, wrenching moment when one man flinches from a hug. Turns out it’s more effective to watch stoic agents make logical sacrifices than see Rambo juice out a tear.