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.
Egerton’s once-blank face has new adult creases. His Eggsy still wears Adidas track suits on his off-days, but otherwise, this former street kid has filled his mentor’s oxfords. He’s even wooed bunker hook-up Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) into being his live-in girlfriend, and is so devoted to her that he wades through sewage to get home for dinner. Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman smooth over the last film’s bad joke as the start of a sweet romance. When Eggsy sets off to save the world again, Tilde winks, “You know what that means.”
But Bond seduced beautiful strangers, and by God, so will Eggsy. Even if it means a grotesque sequence where he tries to implant a tracker in a female suspect that can only be inserted, well, guess. (The film doesn’t make you guess — the camera goes past the panties and inside the target.) As soon as I realized where, and how, the small, condom-sized gadget was headed, I felt my own nauseating zap, followed quickly by an unanswered question: Guys, what if your target was male? The film awkwardly tries to spin it as joke about sexual role reversal. She wants it, while the happily committed spy would rather go home to his princess and their pet pug. He’s the one leaning back and thinking of England.
Vaughn, too, is thinking a lot of England, especially the ingrained relationship between class, privilege, and potential. He has sharp eyes and ears for the details, contrasting Eggsy’s pal Brandon’s (Calvin Demba) cheap birthday cake against the china plate of crayfish the King of Sweden (Björn Granath) serves Eggsy to test if his daughter’s boy toy uses the right fork. In a rich girl’s tent at Glastonbury, Vaughn spots her tacky chieftain headdress and obnoxious tic of calling the fest, “Glast-o.”
He’s less gifted with Americans, who tend to wear denim-on-denim and talk like Larry the Cable Guy. Halfway through the movie, he gives up and put Tatum literally on ice. (Though Vaughn gives another Yankee a retractable lariat that looks terrific in slow motion.) But Vaughn hears the condescension in Poppy’s soft voice, the way a powerful female CEO who controls the lives of millions still gives orders that sound like apologies and compliments, and the way she calls her latest recruit “Angel Baby,” when he pronounces his name “Ahn-hell.”
Golden Circle can’t help being cynical about the folks in charge. CEOs like Poppy are psychopaths — the real life percentage is one in five — and some government officials aren’t much better. Yet instead of layering that misanthropy over the movie, Vaughn buries it under the surface where it squirts out like an oil slick, derailing our expectations of where the plot’s going to go. Once or twice, the film screws up. But every scene feels like it takes the characters seriously while the story swings for the fences. I was having a blast even before Eggsy broke out the baseball-shaped grenades. Batter up.