The first Kingsman movie shouldn’t have worked half as well as it did. Essentially James Bond cosplay, Kingsman: The Secret Service was based on a comic by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, and directed by Matthew Vaughn, whose track record includes Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. It succeeded thanks to its complicated but deep affection for old Bond movies and its charmingly immature compulsion to inject R-rated depravity and computer-generated wow into 007’s musty old tropes. It was a total surprise—both batshit and pretty great.
Unsurprisingly, Kingsman: The Golden Circle suffers from sequel-itis. It’s bloated and overlong, with some fun retreads of ideas from the first Kingsman, a few new tricks done incredibly well, and more than a few stretches that pale in comparison to the original. A couple of beloved characters are done dirty (oh, poor, perfect Roxy, will you ever catch a break?), but the core Kingsmen are back: Taron Egerton as new recruit Eggsy, Mark Strong as Q stand-in Merlin, and Colin Firth as dapper badass Harry Hart.
“But wait!” you cry. “Wasn’t Harry definitely killed in the first Kingsman?” He was, and I won’t reveal how he’s summoned back to life in this one, although it has something to do with the Kingsman’s American counterparts, the Statesmen. Much as the English spies of Kingsman use a Savile Row tailor as their cover, the Statesmen agents purport to be Kentucky distillers, with code names like Whiskey, Tequila, and Champagne. Despite their handles sounding like stripper names, they’re meant to be Vaughn’s idea of gruff American masculinity, all cowboy boots and Southern drawls; they’re played by Pedro Pascal, Channing Tatum, and Jeff Bridges, although the latter two’s appearances amount to little more than cameos.
In fact, there’s so much packed into this movie that a dismaying number of its assets are squandered. Chief among them is Julianne Moore, who plays this go-round’s monomaniacal villain: Poppy, a Dolly Parton-esque drug kingpin with—you’ll never guess!—an evil scheme to take over the world. As far as schemes go, this one’s pretty silly, involving tainted narcotics that give users a gnarly case of varicose veins. And the evil lair Poppy operates from is just a shade too preposterous: one part Angkor Wat, one part retro ’50s theme park (complete with a diner and bowling alley), and one part kennel for vicious robot dogs. Even against this insane backdrop, Moore is given disappointingly little to do. (Although she does it incredibly well—she’s Julianne Moore.)
After being decimated by one of Poppy’s henchmen, the Kingsmen’s London operation is in tatters, so they team up with the Statesmen to get revenge. And even though The Golden Circle’s excess reaches gluttonous levels, there’s plenty to be enthralled by, including the Prince-soundtracked taxi chase that opens the movie and an uncountable number of fight scenes involving Eggsy, Harry, and Merlin. I haven’t even told you about the hilarious presence of Elton John, which puts his appearance in Spice World to shame.
So, yeah, there’s a lot—Elton John, robot dogs, a revived Harry Hart... oh, and there’s also a crashing gondola in the Italian Alps, a sexy escapade at the Glastonbury Festival, and a bellowed but oddly moving rendition of a John Denver song, which makes The Golden Circle the 800th movie this year to prominently feature Denver’s music. If anything holds this sloppy joe of a movie together, it’s Egerton, whose sensitivity and exceptional charisma is just right for selling this movie’s winking, machismo-drenched fantasy. In other words, The Golden Circle what we should’ve expected from a Kingsman sequel—worse than the original, but still more fun than it has any right to be.