Kingsman: The Golden Circle review The new chapter in the spy franchise ramps up the first film's caustic, violent cynicism but leans even harder into the artifice; a reliance on soundstages and CGI dampens the excitement and energy.
NPR logo 'Kingsman' Sequel: This Time, A Flat 'Golden Circle'

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'Kingsman' Sequel: This Time, A Flat 'Golden Circle'

Taron Egerton stars in Kingsman: The Golden Circle as Eggsy. Giles Keyte/20th Century Fox hide caption

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Giles Keyte/20th Century Fox

Taron Egerton stars in Kingsman: The Golden Circle as Eggsy.

Giles Keyte/20th Century Fox

You might have to go all the way back to RoboCop — the 1987 Paul Verhoeven one that got resubmitted to the MPAA a double-digit number of times before its comically grisly violence was deemed tame enough to warrant a mere R-rating— to find a trigger-happy popcorn flick as deeply cynical as the two Kingsman super-spy adventures, the second of which is subtitled The Golden Circle.

Freely adapted from a comic book limited series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons (and Matthew Vaughn, who was credited on the comics before he co-wrote and directed both movies) 2015's Kingsman: The Secret Service and its new sequel reflect the surreal tastes of Vaughn and his longtime writing partner Jane Goldman more than they do the even more strident tenor of the comics. They're basically comedies of manners, only with more headshots. They're My Fair Lady, if 'Enry 'Iggins had been training Eliza Doolittle for a covert infiltration of the plains of Spain.

That may or may not be your cup of spiked tea, but there's no denying these movies are caustic and unpredictable in ways most films at this budget level are not. (Previously, Vaughn and Goldman cinema-tized another one of Millar's ultracynical, ultraviolent comics, the superhero parody Kick-Ass.)

The Kingsman flicks are more amusing than those were, and fresher than last year's equally pottymouthed Deadpool was, if only because the '60s British spy craze still hasn't been sent up as ruthlessly as superheroes have. (Or, Archer notwithstanding, as recently — 15 years have passed since the last Austin Powers, and those movies had a goofball sweetness to them, which you certainly can't say about Kingsman.)

Taking their exotic hardware fetish from the 007 films and their obsession with courtly British manners from the old BBC series The Avengers, the Kingsman movies are in all other respects aggressively contemporary. The Beatles had barely made it across the Atlantic before 007 dissed them by name in Goldfinger. But in The Golden Circle, delinquent-bruv-turned-gentleman spy Galahad (his friends and live-in girlfriend still call him Eggsy; his real-world agent and manager and personal assistant call him Taron Egerton) goes undercover at the Glastonbury Music Festival, where he's tasked with planting a digital surveillance device inside a suspected enemy agent, um, digitally.

The single-entendres are just one of these films' postmodern mannerisms. Some others: They feature real-world celebrities appearing as themselves. They depict recreational drug use as something that even superspies indulge in off-the-clock. (In The Golden Circle, drug queenpin Julianne Moore tries to blackmail President Bruce Greenwood into Legalizing It — even the hard stuff. She holds her customers hostages by infecting their stash with a virus that will make them manic, paralyze them and and then kill them if POTUS doesn't play ball.) These movies are also even more slathered in easy-to-spot, excitement-dampening CGI than the far less imaginative Fast & Furious series, though they use these tools in cheekier ways: 2015's The Secret Service ended with world's one-percenters getting their heads exploded into psychedelic rainbow-hued mushroom clouds.

The Golden Circle carries on up the visual showboating, dissolving from a head-sized bag of weed into the tree canopy of a dense South American rainforest. Moore's Martha Stewart-inflected character, who is called Poppy, has made the place her own in faux-1950s Happy Days couture, installing a chrome diner and a bowling alley, and dressing her henchmen in letter jackets. Her smile never drops, especially when she's ordering her two robot attack dogs(!) to rip someone who's crossed her to bits. This Max Factor malefactor is Moore's most enjoyable role in some time.

Poppy reduces the the number of battle-ready Kingsmen with ruthless efficiency, and so survivors Galahad and Merlin — dashing Egerton and grizzled blockbuster veteran Mark Strong — go looking for backup. The introduction of their American counterpart NGO, Statesman, is an inspired development that justifies the sequel, sort of. The Statesmen wear Stetsons and carry electrified lassos to match the Kingsmen's bowlers and weaponized umbrellas. Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges, both members of this secret order, are in the movie just long enough to assign their man Pedro Pascal to assist the Brits. Team Statesman also includes Halle Berry as Strong's opposite number, the behind-the-scenes trainer/armorer/operations officer Ginger. Berry is one of several Oscar winners or nominees who have surprisingly junior roles in the picture. (Emily Watson has maybe three lines as a presidential aide.)

All the money appears to have gone to the cast and the visual effects team. The Golden Circle can't compete with the luxe locations of the Bonds or the Missions: Impossible or even the Fasts; as with most Marvel movies, the whole thing looks and feels like it was shot on stages. There's a palpable absence of risk to the set pieces that makes them hard to get too worked up about, even when they're scored by songs as fun as a Western-swing cover of Cameo's "Word Up." You could argue, I suppose, that these pixelated, gymnastic fight scenes are the cinematic answer to the way Jack Kirby used to draw comics: His human anatomy was shaky and his signature head-over-heels uppercuts were ridiculous, but they sure looked cool. I prefer the long takes and meticulous live-on-the-set fisticuffs of the equally amoral John Wick movies, but different chokes for different folks.

Hanna Alstrom, playing Swedish royalty, was pretty much just the butt of an off-color joke in the the first movie, so it's a nice surprise to see her back in the sequel, now in a live-in relationship with Eggsy. He loves her so much he feels compelled to call her and fess up in advance when he knows he's going to have to sleep with a surveillance target. The consternation this causes her is a weird and unconvincing note of prudishness in a series that otherwise won't tolerate a lick of it. (So much for those progressive Swedes!) If you've seen the trailer, then you know that Colin Firth is back, too, suffering nothing more severe than some mild Star Trek III: The Search for Spock-style post-termination amnesia despite having been shot in the face in the last movie. That makes it tough to shed a tear if or when other beloved characters are sacrificed, but the trio of Eggerton, Firth, and Strong have an easy rapport, and whenever they're all together it's a plus.

There're too many unprofitable comic detours in the first act and waaaaay too many endings. That leaves 110 minutes or so in the middle of this 141-minute hero sandwich that are a guily, guilty, guilty-your-honor pleasure.