A bespoke British spy with a license to kill. His techy right-hand man, known only by his code name. All the amusingly absurd gizmos and gadgets. A beautiful femme with an inclination toward evil. It sounds familiar, yet there's been so much ado about whether there will be another James Bond movie -- and if Daniel Craig will be back for it -- that people seem to have forgotten there's another agent who ticks all those boxes and does have a movie out now: Eggsy (Taron Egerton).
If you didn't see Eggsy make his chav-to-suave(ish) transformation in The Secret Service, you are going to be awfully confused when the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, kicks off with not so much a bang, but at least at gunpoint. Charlie (Edward Holcroft), rejected by the Kingsman in the first film, holds Eggsy up, which escalates to gunshots and then an intricately choreographed fight in the backseat of a town car -- dizzyingly soundtracked to pop music -- which escalates into a car chase and ends with a rocket launcher. And then Eggsy's car turns into a Despicable Me-like submarine. That all takes place within the first 30 seconds of the movie, and it's exciting and outlandish and goofy in a way that the Bond movies aren't anymore. (Which is not a bad thing, necessarily. Since Casino Royale, they’re just something else now.)
As far as Egerton’s Eggsy goes, he’s always skewed toward adorable over 007’s stoicism, like a boy trying on the Bond persona and finding it not quite a perfect fit, but fun as hell nonetheless. An unlikely recruit to the Kingsman, an Arthurian agency of spies, he has always shown a vulnerability and defensive humor that isn’t required of a graduate of the hoity-toity royal navy. The Golden Circle differentiates them even further by revealing that Eggsy is now in a monogamous relationship with Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). Though perhaps a reactionary move to her being the butt (ahem) of the joke in the first movie -- and not that monogamy is right for everyone -- it is refreshing to see a spy who respects women, who values his commitments to the women in his life. I wondered, is this millennial Bond finally getting Bond right?
(To be fair, Bond was married once, to Tracy Bond. Here’s hoping Tilde fairs better.)
Eggsy may be improved -- at one point in The Golden Circle, he gets emotional and cries! How often are male secret agents allowed to do that? -- the movie quickly gets in its own way. As directed by Matthew Vaughn, the plot hinges on the decimation of the entire Kingsman family, including killing off fellow spy, Roxy (Sophie Cookson). It is meant to add stakes to the film, but it denies the opportunity to show a spy having a truly platonic relationship with another spy of the other sex, an esteemed female agent who is also Eggsy’s best friend.
At the very least, considering Cookson’s Roxy was a fan favorite in the first film, it would have been nice to see her do more than help Eggsy fake his way through a date using a secret earpiece, that tired gag.
The same goes for Halle Berry’s newly introduced agent (...sort of) Ginger Ale. With the Kingsman down, Eggsy and his Q counterpart, Merlin (Mark Strong), hop the pond to seek assistance from their American cousins, the Statesman: Agents “Champ,” as in Champaign (Jeff Bridges), Whiskey (Narcos' Pedro Pascal) and Tequila (Channing Tatum), the latter arriving with his shotgun twirling and a “y’all”-heavy Kentucky accent, then essentially disappears for the rest of the movie. (At one point, he gets cryogenically frozen! Tatum probably spent more time on the photo shoot for the movie’s billboards and posters than he did filming the actual movie.) Berry is equally underserved, but it feels more egregious because she’s there! Stuck behind a monitor. Berry’s Bond Girl -- NSA agent “Jinx” in 2002’s Die Another Day -- eventually got to see some action, so why is she being relegated to a staring-at-a-computer-screen role here?
Thankfully, Julianne Moore’s villainous Poppy Adams is one of the best movie villains I’ve seen onscreen in a bit. There’s the plotting of it all: As head of the titular Golden Circle, a cartel with a global monopoly on the drug trade, she has a clear motive -- not to take over the world, but to get fame, fortune and, for once, some gosh darn respect. More so, it’s what Moore does with this part, the chipper way she threatens someone without raising her voice or how she watches a henchman being put head-first into a meat grinder with a placid grin. Poppy is a sadistic Martha Stewart-meets-Griselda Blanco and Moore is having a ball with it.
So, it’s one step forward, two steps back perhaps. Or two steps forward, one close-up shot of a vagina back, as the case may be. That will surely be the most problematic scene in the movie: In an all-around unnecessary sequence that hops back across the pond to Glastonbury, Eggsy’s assignment is to seduce an enemy’s girlfriend (Poppy Delevingne) and place a tracker on her. Or, inside her -- the gag is that the bit ends with a shot tightly framed on her panties, then continues on into her body via CGI. It's Vaughn doubling down on the running anal sex joke that was so widely criticized in The Secret Service.
So, yeah, that’s gross. And unnecessary. But I do find the scene interesting to look at, for the moments pre-seduction when Eggsy slips away to the bathroom to Facetime Tilde and ask for her permission to, as she angrily puts it, “screw the target.” She’s (understandably) not pleased, but the fact that Eggsy is not the secret agent-type who unthinkingly screws any woman that crosses his path, that Delevingne’s character is sexually in charge and Eggsy is morally hesitant (and doesn’t ultimately have sex with her! He’s kind of a good dude!) has to be some slow version of progress, doesn’t it? Eggsy appears to be on the right track. Now, I suppose, Vaughn just needs to catch up to him. That bodes well for the third film, right?
As far as I’ve deciphered, the point of Bond movies -- and all of the spy franchises they begat, including Kingsman -- is that they're supposed to be fun, supposed to revel in how being an international man of mystery is just so cool. On that front, I’d say Kingsman: The Golden Circle succeeds. After all, Egerton is endlessly charming, and I’d take Eggsy over Bond any day. I haven't yet mentioned the return of Colin Firth's Harry Hart, whose return from the dead is explained away fairly sillily and easily, but there is one scene involving a puppy that gave me chills. Or the ace use of a very game Elton John. Or the rest of the action sequences that smash through the blood-brain barrier, chaotic and cartoonishly bloody. (And if a movie is going to be extremely violent, at least this one is creative about it?) Or the dutiful subscription to the principle of Chekhov’s gun: If in the first act you have robotic guard dogs named Bennie and Jet, then in the following act, they should attack someone. (They do.)