“Grounded”: It’s a word rarely used to describe anything good, unless a downed powerline. Creatively, the word “grounded” refers to a trend of down-playing over-the-top sensibilities, in favor of something gritty and “real.” At some point, Hollywood studios decided too much flash, glitz and tongue-in-cheek smarminess was killing blockbusters. No one liked day-glo neon Batman fighting a pun-happy Mr. Freeze or a James Bond constantly making quips as he assassinated Russian agents. After a decade or so of grounding all of our heroes into semi-realistic and plausible scenarios with dark, brooding protagonists, it seems we’re starting to see a little fun seep back into cinemas.
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” was a bold and defiant big-budget film declaring an unconditional love for the spy movies of the 1960s and 1970s that didn’t take themselves so seriously. Director Matthew Vaughn brought Mark Millar’s gonzo comic book to life with amazing action sequences to help revive a genre that was becoming stale faster than an open bag of French bread in southern Arizona. The sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” doesn’t seem nearly as fresh or innovative but still manages to be a worthwhile piece of entertaining craziness.
It’s been a year since the events of the first “Kingsman.” Eggsy (Taron Egerton) continues to evolve as a super-slick, fashionable English spy. After being ambushed by a cadre of ne’er-do-wells, we learn the United Kingdom’s most elite agents are being targeted for destruction by this installment’s megalomaniac Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) who has a diabolical plan involving recreational drugs. Her plan comes to fruition and Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are on their own trying to save the world.
They venture to the good old US of A and run across the American version of the Kingsman: the denim-clad, cowboy-hat-wearing, good ol’ boys, The Statesman. The movie has a lot of fun with stereotypes. The Statesman are tobacco-chewing, lasso-using cowboys, who play up the chicken-fried, country angle of a Southern spy agency. Expanding the world of Kingsman helps the sequel feel like its own unique animal. The draw for “The Golden Circle” is the same as the original: a hefty serving of camp and some mind-blowing action sequences. Matthew Vaughn loves grand, lucid, kinetic action that feels like wire fu on a healthy dose of acid.
The only real problem with the Kingsman is the concept is becoming less and less able to hold up. When creating such an over-indulgent world, things can inevitably become bloated. There was a moment in “The Golden Circle” where I found myself recalling the Austin Powers movies. At first the idea felt markedly fresh; every joke landed. I could feel both the reverence for the source material and intelligence behind breaking it down to an almost molecular level. The second go-round has a lot of things I liked about the first, but nothing feels as novel. “The Golden Circle” falls prey to the same problems: It’s all fun, but the outlandish plotting and slapstick style is less likely to hold my interest with each subsequent installment.
The cast is an extremely game group of scenery-chewers who add a heaping helping of ham to this pungent piece. Taron Egerton is a perfectly cromulent leading man. Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Julianne Moore, and Elton John (yes, that Elton John) do more mugging than a weekend in the south side of Chicago.
Actually, there’s another problem with “Kingsman”: the albatross of nostalgia that once again hangs around the neck of genre movies. At some point, Hollywood needs to find new stories to tell in a new cinematic language. Constantly referencing the past and living in a world of meta-enabled redundancy is getting real tired. There’s a part of me that loves to see a movie with reverence for the style and cadence of the good ol’ days. There’s another part of me that curses the manipulative, pandering involved with evoking memories of the past in entertainment. “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is a harmless piece of entertaining pablum that relies heavily on style over substance. But maybe it’s time for these filmmakers to find a new style.