Like its predecessor, the new Kingsman movie is a bit too much of a good thing. In the first film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, director Matthew Vaughn came up with a giddy take on the early Bond movies, this time focusing on an "independent intelligence agency" headquartered in a high-end tailor shop in London's Savile Row. It was a cute concept—the agents were naturally dapper and their brollies were bulletproof—and it was fun watching Colin Firth, as head spy Harry Hart (workname: Galahad), apply his recessive charm to the bashing of bad guys and the tracking of uber-villains.
That first film was fun because Vaughn has a mad gift for action and an utter disregard for tender sensibilities (something already clear in his wonderfully vicious Kick-Ass movies). But Secret Service was hobbled by a plot thread that required Firth to affectionately mentor a wayward youth called Eggsy (Taron Egerton), who was thought to have agent potential. It turned out that he did, but arriving at this realization was a slog.
The Golden Circle has a different sort of problem, although it's not apparent at first. Vaughn launches the movie with a blazing chase, pegged to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," that has Eggsy in ferocious battle with an opposition killer all over the inside of a careening taxi. The killer has a cybernetic arm that takes on a life of its own. The taxi is naturally being pursued by a pack of cars with roof-mounted machine guns. Vaughn is in his element here, bringing fresh perspectives to venerable action-movie tropes. But soon the aforementioned problem crops up—and it turns out to be Colin Firth.
We're not expecting to see Firth because at the end of the first Kingsman movie he was shot in the face, and thus rendered, we can surely be forgiven for thinking, dead. But Firth added important marquee heft to that movie, which grossed more than $400-million worldwide. So now his character has been awkwardly— and time-consumingly—exhumed. We see him first as one of the ghostly deceased agents at a supernatural Kingsman board meeting; later we encounter him as a potty lepidopterist; and then, finally, in his familiar bespoke form. One difference: he has an eye patch now, covering the only injury he sustained from – again – being shot in the face.
This tests the bounds of even comic-book logic, but if you can get past it, there are better things ahead. First of all, there's an international drug cartel run by a chatty psycho called Poppy (Julianne Moore, definitely having fun), who maintains a cheery smile even while feeding an unfortunate underling into a meat-grinder. Poppy's HQ compound—Poppy Land—is located in the Cambodian jungle; it includes a donut shop, a bowling alley, a classic chrome-and-vinyl diner, and a movie theater…where Elton John is being held hostage in one of his old psychedelic-feather-monkey stage outfits. (Why Elton? you might wonder. I have no idea, but he's around a lot and he gives a game performance.)
Moore's Poppy character has a surprising mission in life, and it's the movie's best joke: she wants to end the War on Drugs! Because then she can begin dealing out in the open and people will hail her as the drug-biz legend she should rightly be. In order to make this dream come true, she has spiked vast quantities of heroin, cocaine and crystal meth with a lethal virus cooked up in her very Bondian mountaintop lab high in the Italian Alps. She's prepared to kill millions of people unless…well, let's move on.
Poppy—whose professional trademark is a golden-circle tattoo—eventually comes up on the Kingsman radar, and before long Eggsy and the revivified Harry and tech specialist Merlin (Mark Strong) are on a transatlantic flight to the USA to connect with their opposite numbers in the Statesman intel agency, which is housed in a Kentucky whiskey distillery. In a bit of forced whimsy, the spies here are named after drinks. There's Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum with a cowboy hat and a carbine), Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal with a magical lariat), straight-arrow Ginger Ale (Halle Berry in a dorky bob hairdo), and agency chief Champagne (Jeff Bridges, dropping in to collect a check, probably).
These are all amiable characters, and they precipitate lots of action (barroom free-for-alls, Gatling gun attacks, all staged with maniac brio). But as director Vaughn and his returning cowriter Jane Goldman put them through their paces, you begin to notice bits of business, and eventually whole scenes, that seem to cry out for cutting. There's an irrelevant birthday get-together, a dinner with some Swedish royals and a martini-sipping scene on a plane that could be pared down with little loss to the picture—which runs a way-long two hours and 21 minutes. There's a time limit beyond which comedies sometimes begin to run out of laughs. The Golden Circle, which is a generally enjoyable watch, unfortunately creeps past it.