Director: Matthew Vaughn
Rating: 4 stars
Action scenes come from action scenes. No cinematic sequences wear their influences quite as proudly as action set-pieces, forever building upon - and paying homage to - great motion picture blows that have landed before. Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, George Miller, Takashi Miike... we continue to see echoes of their hits in standout action scenes. In Matthew Vaughn's jawdroppingly kinetic action scenes of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, I believe the influence might be more the Road Runner cartoons and less Mad Max Fury Road. As a car strafed unreally across a London roundabout before throwing missiles at its pursuants in the film's opening sequence - and I couldn't help going "whoa ho ho" embarrassingly loud - the gadgets may well have had ACME branded on them. What better director to make a comic-book actioner than a looney tune?
I loved the first Kingsman, a comedy about class and elitism that spoofed the James Bond franchise while proving the theme song wrong and actually doing it better. Vaughn embraces everything we loved about the Bond series and amps it up to eleven, from the sexist innuendo to the etiquette lessons. In From Russia With Love, Bond catches a Russian spy because he commits the cardinal sin of ordering red wine with the fish course; in the new Kingsman, we see leading man Eggsy remember how his now dead superspy mentor Harry Hart - codenamed Galahad - tutored him in formal dinner spoon protocol. Eggsy asked if he should wait for the others to serve themselves first, at which the evercorrect Galahad (played by the evercorrect Colin Firth) replies, "Only if the dish is cold or if The Queen is present."
The best thing about this Vaughn series - based loosely on the comic books by Mark Millar - is that the supervillains are never what we expect. The bad guys in the Kingsman franchise work not on traditionally evil ideas, but noble ideas gone wild. There's a sense of empathy we begrudgingly share with these cartoonish but vaguely well-intentioned villains and their motivations. The 2014 Kingsman had Samuel L Jackson as a man sure that humanity had outgrown the earth, and the new film has the fabulous Julianne Moore wanting to legalise all drugs. As she says in her inimitable way, sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine.
This is a film of unashamed, unrestrained delights, with many a surprise lurking in the wings. It is also an all-starrer in the old-fashioned way, with the first half of the movie constantly enervated by the 'entry' of a superstar actor every few scenes. By the time we meet the lepidopterist... But hark, I shan't spoil these moments. Isn't lepidopterist such an exquisite word though? Say it out loud, do. What you need to know is that in this film Kingsman, the British secret service fronted by a bespoke tailoring shop in London, has to knock on the door of their American cousins, Statesman, masquerading as a much wealthier and more ostentatious whiskey distillery in Kentucky. And with the Kingsman named after the knights of King Arthur's round table - Galahad, Lancelot, Arthur, Merlin - the Statesmen are named after drinks, with Agents Tequila, Ginger Ale, Whiskey and their big chief, Champagne. Everyone calls him Champ.
Thus we have a clash of cultures between those who spell it Whisky and those who spell it Whiskey, with many a big-league actor getting in on the fun. The cast is having an infectious, giddy blast here, with Taron Egerton's Eggsy likeable enough but utterly overshadowed by his cooler friends. Channing Tatum gets to dance, Mark Strong makes for quite an unlikely but passionate John Denver fan (it's open season on Take Me Home, Country Roads in Channing Tatum movies these days), Pedro Pascal does crackerjack things with lassos both traditional and laser-edged, Julianne Moore is the supervillain we need and, as a bonus, she looks great alongside her A Single Man star Colin Firth. Firth, who is the height of cool in this franchise, finds himself tousled up in this film and if I can make only one movie-related wish I make this year, it is this: May Firth never have an ill-tailored day in his life.
There is also an extended cameo involving a rockstar which, while utterly bonkers, may be one of the most enjoyable movie cameos of all time. This is a film that, like the goofy entertainers Manmohan Desai made in the 70s, has a massively rollicking 'item' scene every few scenes, and I watched it with a grin plastered to my face.
As studio-driven movies get bigger and stupider and more expensive, action sequences have become incredibly finessed. There is, however, a significant difference between being impressive and being playful, and Vaughn's long and detailed action scenes unfold like a chaotic Rube Goldberg machine with unlikely parts making a madcap and delightful whole. For good measure, Vaughn makes these scenes look like they've been shot in one take (they haven't) and showers them with applause from live versions of the song, as he did in his Kick-Ass. Many filmmakers are making comic book movies, but it takes something special to bring alive a pop-up book.