LOS ANGELES — As if the original “Kingsman” weren’t cartoony enough, with its blade-legged Asian assassin and gratuitous exploding-heads finale, the sequel has gone and pushed the franchise’s cheeky brand of absurdity even further. The goofiness begins with the resurrection of two important characters, whose unequivocal deaths we witnessed in the first movie. First, there’s Charlie, a rival secret service recruit played by Edward Holcroft, who lost his head in that notorious fireworks montage, now back with a bionic arm and a new boss (more on that in a minute). And then there’s Colin Firth’s character, impeccably dressed spy-master Harry Hart, who took a point-blank bullet to the eye — and here lives to tell about it.
Firth was the second-best thing about the 2015 scally-spy movie, a super-stylized surprise hit from “Kick-Ass” director Matthew Vaughn that racked up a cool $414 million worldwide, and Harry’s death was a loss. But his return is a cheat, and it basically erases any sense of peril in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” which begins with a demented new villain named Poppy (Julianne Moore, all smiles) blowing up all but two of the old Kingsman clan.
Are they really dead? Well, the geotargeted missiles certainly look accurate, but if Harry can walk away from a fatal head wound — and if Charlie can survive losing his head altogether — don’t be surprised to see any or all of them resurface in a sequel. Later, when a major character blows himself up in their honor, not only does that gesture seem like a waste (you want to tell him to wait, since Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman will surely find a way to bring them back, especially right-hand woman Roxy), but it also raises the question of whether he’s really gone.
Basically, Vaughn is playing with gravity here: When you change the fundamental rules of action-movie storytelling as radically as the “Kingsman” series does, then these adventures may as well be taking place on the moon, where a normal human can jump tall buildings. It blurs the stakes and makes it impossible to know what, if anything, the risks of operating in such an otherwise-lethal world are.
Same goes for Harry’s “retrograde amnesia”: He may not be dead, but he’s forgotten who he is, remembering only his youthful ambition to be a lepidopterist (or butterfly collector). Now his minders — Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges and Channing Tatum, cashing paychecks to play members of Kingsman’s yankee counterpart, Statesman — need to recreate a past shock or trauma to “reboot” his brain. Did the movie need to kill off nearly everyone (except Mark Strong’s Merlin, who’s still there to provide tactical support) simply to introduce Statesman, which operates behind the cover of a successful whiskey brand, as opposed to Kingsman’s posh Saville Row suit shop (the costumes are tip-top, as always).
So, if Harry’s the second-best thing about “Kingsman,” what’s the first, you ask? Well, that would be Eggsy himself, as played by model-handsome Welsh actor Taron Egerton, whose jawline is so sharp you could practically chop wood with it. He’s not terribly convincing as an action hero, and even less so in dramatic scenes, but he sure is purty to look at. While not shy on carnage, the earlier “Kingsman” focused on Eggsy’s transformation from a streetwise hood into a dapper young super-spy — basically, the movie was “My Fair Lady” meets James Bond, as Eggsy learned to dress smart, talk properly and save the world, taking his shirt off just often enough to remind what the movie was really selling.
Egerton’s chin seems even squarer now, as if that were possible, and he’s aging faster than the two-year interval would suggest, meaning it will be increasingly hard for future installments to play the boyish-charm card. Here, we find him agreeing to meet the king and queen of Sweden for dinner, since his girlfriend (the entirely bland Hanna Alstrom) happens to be their daughter — which, one supposes, puts this Kingsman in line to the Swedish throne. Narratively speaking, nothing about their romance works, although it’s cute to see Vaughn try something new, as it completely alters the dynamic we’re accustomed to when spies are asked to seduce super-babes for queen and country: In this case, Eggsy must call Princess Tilde to ask permission before planting a tracking device (which must be inserted into a mucous membrane) into a vixen’s most private of parts.
But let’s back up. The reason any of this is happening is that Poppy, the world’s most successful drug dealer — whom Moore interprets as Martha Stewart crossed with a demonic 1950s housewife, and whose base is a Mayan ruin she has updated with American-style movie theater and soda hop — wants to legalize her wares. To force the policy upon the president, she introduces an ingredient into her product that will infect and ultimately kill every drug user in the world unless they get her antidote in time — which makes no sense, and which the president seems to believe would be doing him a favor, effectively ending the war on drugs in one fell swoop. (Vaughn clearly assumes most of his audience does drugs, normalizing the behavior by revealing Eggsy’s girlfriend and Channing Tatum’s character as potential victims, if they don’t act fast.)
Silly doesn’t even begin to describe this plot, which also involves killer robot dogs and an extended Elton John cameo — basically, an excuse to dust off his most flamboyant costumes and to score over-the-top action scenes to “The Bitch Is Back” (Poppy’s theme, but also sorta Elton’s, once he busts out the kung fu) and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” There’s also Charlie with his bionic arm, a Statesman agent named Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) with an electric lasso and a few too many scenes in which people get put into Poppy’s industrial meat-grinder … and then cooked … and then eaten.
It is all aggressively stylized, abusively fast-paced and ear-bleedingly loud, relying so heavily on CGI that nothing — not one thing — seems to correspond to the real world. That might have been different had the 2016 U.S. presidential election turned out differently, since the idea seems to have been for Emily Watson, who appears as the Hillary Clinton-coiffed chief of staff to Bruce Greenwood’s American president, to play the commander in chief herself.
That, at least, would have pitted a female president against a strong female villain (an overgenerous way of describing Poppy, who’s like one of the perky Red Lobster zombies from Robin Comisar’s twisted “Great Choice” short), whereas this is just bonkers and might actually serve best as a send-up of past spy movies. It’s not like anyone has ever accused James Bond of being realistic, but the “Kingsman” series has gotten so outlandish that “Moonraker” suddenly looks plausible by comparison.