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D: Matthew Vaughn / 141m

Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Edward Holcroft, Hanna Alström, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Poppy Delevingne, Sophie Cookson, Michael Gambon

When Kingsman: The Secret Service hit our screens back in 2014, its anarchic sense of fun and willingness to push the boundaries of good taste (exploding heads, anyone?) made it stand out from the crowd, and introduced us to Colin Firth the action hero. It was smart, it was savvy, it was funny, and its action sequences, especially that astounding sequence set in a Kentucky church, showed that well choreographed fight scenes could still impress and leave jaws dropped everywhere. A sequel may have been in some initial doubt – writer/director Vaughn wasn’t sure the first movie would be successful enough to warrant a second outing – but now it’s here, and it’s a very mixed bag indeed.

As a sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle adheres to the formula for a follow-up to an unexpectedly successful movie in that it goes bigger, brings back its original stars and gives them less to do, references its predecessor in some ways that are good and some ways that aren’t, introduces a group of new characters that the audience aren’t allowed to connect with, and extends the running time unnecessarily. It’s as if Vaughn and returning co-screenwriter Jane Goldman have heard the phrase, “Give ’em what they want, and then give ’em more” and taken it to heart. But there are too many elements that clash with each other, and the movie never maintains a consistent tone. Also, that anarchic sense of fun that the first movie carried off so well, here feels awkward and somewhat laboured, and we have yet another villain with a goofy personality who’s just plain misunderstood (Moore’s over-achieving cartel boss wants to be recognised for her “business acumen”).

Of course, any sequel that seeks to revive a character who appeared to be killed in the first movie, has to tread carefully in how it brings them back; this may be a world far removed from our own reality, but even in fantasy land, death means dead and gone. Vaughn and Goldman have come up with an ingenious idea that makes sense within the confines of the world that Kingsman operates within, but the fact that in terms of the plot a year has passed and Harry (Firth) is still suffering from amnesia and the Kingsmen haven’t been told he’s alive, is just one of the larger plot holes that pepper the script and make you think that while Vaughn has been reported as saying that “writing this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done”, it soon becomes obvious that he needed to try a bit harder. Perhaps the biggest question that goes unanswered, is why villain of the piece Poppy Adams (Moore) takes out the Kingsmen in the first place. Without even a throwaway line to clear up the matter, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that it was important to the plot, and it is, but only as a way of introducing their American cousins, the Statesmen.

Cue a lot of cool new gadgets, the presence of franchise newbies Tatum, Berry, Pascal, and Bridges (seemingly the only people who work for Statesman – until the end, that is), a side trip to the Glastonbury Music Festival that actually includes a scene where Eggsy (Egerton) asks his girlfriend, Tilde (Alström), if she’s okay with him having sex with another woman (Delevingne), the sorry spectacle of Elton John having been persuaded to send up his image from the Seventies and encased in ever more ridiculous stage outfits (he’s been kidnapped by Poppy – of course), a physics defying stunt involving a cable car that at least has the benefit of a terrific one-liner as its pay-off, Harry being cured of his retrograde amnesia but still seeing butterflies (don’t ask), Poppy’s robot attack dogs Bennie and Jet (geddit?), and several plot threads that are left dangling like so much silly string.

There’s more, a lot more, but if there’s one area where the movie lets itself, and the audience, down, it’s with a disastrous sub-plot involving the US President (Greenwood) and his so-called “war on drugs”. Poppy’s plan is to infect the millions of addicts who use her drugs with a deadly chemical that will kill them. Unless the President agrees to her demand to make all drugs legal, then she’ll withhold the antidote. Publicly, the President appears to agree to her terms, but privately he has no intention of saving anyone, reasoning that if all the drug addicts in the world are dead, then illegal drugs will become a thing of the past because there’ll be no one around to take them. There is a twisted sense of logic there – barely – and it could have been made to sound semi-plausible, but the President’s flippant, couldn’t-care-less attitude seems more of a rebuke to the current real-life incumbent than any properly considered character design. And leading on from the President’s decision, the movie opts to provide audiences with the unsettling and seriously off-kilter sight of thousands of victims of Poppy’s plan being herded into cages and stacked on top of each other within the confines of a US football stadium (is there a message here?).

This time around the comedy is muted in favour of a more serious approach, but it’s as haphazardly sewn into the fabric of the movie as everything else. The action sequences, particularly an opening display of vehicular mayhem on the streets of London, and the final showdown at Poppyland, have been shot and edited with a view to making the fight choreography flow as quickly as possible within the frame, but as a result, details are lost and much of what can be seen seems to involve as much posing as it does fighting. Against all this, the performances are adequate, though Strong and Berry are on better form than the rest, while there are odd instances – a bar fight that echoes the original’s pub brawl, but with Harry coming off worst; Merlin singing Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver at a crucial moment – where the viewer can see glimpses of what might have been, but overall there aren’t enough to warrant a better appreciation of a movie that’s slackly directed, confuses sentiment for depth in its treatment of the relationship between Harry and Eggsy, and which doesn’t try hard enough to match the style and energy of its predecessor.

Rating: 5/10 – with the prospect of a third movie just over the horizon, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the point where the service should hang up its tailoring shingle and head off into early retirement; a disappointing sequel that shows a flare for inconsistency throughout, it offers shallow pleasures for those who want that sort of thing, but will prove a more difficult experience for those expecting a repeat of the giddy heights of the first movie.