Kingsman: The Secret Service is the quintessence of the kind of movie that I haven't thought about from basically the moment I hit "publish" on my review back in 2014, but I remember thinking it was sufficient enough as junk food. It had the right amount of saltiness, it was greasy but not, like slick with grease, and it didn't have that sad warmth of something that's been sitting under a heat lamp. More to the point, it knew that thing that it was, and it was a good version of it: a nasty, snotty homage to the Sean Connery era of James Bond. Aye, its attempts to engage with world politics were an incoherent mess, and its sexual politics could only have been more awful if it actually was a Sean Connery Bond film, but given that it was derived from the work of comicdom's favorite toxic misanthrope Mark Millar, that was all pretty much the best-case scenario.

Anyway, three and a half years later, was anybody actually begging for Kingsman: The Golden Circle? Because anyway, here it is, and it's basically like The Secret Service except worse in every way, big and small. If The Secret Service was like a Connery Bond film, this is what you'd get from somebody whose greatest regret was that jolly old Roger Moore had to retire before the Bond films got as far as the gritty drug war action of Licence to Kill. I wish I didn't mean that quite so literally.

So yeah, it's a drug war thing, and much as before, it's pretty clear that writers Matthew Vaughn (also directing) & Jane Goldman are very happy to be dealing with important real-world issues from what I'm sure they expect is a left-of-center perspective, though to be perfectly frank, I'm even less sure of what moral perspective The Golden Circle is attempting to offer than I was with its predecessor. Best not to dwell on it. The point, anyway, is that there's a certain mad genius Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), who went rogue a long time ago and set up shop in a deeply hidden jungle ruin, where her enormously conservative social values can be let loose to play in an incongruous re-creation of Eisenhower-era America. Diners, hair salons, soda fountains, all dedicated to propping up the operation of her unfathomably successful worldwide drug cartel, the Golden Circle. Now, Poppy has an idea, a wonderful, awful idea: she's laced all of her drugs with a vicious disease, and when she decides to trigger it, every drug user in the world will be stricken low, unless the United States agrees to immediately end its dysfunctional drug war, thus driving her profits even higher up.

The only thing possibly standing in Poppy's way is the wonderful high-tech British spy agency known as Kingsman. Which is why she kills them all in a sudden strike, leaving only two accidental survivors: "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), our protagonist from last time, and "Merlin" (Mark Strong), Kingsman's tech guru. They discover the existence of an equally secret high-tech American spy agency, Statesman, and fly across the Atlantic to recruit their help, convincing agency leader Champagne (Jeff Bridges, doing that same exact goddamn "Imma drawlin' cow-poke" performance he's gotten addicted to ever since True Grit) to lend them the help of top agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) in tracking down Poppy's agents. This primarily leads them to an Alpine sky resort with large gondola lift that's just perfectly designed for an action setpiece, because at least Vaughn and Goldman know not to go around copying Bond if they're not ready to do it right.

There's nothing wrong with The Golden Circle that being a better movie wouldn't fix. It's just... lumpy. The film is bloated with subplots and go-nowhere add-ons, some of which are obvious fan pandering (Colin Firth's dead Harry from the last film turns out to be not dead, and getting his memory back is a bit part of the movie), some of which can't even rise to that level (Eggsy has a whole "I love you but saving the world means I have to treat you like a dick" arc with his girlfriend, and it strangles the life out of the film every damn time it shows up). It also seems to realise that Moore's character is by a crushing margin the best part of the movie, for so many reasons, and keeps returning to spend time with her. Which, as a fan of Moore and even a fan of her work here (which feels more than slightly like a self-conscious homage to and parody of her definitive run of '50s housewives back in the 2000s), I'm glad to have her rather than anybody else. But as a fan of wise, disciplined screenwriting: no, I cannot defend the amount of wasted time hanging out in her awesomely kitschy villain's lair. It's simply broken storytelling.

Of course, just like a Bond picture, The Golden Circle is using story almost solely as a pretext for its spectacle: gorgeous locations; shitty, laddish humor; gaudy action setpieces. I have little to say about the first two, but the third is worth dwelling on. The action in this film is frankly bizarre: it's as complicated and artistically deliberate as anything else I've seen in 2017, but it also more or less completely fails. A lot of this can be blamed on being drunk on the possibilities of digital filmmaking. The images in The Golden Circle's action scenes are practically floating on top of the movie; the camera glides so swiftly and weightlessly, twisting around in extraordinary whip pans, bounding about in space without a hint of care to physics. It's the clearest example in recent cinema of why that is very bad. The cinematography here is so balletic that it completely unyokes itself from anything resembling physical tangibility; it's largely impossible to believe in the stakes of the action because it feels so divorced from the characters, who themselves have all the weight and mass of fighters in a early 3-D fighting video game, before they figured out how to make them work. It's admirably ambitious, bombastic, and sprawling, but when the execution feels this hollow, what's the point.

Also, major points off for having very much the worst use of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in a 2017 Channing Tatum movie, and more points off for the horrifyingly bad Elton John jokes scattered throughout - turns out being a living icon of rock and pop doesn't mean you have to have even the remotest good taste about movies.