Early on in "Kingsman: The Golden Circle," we watch as a criminal mastermind encourages her newest hire to bite into a burger made from the flesh of a man who double-crossed her. The recruit sits at a diner counter, tentatively holding the burger in his hands while looking at a pair of legs sticking out of a nearby meat grinder.
The repulsiveness of the sight gag is softened by its absurdity — just one reminder of many that this is a movie calibrated to cross the line, though always in service of a laugh.
The follow-up to "Kingsman: The Secret Service," a hit action comedy inspired by a series of comic books by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, "Golden Circle" has many of the ingredients of the 2015 film: buckets of blood, expletives aplenty, cartoonish action and cute puppies in peril. It even resurrects a couple of characters — fan favorites who were presumably corpses at the end of the earlier film. (No spoilers here, though both can be spotted in the trailers.)
Also returning is our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a reformed ruffian who's now a fixture in the dapper Kingsman crew — a group of undercover crime fighters headquartered behind the fake facade of a Savile Row tailor's shop. For reasons best kept under wraps, Eggsy and his colleague Merlin (Mark Strong) end up working together on a major mission. The only way they can complete the assignment is to team up with their American counterparts, the Statesman, whose front is a Kentucky whiskey distillery.
All this is just an excuse to add Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Pedro Pascal to the mix, along with cowboy hats, lassos and thick Western accents. The well-dressed Brits don't have much in common with their tobacco-spitting American cousins, except for a desire to bring down an international drug lord named Poppy (Julianne Moore). Wide-eyed and childlike, with a sweet voice and a passion for bad puns, Poppy also delights in siccing her deadly robot dogs on insubordinate employees.
Her latest scheme involves deliberately tainting her own product, causing even weekend pot smokers to develop a blue rash — closely followed by mania, paralysis and a dramatic, bloody demise. She'll happily send in drones with an antidote — but only if the American president (Bruce Greenwood) agrees to legalize drugs.
One snag: The president sees this crisis not as a problem, but a solution to the war on drugs, which would be a lot easier to fight with all the users dead.
Can a movie this cynical still be hilarious? Apparently, yes. As troubling as such plot details are, the laughs just keep coming, although most of them are in predictably poor taste. Some of the best punchlines come courtesy of Elton John — playing himself in an extended cameo as Poppy's catty hostage. He even gets his own kung-fu-style fight scene, carried out while wearing dazzling platform shoes.
The action sequences are reliably spectacular, even if they don't adhere to the laws of physics. Returning director Matthew Vaughn slows down and speeds up the punches and kicks, ensuring that the audience will be able to tell exactly what's going on. It's a happy respite from the kinetic visual gibberish common to most current action films, which all too often rely on seizure-inducing quick cuts.
The action is one of the few things here that actually makes sense, in a film that's light on logic. You expected realism? Surely not. "Kingsman" is essentially a live-action cartoon, one that aims for an audible reaction and little else. That may not be the world's loftiest goal, but whether it results in a gagging eww or a chuckle, it's a plan that usually succeeds.
R. At area theaters. Contains copious violence, drug use, strong language throughout and some sexual situations. 141 minutes.