A slick spy caper that's hard to like

????????
(MA) 141 minutes

For those who believe James Bond has become too serious in his twilight years, Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman films certainly redress the balance. Based on the comic books by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar, these over-the-top spy capers reach heights of absurdity that recall the glory days of Roger Moore, taking additional hints from The Avengers TV show, Austin Powers and even Zoolander.

True, the violence is gorier and the jokes lewder than in any of these precursors - but let's face it, that's unlikely to decrease the appeal of the franchise for 12-year-old boys.

The first Kingsman film followed the adventures of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a working-class hero inducted into a brotherhood of secret agents by the gentlemanly Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who instructs him in table manners, a code of honour and the importance of knowing when to slaughter everyone in sight.

Harry was shot in the head in the last film, but makes a miraculous return in this sequel, which is hardly a spoiler given the advance publicity. There's also a whole new line-up of American co-stars, unveiled dramatically one by one: I won't name them all, although you can find them on the poster.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is slickly made - which you can take for granted with Vaughn - and often much cleverer than it needs to be. There are elaborate visual rhymes between the various subplots: the Golden Circle itself is the drug cartel at the centre of the action, but also a tattooed symbol, a wedding ring, a high-tech lasso and more.

There's genuine imagination here, too. The wildest scenes involve Julianne Moore as Poppy Adams, a disconcertingly perky villainess who oversees grisly initiation rituals from her hideout in a ruined Cambodian temple, which she's converted into a retro strip mall in tribute to her youthful love of Happy Days.

But entertaining as it mostly is, this isn't an easy film to like. While the action rarely flags, the running time is needlessly grandiose and the commercial calculation that underpins everything puts limits on Vaughn's bent for transgression.

Everywhere you look, he manages to have things both ways, delivering carefully mixed messages about drug use and combining snob appeal with the assurance that Eggsy hasn't abandoned his roots. Even the involvement of so many justly celebrated actors leaves a sour aftertaste, as if the film's cynicism extended to proving that everyone has their price.

This story A slick spy caper that's hard to like first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.