The King’s Man (2021)
Witness the bloody origin.
The long-delayed prequel to Matthew Vaughan’s Kingsman franchise has arrived, and those who were expecting it to reach the camp action levels of the first two films — Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) — will be left scratching their heads as the movie doesn’t hold nearly the OTT impetus of the previous features.
Based on the graphic novels by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman has never been much more than a fun romp that, in many ways, served as the comic book version of Bond, albeit with more levity than the James Bond franchise. In The King’s Man, fun seems mostly off the table as a more serious tone dominates. Starting with 1899’s Boer War, the film follows Duke Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), who is an aristocrat with a conscience. As a representative for The Red Cross, Oxford visits a British internment camp for prisoners with his wife Emily (Alexandra Maria Lara) and their young son, Conrad, to meet Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance). A sniper’s bullet meant for Kitchener kills Oxford’s wife, and he makes a promise to her as she lays dying that he will never endanger their son Conrad.
Skip forward to 1914, and Conrad (Harris Dickinson) is now a young man chafing at his father’s overprotective ways. However, under the auspices of a secret cabal led by a Scotsman known only as The Shepherd, war is coming. Using the natural enmity between first cousins King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas (all played by Tom Hollander), The Shepherd inserts members of his cabal into key positions within each nation’s ruling classes. The conceit is quite amusing in a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen manner, except in this case, fictionalized versions of historical characters take the reins to push for World War I.
The conceit can only lead so far. As much of a good time as it is to see Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) in action or to marvel at the outrageous behavior of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), the film breaks down into something of a tonal mess when Conrad enlists, and a significant section of the film is given over to the bleakness of trench warfare in the Somme.
The stakes in the movie are clearly defined: stop World War I for the sake of jolly old England. To do this, Oxford employs his own network of spies, headed up by his servant and friend, Polly (Gemma Arterton). Domestics go largely unnoticed by the upper echelons, and Polly’s network is able to gain a significant amount of information that hopefully will lead to the Americans joining the war effort under President Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly). However, The Shepherd’s network is ruthless, and Oxford has to deal with some of history’s greatest villains to make headway in his struggle to bring the war to a close.
Let’s be honest, audiences aren’t really overly interested in the machinations of World War I. Fans of the previous films will be flocking to see kinetic action delivered by debonair protagonists. To an extent, they get it. There is a fantastic scene where Oxford and his servant, Shola (Djimon Hounsou), take on Rhys Ifans’ fantastically outré Rasputin, where the latter whirls like a dervish and, like the real Rasputin, seems almost immune to every attempt to kill him. That action sequence is a reminder of the style of Vaughan’s previous films in the franchise and plays in stark contrast to much of the rest of the piece.
The cast is quite literally stacked with talented performers. From Matthew Goode playing Kitchener’s aide de camp Morton to Daniel Brühl, August Diehl, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in supporting parts. Effectively it is Fiennes’ film. As Oxford, he’s given the most to do, not only in terms of narrative but also in terms of emotional range. One never forgets just what a talented thespian Fiennes has always been and how he can move through genre modes with ease. Harris Dickinson, who was revelatory in Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (2017), is sadly a little one-note in the film. Gemma Arterton gets far too little screen time for a character who is driving the plot. Vaughan has over-stuffed the narrative and plays too many cards, and only a few of those cards are successful. If action silliness was his main goal, why slow the film down so often? If humor is his brand, then there is a little too much in the way of getting the audience to laugh. There really is nothing funny about trench warfare and its immense cost to thousands of young lives.
By the time we reach the climax and the final reveal of The Shepherd, even the most distracted viewer has probably worked out what’s going on. There is a well-choreographed saber fight between Oxford and The Shepherd, which brings the film back to its actioner core, but perhaps it all comes too late to really land with the audience.
The King’s Man, at its heart, is a film with so many tonal shifts that it feels like Vaughan has forgotten what got bums on seats for the first two outings. It’s possible to let it all wash over one and not get too caught up in the film’s inconsistencies, but for a prequel that promised something large, loud, and ostensibly entertaining, the movie just doesn’t quite suit up.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney