The King's Man
The 'Kingsman' franchise gets a World War I-set prequel that no one asked for.
January 06, 2022
When something shows you its true colours, believe it. The Kingsman franchise certainly did when it debuted in 2014, as viewers have been witnessing ever since. That initial entry, Kingsman: The Secret Service, gave the espionage genre an irreverent and energetic spin, and landed partway between update and parody. But, while making Taron Egerton a star and proving engaging-enough, it didn't know when to call it quits, serving up one of the most ill-judged closing moments that spy flicks have ever seen. Since then, all things Kingsman haven't known when to end either, which is why subpar sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle arrived in 2017, and now unnecessary prequel The King's Man. Another year, another dull origin story. Another year, another stretched Bond knockoff, too.
Stepping from 007's latest instalments, including No Time to Die, to this pale imitation, Ralph Fiennes takes over leading man duties in this mostly World War I-centric affair. He looks as if he'd rather be bossing Bond around again, though, sporting the discomfort of someone who finds himself in a movie that doesn't shake out the way it was meant to, or should've, and mirroring the expression likely to sit on viewers' faces while watching. Simply by existing, The King's Man shows that this series just keeps pushing on when that's hardly the best option. It overextends its running time and narrative as well. But as it unfurls the beginnings of the intelligence agency hidden within a Saville Row tailor shop, it ditches everything else that made its predecessors work — when they did work, that is. Most fatally, it jettisons its class clashes and genre satire, and is instead content with being an outlandish period movie about the rich and powerful creating their own secret club.
Adapted from Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar's 2012 comics, the Kingsman series hasn't cut too deeply in its past two movies, but it did make the most of its central fish-out-of-water idea. It asked: what if a kid from the supposed wrong side of the tracks entered the espionage realm that's so firmly been established as suave and well-heeled by 007? Finding out why there's even a covert spy organisation staffed by the wealthy and impeccably dressed for that young man to join is a far less intriguing idea, but returning filmmaker Matthew Vaughn — who has now helmed all three Kingsman films — and co-screenwriter Karl Gajdusek (The Last Days of American Crime) don't seem to care. Vaughn has mostly ditched the coarse sex gags this time, too, and for the better, but hasn't found much in the way of personality to replace them.
It's in a prologue in 1902 that Fiennes makes his first appearance as Orlando Oxford, a duke travelling to South Africa during the Boer War — and soon made a widower, because The King's Man starts with the tiresome dead wife trope. Twelve years later, Oxford is staunchly a pacifist, so much so that he forbids his now-teenage son Conrad (Harris Dickinson, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) from enlisting when WWI breaks out. But the duke hasn't completely given away serving his country himself, overseeing an off-the-books intelligence network with the help of his servants Shola (Djimon Hounsou, A Quiet Place Part II) and Polly (Gemma Arterton, Summerland). That comes in handy when a nefarious Scottish figure known only as The Shepherd interferes in world affairs, with King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (all cousins, and all played by Bohemian Rhapsody's Tom Hollander) his targets.
Using real-life history as a backdrop, The King's Man weaves in Rasputin (Rhys Ifans, Spider-Man: No Way Home), too. If only it possessed the sense of humour to include Boney M's 70s dance-floor filler of the same name, or even a vodka-filled shot glass of its vibe. Rasputin, the character, is actually the best thing about the film, and solely because he's the most entertaining. Ifans plays the part like he's in on a joke that no one else in the production has gotten, amping up a goth mystic, busting out dance-inspired fighting moves and proving the liveliest thing in a feature that's frequently ridiculous yet rarely fun. Making a screwy but banal First World War spy-fuelled action flick surely wasn't on the franchise's agenda, but The King's Man can barely be considered a comedy.
Vaughn does stuff his overladen plot with lip-service sentiments fired in a few directions, however, tearing into war and colonialism — but that, like everything that The King's Man purports to do, comes across as half-hearted. In showing the horrors of combat, it doesn't help that 1917 is so fresh in cinematic memories (and it's definitely unfortunate that Dickinson could easily play the brother of 1917's star George MacKay). It's also hardly handy that Vaughn and Gajdusek's script manages to both rally against imperial rule and eagerly celebrate monarchies and the British Empire. That's the kind of thematic muddle the film wades through, making it clear that no one has thought too deeply about any of these concepts. The same applies to Oxford's pacifism, given that The King's Man heartily splashes around OTT violence. Here, an idea or position is only convenient when it's needed to further the story, and it's thoroughly disposable seconds later.
Manners may maketh man, as the series' eponymous society has intoned in three pictures now, but throwing together whatever disparate parts happen to be at hand doesn't make a good movie. If the same approach was taken to tailoring, the resulting suits wouldn't pass the central secret service's sartorial standards. Poking fun at the past, name-dropping historical figures, giving Hounsou and Arterton so little to do: none of that turns out well, either. Plus, while zippily staged, all of the film's action scenes that don't involve Ifans get repetitive fast. But The King's Man still commits to its franchise duty, pointlessly setting up a sequel that no one wants in its dying moments. A follow-up to The Golden Circle, called Kingsman: The Blue Blood, is also in the works, as well as a TV show about its American Statesman offshoot. Keeping on needlessly keeping on: that's still this spy series' main trait, as it always has been.