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The King’s Man Review

December 22, 2021 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
The King's Man
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The King’s Man Review  

Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Written By: Matthew Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek; Based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons
Runtime: 131 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material

Ralph Fiennes – Orlando Oxford
Harris Dickinson – Conrad Oxford
Gemma Arterton – Polly
Djimon Hounsou – Shola
Rhys Ifans – Grigori Rasputin
Charles Dance – Herbert Kitchener
Matthew Goode – Morton
Tom Hollander – King George/Kaiser Wilhelm/Tsar Nicholas
Alexandra Maria Lara – Emily Oxford
Valerie Pachner – Mata Hari
Daniel Brühl – Erik Jan Hanussen
Todd Boyce – Dupont
Joel Basman – Gavrilo Princip

The release of Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to the Kingsman franchise was a casualty on two fronts: It’s a holdover from the pre-Disney buyout of 20th Century Fox; and the COVID-19 pandemic. The King’s Man now enters theaters just days after the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home in a chaotic theatrical marketplace. It’s a tougher scene where even more adult-oriented popcorn movies like the Kingsman series would likely do better as counter-programming.

As a studio mainly focused on family-friendly entertainment, Disney doesn’t seem to have as much use for a more adult, irreverent comic book movie series. The release of The King’s Man was continually pushed back until now; late in December where it looks to serve as little more than a sacrificial lamb. It’s only getting released now because Disney is obligated to do so; much like when Disney released George Lucas’ Strange Magic in early 2015 after buying out Lucasfilm.

The sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, was a clumsy, clunky follow-up that didn’t have much else to say or do after the sleeper success of the original. The King’s Man is an awkward and equally clunky film that seems to forget the irreverent and satirical roots of the original.

The story follows the British soldier-turned-aristocratic Red Cross relief aide Orlando Oxford (Fiennes) and his son Conrad (Dickinson). After the brutal assassination of his wife in South Africa during a humanitarian relief mission, Orlando vows to shield their son from the horrors of war. Unfortunately, Orlando is not able to hold back the tide of The Great War. A clandestine group seeks to organize a world war on a massive scale by manipulating the key world powers of England with King George, Germany with Kaiser Wilhelm, and Russia with Tsar Nicholas (Tom Hollander in treble roles).

This clandestine group, sort of an early 20th-century copy of SPECTRE from James Bond, infiltrates the court of Tsar Nicholas using the odious Grigori Rasputin (Ifans) as their inside man. Meanwhile, the group’s cohort Gavrilo Princip is charged with assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparking The Great War. Now, Orlando attempts to use all the resources at his disposal to bring a swift end to the war, as his son Conrad is steadfast in his determination to join the fight for Queen & Country. However, Orlando knows the horrors of war incredibly well, and as a pacifist, he’s not keen to take up the fight again; even if it means ending the war itself.

With the fictionalized take on The Great War as the backdrop, The King’s Man showcases the origin story of the Kingsman agency from the previous two films. Unfortunately, Matthew Vaughn makes the mistake of sincerely believing the origin of the agency was one worth telling, which it isn’t. The heart of the original film’s story was the relationship between Eggsy and Harry. The Kingsman agency was later exposed in the original film as a corrupt, dishonorable organization. The agency itself didn’t appear to warrant further exploration in brand-new film.

The first film was entertaining as a fun, satirical, and irreverent take on the spy genre with a postmodern lens and an edgy sense of humor. Most of that edge and flair have been eschewed to service the film’s period setting of the early 20th century.

The King’s Man suffers from a bloated script, along with multiple bait-and-switch subplots that go nowhere. There’s an incessantly long tangent exploring Conrad Oxford’s wartime experience in the trenches. This subplot only muddles and artificially lengthens an already excessive narrative. The WWI scenes induce a strange sense of tonal whiplash. At one point, two sides of an army engage in a heightened, campy, comic book-style WWI Royal Rumble. Then, the next scene switches to a harrowing dramatic sequence showcasing the horrors of war. It’s a balance that The King’s Man is not able to achieve. It’s a tonal switch the plot never earns.

Watching The King’s Man is a bit of an odd experience because it seems to have lost sight of the franchise’s satirical roots. There are some moments of interesting and dynamic action, but the universe the original film presented didn’t set up this type of story. As a result, The King’s Man is closer to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The advertising for the campaign falsely presents Rasputin as the film’s main villain. Right off the bat, Rasputin is only depicted as a cog in a much larger villainous wheel. It’s unfortunate as Rasputin is taken out of the story just as he was starting to become somewhat interesting. While it was a very goofy take on Rasputin, his scenes were the only ones that seemed to have similar energy and style to the quality of the first film.

Ralph Fiennes is the film’s sole bright spot as Orlando Oxford. He shines with sincerity and shows effort well beyond such a shoddy script. Even nearing 60 years of age, he’s able to play a much more convincing action hero than he was in 1998’s The Avengers; not the Marvel version.

Djimon Hounsou is yet again reduced to second fiddle as the butler of the Oxford family. Over the last 20-plus years, Djimon Hounsou has worked pretty fairly steadily in films such as this. But he’s been typecast in this type of role, which appears well beneath his talents. The film appears to try and distract the audience from the role’s problematic elements and implications by having Orlando treat Hounsou as an equal, and Hounsou taking part in multiple action scenes. The attempts ring hollow. Shola is thinly developed as a character. His only other trait, besides his loyalty to the Oxford family, is a comedic fear of flying.

Meanwhile, Daniel Brühl is largely wasted in a nothing role that does little more than to sequel bait and set up future films that will likely never be made. If they are, The King’s Man fails to justify their existence. This is a prequel that never should’ve happened.

The final score: review Poor
The 411
The King's Man is an odd, puzzling prequel about the origins of an agency from a satirical, postmodern spy film that didn't really need an origin story. Most of what made the original Kingsman a fun ride is largely lost in the prequel, which can't juggle the tone of campy, comic book theatrics and the humbling, solemn WWI elements. Ralph Fiennes does stand out and does well doing the action hero thing, but as director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn appears to have completely lost sight of what worked about his first film in the first place. Case in point, lightning did not strike twice with The Golden Circle, or thrice with The King's Man.