The King’s Man, 2021.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn.
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Robert Aramayo, Ross Anderson, Alexandra Maria Lara, Neil Jackson, Alison Steadman, Branka Katić, Alexander Shaw, Valerie Pachner, Joel Basman, Ron Cook, Barbara Drennan, Ian Kelly, Kristian Wanzl Nekrasov, and Stanley Tucci.
In the early years of the 20th century, the Kingsman agency is formed to stand against a cabal plotting a war to wipe out millions.
Going back in time to World War I, returning director Matthew Vaughn (adapting comic books from Mark Miller and Dave Gibbons, this time with Karl Gajdusek handling script duties) is certainly taking the Kingsman series in a different direction, but more jarring is the serious-minded tone the first half of this prequel known as The King’s Man takes on. The story centers on war veteran turned Red Cross supporter Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes, effectively performing a role similar to that of Colin Firth in the present-day timeline) resistant to letting his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson, mostly dry and forgettable although it’s not necessarily his fault) honorably join the war. Not only does the Duke of Oxford have a first-hand experience of those horrors, but he and a much younger Conrad were each traumatized by witnessing matriarch Emily (Alexandra Maria Lara) gunned down. As a result, he is deeply terrified of possibly losing his son to senseless violence, sheltering the 18-year-old on the verge of 19 as much as possible.
While The King’s Man also involves creating the spy organization full of gentlemen (including a cameo appearance of the tailor shop), it’s more concerned with telling a rather bland tale about war and nobility, or rather, reputation and character. Orlando still operates from the shadows unbeknownst to Conrad, who is mocked and labeled a coward for not enlisting. Conrad desperately wants to serve and earn medals like his father, whereas Orlando believes there is a silent way to improve the world, hence the conversation regarding perception and actions.
None of this is what anyone presumably comes to a Kingsman movie for, as the script frequently treats these opposing viewpoints with awkward dramatic heft drowning. Previous entries have always had personal dilemmas, but here they drown out whatever fun there is to be had for the majority of the running time. It’s also not helped by overwhelming and disorienting exposition setting up exaggerated revisionist history regarding the build-up to World War I. Such silliness involves Tom Hollander performing triple duty as cousins King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas (representing England, Germany, and Russia, respectively). At least one of them is a world leader clown yet to grow up, looking to seize more power.
Orlando has also established an underground network (which is just a hidden basement attached to a secret door in his office) where various estate personnel such as nanny Polly (Gemma Arterton, an underappreciated talent disappointingly not given much to do), Shola (Djimon Hounsou), and others capable of obtaining information or planting characters in locations with ease whenever it benefits the plot. A network of these academic intellectuals searching for and exchanging secrets could make for its own exciting slice of action espionage, but here it’s reduced to just another plot element worth mentioning.
The same goes for the villainous band of misfits operating out of Scottish mountains, each meant to have a distinct character but mostly just come across forgettable and barely thought out, like everyone else here. Seemingly supernatural Russian monk Rasputin (a wizard-bearded and eccentric Rhys Ifans) is the exception, with one of The King’s Man‘s more entertaining stretches following an attempt at seduction through sweets and something else that won’t be revealed here. It can be said that it leads to thrilling one-on-one combat involving dancelike fight choreography, bringing to mind some of the crazier combat stances in the first movie. The issue is that, kind of like killing the only worthwhile antagonist in a video game, The King’s Man falls right back into the same problems following this jolt of energy, leaving one without much enthusiasm to continue.
A second-half shocker scene switches up the narrative to an extent, more importantly allowing Matthew Vaughn to find a groove for this disjointed mockery of World War I. The villains are still largely forgettable (the script resorts to a lame and predictable twist, a cringe amount of F-bombs, and excessive animal abuse to make viewers dislike this forgettable bunch), but as plot threads start coming together, there is more freedom to throw characters into impressively staged action sequences.
With all exposition out of the way (I haven’t even found time to mention the likes of Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Daniel Bruhl, but I will say don’t expect much) and a more concerted focus on saving the day (which involves convincing America to join the war, something that’s prevented for amusing reasons), The King’s Man finally starts to embrace the tone of its predecessors. Unfortunately, it’s also too late, and the payoff is not satisfactory. It’s more of an overly dramatic World War I movie featuring a father and son butting heads that feels like it only got made because someone forced Matthew Vaughn to tie it into the Kingsman series. Whatever the case may be, it occasionally comes alive with excitement, otherwise functioning as a frustrating and sometimes unnecessarily cruel mess.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com