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‘The King’s Man’ is a stuffy prequel with occasional glimpses of gleeful, historical hysteria

Matthew Vaughn returns to the Kingsman franchise after years of delays and false starts. Is his new take on the action spy franchise, now with Ralph Fiennes in the lead role, the fresh spin this series needed?

The following is an edited transcript of the video above.

The King’s Man is a prequel to the ongoing Kingsman film franchise, which began in 2014 with Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on the comic book, of course, as a modern riff on old-fashioned British spy movies with far more bombastic action set pieces and an earned R-rating to rub tequila salt in James Bond’s eye. Matthew Vaughn directed that film and its 2017 sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, but rather than continue the trilogy with this next installment, Vaughn instead returns with a film explaining the origins of the Kingsman, who are a private intelligence service with codenames based on King Arthur characters and a base of operations hidden inside an upscale, London tailor ship.

So where did the Kingsman get their start? Well, in The Secret Service, there is a bit of dialogue establishing that the group began during World War I. So naturally, Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Karl Gajdusek, who was a show runner for the first season of Stranger Things, begin this story at the turn of the 20th century.

Before the Kingsman, there was a man named Orlando Oxford (played charmingly as ever by Ralph Fiennes), who is a pacifist nevertheless finding himself caught up in the geopolitical turmoil of an impending, boiling conflict between the UK, Germany, and Russia (the leaders of all three played to hilarious effect by Tom Hollander). The film surprisingly delves into some actual history, more or less, involving what really set off World War I, first with the assassination of a certain Archduke. But the film also covers why a single assassination of someone in a relatively small, European country, would be enough to set the whole continent ablaze with artillery fire.

That’s not to say The King’s Man is anything close to a history class, though it does admirably invent plenty of excuses for thrills with this massive world war event in the backdrop. Oxford’s son, Conrad, is played by Harris Dickinson as sort of the Eggsy stand-in from the other films, in that he’s young, full of promise, and determined to prove himself. Though the key difference is that Conrad was born into a life of luxurious privilege, motivating him to serve his country, and the world by extension, as a means of doing his duty.

20th Century Studios

We mostly see Conrad and his father at personal odds, however, as the film is at battle with itself over the ethics of warfare, whether it be braving no man’s land, cracking codes based on stolen information, or determining the identities of an evil cabal behind the whole conspiracy, because, well, this is a Kingsman movie. But this really isn’t a film with all that much to say beyond, “how brilliant would it be to make a Kingsman movie set in the 1910s?”

And indeed, the concept of this film is absolutely brilliant. The set up of building the Kingsman from the ground up with a sparkling ensemble featuring the talents of Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou as the Oxford family’s longtime allies and confidants is undeniably what’s needed to reignite the Kingsman films. In a way that sets it apart from so many other action franchises content to oversize their budgets on computer effects over practical wizardry and fight choreography that makes you wince in awe at what you’re actually watching onscreen. So why does this film come off like one of the biggest missed opportunities of 2021?

It should be mentioned that The King’s Man was delayed many times over, partially due to COVID, and is arriving something like two years after it was initially supposed to come out. So there is a matter of waning expectations at play, here. This is a film that comes off as rather confused at its own existence, where it will at one point firmly be an entertaining, whiz-bang Kingsman movie, where characters are flying around doing outrageous stunts, but then, once the fun’s over, it leans upright in its chair with dry, uninspired, and even repetitive arguments over what should be done next, why this country just did that, why you can’t fight in the war, and oh, here’s how I feel about what you felt when feeling that.

Vaughn clearly had a lot of great ideas in mind for The King’s Man when envisioning the final product. For example, there is an entire sequence where one of the villains, a dastardly entertaining Rasputin played by Rhys Ifans, engages Hounsou’s character, Shola, in a spectacular sword fight, where he’s even evoking Russian dance and moving like the mad monk that he is. Moments like these are exactly what fans of these films come to see, as it reminds of the all-time greatest cinema sword fights, namely in The Mark of Zorro between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone, where the way the camera moves is perfectly asymmetrical to the zig zagging movement of the actors doing battle.

A later sword fight involving a gun also plays and experiments with fresh angles and visceral cuts that get the full effect of how terrifying it would be to actually cross blades with someone else in a kill or be killed scenario, which even matches the main theme of Fienne’s Oxford, a desperate man trying to find his own line to cross when it comes to stamping out fascism in all its forms.

It would all be fine enough if the central characters had a central conflict at all investing or surprising, given their foundations. Conrad, as mentioned, has all the privilege of a man his age, never having to really overcome profound difficulties growing up, aside from the death of his mother. But that, itself, is sure footing for a character who wants to be a hero because he couldn’t be one for his mother, and there’s also a guilt behind the idea that he gets to live comfortably while others die for the cause. As the film progresses, his arc certainly makes sense as he finds that there might be other ways to serve his country besides being infantry fodder, so perhaps he can utilize his privilege in a more effective way for the sake of saving the world.

But just when Conrad seems like he’s on the road to learning that lesson, the movie swerves into something else entirely, like this next part of the script was written for a completely different film. Worse, the final act — while an astounding, entertaining set piece on the whole, with a sequence involving a harrowing plane crash and subsequent climb up an ice wall — is built around our heroes needing to get their hands on something innocuous so someone else might not be embarrassed and decide to do something that they should do, anyway, and it’s something that was perhaps funny when written in the script, but as executed, the serious tone of these people fighting a global conflict and losing loved ones in the process just doesn’t match gracefully with the stakes of the actual plot, which amount to little more than a juvenile farce.

There’s almost an awkwardness, or unintentional insecurity when the film lets itself loose, finally, and it’s a far cry from the magic of The Secret Service, where the whole punchline of it made total sense. You have these dapper gentlemen, seemingly unimpressive in the physical department, capable of laying waste to hordes of henchmen without breaking much of a sweat. But it also had a sharp emotional hook with Eggsy, a lower class young man who can fit the suit just as well if not better than anyone else, no matter how rich they are or how impressive their last name is. The tone in that film worked because the film knew exactly when to take itself seriously on a grounded level, which wasn’t that often to be clear, and when to kick up the tinsel town amusement with visual gags, shock humor, and yes, its thoughtful, if not a little dated, social commentary.

The King’s Man, by comparison, is a mixed bag of impressive action filmmaking and decent performances (particularly by Fiennes, who saves this film from utter ruin alongside Arterton and Hounsou), but not much sense holding it all together. It’s a film crammed with good starts to good ideas, only for them to end abruptly, or to go in directions that don’t feel inevitable or thought through to their fullest potential.

It’s such a shame, because The King’s Man does so many things right; it’s certainly bold and refreshing in its choice of subject matter, how it joyfully lays ruin to typical action movie tropes, and its wonderful, “big adventure” feel, evoking the old school wonder of classics like The Man Who Would Be King or Lawrence of Arabia. Vaughn is clearly still interested in telling unique stories, not just in terms of the lore and mythology, but also with “I’ve never seen that before” action moments making up for the less engaging narrative. But one good representation of this film’s up and down quality is in that final act, when the reveal is so obvious, so predictable, so underwhelming, yet all the indelible intensity coming before it seemingly bows down to this being the moment where it all comes together and is all of some great import. It isn’t, of course, but the film can’t quite seem to get in on its own joke.

The King’s Man opens in theaters starting December 22 through 20th Century Studios.

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