The King’s Man is hardly a prequel to its last two films. In fact, the latest instalment from director Matthew Vaughn lacks the magic which made Kingsman a blast. Audiences expecting the film to push its bigger picture forward might also be disappointed. It combines some aimless action with a forgettable origin story about the titular spy agency. A few twists and risks are enough to keep eyes peeled. Just barely enough to make it past the two-hour plus length.
There’s a significant challenge for Vaughn, who jumps back in time for the third Kingsman movie. Audiences are already familiar with his unique spin on spy films. That’s both a satire of the Bond formula and an R-rated comedy. Neither of these aspects are there. Which makes The King’s Man a much more serious and context-driven instalment. Unfortunately, there are barely any references to the modern films, or hints as to where Eggsy or Galahad are headed next.
Instead, The King’s Man scales things back to 1914, the setting leaves behind the gadgetry and over-the-top cybernetics. Even much of the CGI which overloaded The Secret Service and The Golden Circle. It doesn’t go without saying The King’s Man tells a deeper story. Vaughan has drastically toned down the zany action, F-bombs and gore. Only because its characters are engaged in more dialogue than danger. Viewers can appreciate The King’s Man for investing in its two leads for a personal – sometimes touching – exchange.
Viewers are taken into the life of Orlando Oxford, played by Ralph Fiennes. The 007 actor leaves his office desk and into the non-broughed shoes of Kingsman. But as the agency isn’t fully developed, he’s working as an independent spy with a few collaborators. Scarily calm and collected, Fiennes does a great job of carrying The King’s Man. I’ll admit to being surprised at Orlando’s composure in front of diplomats. Before raising his voice to become a threatening presence. Vaughan still manages to make the pre-Kingsman slick and deadly as they should be.
The King’s Man surprisingly focuses a great deal on family. Orlando Oxford also sports an insecurity of being a loving father to Conrad Oxford (played by Harris Dickinson). As the young Conrad grows up, so does his father’s will to keep his son from harm. A rushed prologue barely establishes Orlando’s reasoning. But ultimately, both stars go from one set piece to another. Fiennes acts as this film’s Colin Firth. Much as Galahad mentoring Eggsy, Orlando does the same for his son. Except there’s a bigger attachment for Orlando to protect his son from the danger he also puts him in. The King’s Man shows Conrad spy material and training through his father. But it’s pointless when Orlando switches gears to an overprotective father.
The King’s Man does take considerable effort in developing Orlando and Colin. So much that its sparing action scenes have weight to them. Ironically, the film’s other leads are reserved for those rare moments too. Polly Wilkins (played by Gemma Arterton), the Oxford’s nanny, doesn’t exactly get enough screen time. Save for her moments of organizing missions. Even stepping in to save the day with a nice twist. But her one-liners are far too few. Audiences might keep an eye on Shola as Djimon Hounsou shares a bit more chemistry with Conrad. The prologue makes an effort to establish Shola’s compassion; something that manages to carry over to a teenage Conrad.
Shola and Polly are mainly reserved for The King’s Man’s action scenes. Most notably, when the world plunges into the First World War. Here, the film draws its essence from history. There’s a bit of a story boost from seeing the leads hit the ground running. But on the trips to Europe, Vaughn misses the opportunity to establish modern Kingsman tropes. Specifically with the tacked-on tailor shop or “manners maketh man.” Instead, The King’s Man unevenly throws viewers from meaningless dialogue to mindless action. It’s worth mentioning that Conrad isn’t being used to his full potential. The Secret Service was able to bring Eggsy’s training to full circle near the end. But Vaughn somehow loses this technique of sewing character development and action in The King’s Man.
“The King’s Man does little to nothing to push the series forward.”
Particular highlights include a WW1-era knife fight and the climax’s final battle. But The King’s Man doesn’t live up to the same wacky action as its predecessors. Mostly because Vaughn sticks to typical close — quarters fights. But The King’s Man gets credit for making some entertaining sequences. Even if there are less ridiculous moments which even put the characters in disbelief. With less action, the film does benefit from a stronger cast. Especially during the second half, when a major plot twist juggles things around. Vaughn makes a risky choice in the story — to somewhat effective degrees leading up to the climax.
Stealing the show in The King’s Man is Rasputin, played by Rhys Ifans. There’s a certain eccentric caricature at play here. Menacing and equally charismatic, Rasputin uses his own mannerisms to throw off Orlando. The film delivers on some dry humour, particularly through the witty comebacks Orlando sends to Rasputin when they meet. Ifans channels the sinister appeal of The Lizard from The Amazing Spider-Man. A fitting mix with Rasputin’s own meta-abilities in the film. As strange as Vaughn framed Rasputin, he manages to be one of The King’s Man’s redeeming graces.
Surprisingly, he’s also wasted throughout the film. Setting him up as just one of the evil syndicate’s bosses before The King’s Man reveals the big one. Without spoilers, the main baddie does impose a commanding presence. With some clever ways to show the character without revealing his face until the climax. But it’s as predictable as ever if viewers pay attention to The King’s Man’s background characters.
Espionage is the name of the game for Kingsman. In particular, the motley crew do their best to prevent the conflict from happening at all. The first half sees Conrad vying for responsibility like his father. So much that the two are protecting each other from a shadow organization. It’s the closest viewers will get to seeing any real spying in The King’s Man. Until some incredibly cheesy transitions — even involving moustaches — try to speed things along.
The King’s Man does little to nothing to push the series forward. If anything, the third addition sets the bar lower for Vaughn’s eventual sequel. Viewers will miss the modern day gadgets and Eggsy’s shameless immaturity. Especially when The King’s Man does explain how the agency was formed. But the film doesn’t do any of its previous two films justice. Instead, it wastes a strong cast of actors on a run-off-the-mill spy film viewers can skip in their next Kingsman marathon.