The King’s Man is disjointed in story and tone, but within its cracks is a thrillingly crafted prequel that should satisfy Kingsman fans and general audiences.
In 2015, Matthew Vaughn, one of my favorite directors working today, brought us one of the most entertaining action films of the 2010s in Kingsman: The Secret Service. After going on to direct its sequel in 2017 (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), he returns once again to direct and co-write a prequel, The King’s Man. This time, we find ourselves in the early 20th century at the breakout of World War I. After revered monk Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) convinces Russia to withdraw from the war, The Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) decides that he and a group of trusted friends must take matters into their own hands to save England from defeat at the hands of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds. At the same time, Oxford struggles with his relationship with his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), which is strained by the death of Conrad’s mother years ago and Conrad’s ambitions to join the army against his father’s wishes.
I’m a big fan of the first Kingsman film. It’s stylish, bloody, funny, and has highly memorable characters at its center. The Golden Circle has chunks of that as well and is a fun time, but it’s saddled with a messier story and somewhat less assured direction. So, I didn’t quite know how this prequel would fare, even with Vaughn still at the helm. I knew not to expect it to live up to the 2015 original – which it doesn’t – but I was hoping that it would be better than the 2017 sequel – which it is. The King’s Man is clearly not perfect, but it retains some of the best elements of its predecessors, adds enough new lore to justify itself as a prequel, and is a fun, entertaining film on its own.
The King’s Man is easily the heaviest film of the trilogy overall. Vaughn has had dramatic moments even in his craziest works, but many scenes in this prequel, primarily in the middle, see him at his straightest since X-Men: First Class. This, admittedly, is both a strength and a weakness of the film. It’s a weakness because the middle portion, which contains a really brutal and even hard-to-watch sequence in the trenches of World War I, is surrounded by two much goofier, heightened acts that are closer to what one would expect in a Kingsman movie. The King’s Man can feel like three films merged into one. It’s very jarring, for example, to think that twenty minutes before that trench sequence, you’re watching Rhys Ifans chew scenery left and right as Rasputin. Rasputin himself is not even in the film after the first act, which makes the film feel even more disjointed.
Normally an issue like this would come dangerously close to killing a film, but there are two saving graces that somewhat balance things out. The first is that the tones almost never clash within the same scenes. Because of how separate the three acts of The King’s Man feel, the different tones rarely get in each other’s way, so the whiplash between them is considerably lessened. The other redeeming factor is how well-executed every scene is for what it’s trying to accomplish. The initial stretch of the film admittedly struggles a little to find its footing, suffering from Golden Circle’s problem of making the story more convoluted than needed in hindsight. But this portion still sets up the characters really well, making them all instantly distinct and identifiable as any Kingsman character should be.
Fiennes and Dickinson have great father-son chemistry together, and you clearly understand where they’re both coming from, as Conrad wants to go to war and Oxford, very sympathetically, wants to protect him from risking his life. Fiennes in particular brings so much gravity and charm to his role. But Rhys Ifans is no doubt the scene-stealer. A Kingsman film’s portrayal of one of the most larger-than-life people to ever live is exactly as big and ridiculous as you would hope for, to a point where I’m a bit saddened that he’s not the main villain. It’s also a lot of fun to see the film’s portrayal of the events that kicked off World War I. Clearly this is a highly fictitious account, but it fits this franchise really well and makes for solid satire of the complicated, almost obligatory nature of the real tangled webs of alliances and conflicting interests that plunged these countries into the war.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the slightly more muted color scheme I saw in the trailers, but it works with this time period, as well as in the darker sections of the film. Cinematographer Ben Davis gets some incredible shots of the landscapes and set pieces. The action isn’t the most stylish of the Kingsman franchise, but it is the most intense and heart-pounding. I once again have to praise the scenes in the trenches, including an ingenious setup in No Man’s Land with anxiety-inducing execution and even more realistic fighting. It’s reminiscent of 1917 in both its look and emotional impact, and it ends on a shocking note that made my jaw drop.
The finale is also a lot of fun, featuring the best airborne action sequence I’ve seen since Mission: Impossible – Fallout. The crew either got some really convincing green-screen and CGI, or they actually went up and shot a lot of that sequence … the fact that I can’t tell speaks to how exciting it is. The fight choreography and sweeping camerawork are on par with the other films in the franchise, there’s a good reveal regarding the villain, and there’s a lot of emotional satisfaction in seeing the start of this Kingsman agency we’ve come to know in the first two films. A lot more weight is added to this organization when you know how it was formed and the surprisingly meaningful events that inspired it to carry on.
I’ve come to accept that lightning is probably never going to strike twice when it comes to this franchise, and that the first film probably won’t be topped. At this point, I just hope that each entry can continue to bring something new and worthwhile to the table and be an entertaining film in its own right. The King’s Man achieves both of those goals, albeit not in a completely coherent way by any stretch of the imagination. Matthew Vaughn has put together another really enjoyable action thriller that, for all its inconsistencies, has enough laughs, thrills, and even gasps to get audiences, particularly Kingsman fans, leaving the theater relatively fulfilled.
The King’s Man opened in theaters on December 22, 2021.
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