Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance
Run Time: 131 mins
The King’s Man is the third film in the expanding Kingsman franchise, with this entry serving as a prequel. When Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service released back in 2015, it was a self-aware and giddy sugar-rush of a film, rejuvenating the spy genre as Kick-Ass (also directed by Vaughn) did for the comic-book film. The sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle doubled down hard on the more crass elements of the first film which attracted a mixed reception, I still found a lot to like in it, although it suffered in its villain department. Matthew Vaughn remains in the director’s chair for this prequel.
The King’s Man begins at the climax of the Boer War and the story extends to the end of the First World War. It follows Ralph Fiennes’ charismatic aristocrat Orlando, the Duke of Oxford, an ex-army officer who received the Victoria Cross. Although he fought in the war, he was unsatisfied with killing people and is of the belief that conflict can be resolved using more peaceful methods, combined with espionage. Two of his house servants, Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), join his spy network as the First World War approaches. His son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) is desperate to join the war effort and fight for his country, but Orlando forbids it and uses his government and army connections to make it impossible for him.
Behind the scenes, a group headed by a mysterious figure called ‘The Shepherd’ and comprised of historical figures such as Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), Erik Jan Haunssen (Daniel Brühl) and Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman) are plotting on inciting war by assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and convincing the Russian Tsar Nicholas to remove Russia from the war, to allow Germany to conquer Great Britain.
The King’s Man has been subject to numerous delays due to the Disney / Fox merger and the coronavirus pandemic, originally scheduled for release in November 2019. So has it been worth the wait?
The King’s Man is an interesting but ultimately unnecessary prequel. Vaughn changes the formula from the first two films by interweaving actual historical events and historical figures. This isn’t a bad thing but gone is the majority of the heightened reality that the first two films exist in, and with that the witty and crass humour. This film is played a lot more straight-faced and in proceeding with this tone, the film loses a lot of the series’ charm and energy.
Ralph Fiennes makes for a compelling lead and injects as much life into the material as he can. He has some amusing moments, one in particular where he refuses a cup of tea in a drunken state. Rhys Ifans is devilishly good as Rasputin and is clearly having fun with the material. The limited scenes he shares with Fiennes are where the film is at its best. Tom Hollander is also another highlight of the film, playing a triple role of King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas.
Of the rest of the cast, they are all largely under-utilised. Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton show promise as the two house servants but their characters are underdeveloped. Harris Dickinson is no match for Taron Egerton’s Eggsy in the mainline films and other than the fact that he wants to join the war effort, there is no meat to the character. Daniel Brühl is completely wasted in a small henchvillain role which is a shame, given how strong and versatile he is of an actor.
A significant downside with the film is that it peaks too early. There is an early action sequence with Rasputin which is a giddy excitement and as Ifans describes the scene, ‘a delicious excess’. It is perhaps the only scene in the film which has the kinetic energy of anything from the first two films but the film can never sustain or surpass this sequence
The film badly suffers in its villain department, with the exception of Rhys Ifans’ Rasputin. A spy film is generally only as good as its villain and the The Secret Service remains the series’ pinnacle with Samuel L. Jackson’s menacing yet hilarious, lisping villain. The Golden Circle ran into villain problems as Julianne Moore’s Poppy was no equal to Jackson and this film represents an even steeper descent down this filmic trap. Allowing Ifan’s Rasputin more screen time or making him the lead villain would have really worked wonders for the film.
The King’s Man is a serviceable entry in the series and Vaughn’s attempt at shaking up the formula isn’t to be ignored as many sequels run into the trap of repeating what worked in previous instalments. However, save Rasputin’s early action sequence and Fiennes’ performance, the film isn’t particularly memorable and represents a low point for the franchise. It can never settle on a cohesive tone, erratically veering between historical thriller and swashbuckling action. A sequence in the second act of the film set on the Western Front feels like a pale imitation of Wonder Woman infused with 1917. With a cast this star-studded and on the promise of the first two films, The King’s Man wasn’t worth the long wait and is a disappointment.