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The King’s Man (2021)

The King's Man - IGN

DIRECTOR: Matthew Vaughn

CAST: Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickinson, Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Daniel Brühl, Charles Dance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Tom Hollander, Stanley Tucci

REVIEW:

While The King’s Man is a bit of a redundant movie, it’s at least redundant in a slightly different way: instead of a dime-a-dozen unnecessary sequel, this one is an unnecessary prequel. 2014’s Kingsman was a fun campy romp, but 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle proved that trying to draw a franchise out of it might have been overkill, and The King’s Man, reaching back to WWI to show the “origins” of the titular secret society of gentlemen spies and modern-day knights, has not changed that opinion. With an episodic structure that veers between a campy action/spy romp to a grim WWI war drama and eventually comes back round again, The King’s Man tries to be two clashing things at once and doesn’t fully succeed in any direction. It’s moderately enjoyable, but doesn’t recapture the entertainment value of the original installment.

Following a prologue during the Boer War in 1902 South Africa, in which British aristocrat Orlando the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) tragically loses his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) before the eyes of his young son Conrad, the rest of the action takes place during the build-up and outbreak of WWI. The grown Conrad (Harris Dickinson), a patriotic young man gung-ho with naive heroic notions of joining the war, is eager to sign up, but his well-connected father has friends in high places, including Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance) and King George himself (Tom Hollander), and has pulled some strings to thwart this. Meanwhile, the fledgling team of not-quite-superheroes who will become the Kingsmen—Orlando, his sword-wielding manservant Shola (Djimon Hounsou), and his feisty maid Polly (Gemma Arterton)—are drawn into attempting to thwart the machinations of a cabal of villains led by the mysterious “Shepherd” to use well-placed pawns to manipulate world events from behind-the-scenes and pit England, Germany, and Russia against each other. The proto-Kingsmen’s attempts to stop the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—the event that will cause WWI—is unsuccessful, but they next turn their attention to the Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), who is using his influence over the Czar to weaken the war effort. Meanwhile, Conrad determines to get himself into the fight, with or without his father’s approval.

Much as he did in X-Men: First Class—which wove mutants into both sides of the Cuban Missile Crisis—Matthew Vaughn cheerfully blends a historical backdrop with fantasy, incorporating various real historical figures, including Rasputin, Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance), Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman), Vladimir Lenin (August Diehl), and Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly), and freely mixing real historical events—the Zimmermann Telegram, for example—with fiction. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Ron Cook), for example, is historically accurately portrayed, while needless to say, sizable liberties are taken with other real-life persons. In fact, the movie may sometimes mean more to those with a working knowledge of WWI history, who can recognize the real events and personages mixed in, although the extent to which Vaughn plays fast-and-loose with history—though he doesn’t quite flout it to the level of Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds—might also rankle those most familiar with the history.

The King's Man (2020) Photo | Kings man, Man movies, Face the music

Alas, The King’s Man feels stale and like a property is being milked to the last drop. The level of flair and panache Vaughn imbued the first Kingsman with has, if not completely evaporated, at least been greatly diminished. Moments of absurdity, like King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Czar Nicholas all being played by Tom Hollander (or an outrageously ridiculous mid-credits reveal) are few and far between. Along the way, there are only occasional moments that feel inspired, most prominently a dance/fight with Rasputin—showing unlikely fighting skills—set to the inspired choice of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Also memorable, in a grimmer way, is a brutal hand-to-hand fight between German and British soldiers in No Man’s Land, where the two sides make a tacit agreement to lay down their guns and fight it out with knives, hammers, and bare hands (either side firing a shot in the No Man’s Land between the trenches would get them all machine-gunned from both directions). There’s also a bitterly ironic “no good deed goes unpunished” moment in which a main character’s unceremoniously abrupt demise might come as a shock for some viewers. And, while the surprise reveal of the “big bad” is underwhelming, there’s still fun to be had from the proto-Kingsmen showing their mettle while storming the evil lair in the climactic showdown (which includes such over-the-top action as heads lopped off, a fast-and-furious swordfight on top of a table, and Ralph Fiennes getting headbutted by a goat). Alas, moments that stand out are too few and far between.

Another, perhaps more fundamental problem is a schizophrenic tone. The original Kingsman cheerfully walked a tightrope—mostly successfully—between an homage and parody to campy Roger Moore-era Bond adventures. The King’s Man can’t make up its mind whether it’s trying to be a campy action/spy adventure in the same vein, historical fantasy, or a more true-to-life WWI drama. To his credit, Vaughn doesn’t try to turn trench warfare into something “fun” or “entertaining”, but the grim No Man’s Land sequence halfway through feels like we’ve taken a sharp detour into a whole other movie from the otherwise escapist entertainment, and one can’t escape a faint tinge of something uncomfortable and a little distasteful about trying to use WWI (one of the grimmest, bloodiest conflicts in history) as background window dressing for a campy action/spy romp. The King’s Man tries to have it both ways, and it doesn’t quite work.

The King's Man – Midwest Film Journal

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best performance is by Ralph Fiennes, who manages to bring a modicum of depth and pathos to a couple of Orlando’s pacifistic monologues and, in what might have seemed an unlikely prospect at his age, participate in a few fight scenes. Fiennes doesn’t have the deadpan panache of Colin Firth—though that might be an unfair comparison, given he’s playing a more somber character—but it’s still a nice switch to see Fiennes go into rare action hero mode. Harris Dickinson, who was blandness personified in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, fares better here and manages to make Conrad a likable secondary protagonist. Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou don’t get much to do besides supply the faithful sidekicks and participate in a few action scenes. Of the assorted coterie of villains, the most memorable is Rhys Ifans’ darkly charismatic Rasputin, who snarls into his scenes with lip-smacking relish. Alas, he’s out of the way about a third of the way in. Familiar faces in small but key roles include Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as a soldier Conrad swaps places with to smuggle himself onto the front lines against his father’s wishes), Daniel Brühl (as the Kaiser’s chief adviser and a member of the villainous cabal), Charles Dance (as Lord Kitchener), Matthew Goode (as Kitchener’s aide-de-camp), Stanley Tucci (as the US ambassador), and Tom Hollander in a triple role as King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Czar Nicholas (with varying makeup jobs).

The King’s Man is a moderately enjoyable diversion, but the little fanfare with which it was released (after multiple postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic) seems to back up the general apathy towards its existence, an apathy its mediocre entertainment value has not overcome. It doesn’t do anything to harm the Kingsman “franchise”, but feels like an extraneous footnote for completists, not an “event” to pump new life into the series.

* * 1/2

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