Film & TV

The ‘King’s Man’ Franchise Fails to Rewrite History

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Director: Matthew Vaughn
Date: December 22, 2021

R | 2 hour 11 minutes

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” was a sensation in 2014 and created its own niche of espionage movies — hyper violent, raunchy and profane. Fast forward seven years, it has spawned a putrid sequel and now, a prequel, “The King’s Man.” 

While it’s a drastic improvement from the bloated “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” “The King’s Man” is a decent revisionist history caper that will have fans of the original wanting more. 

After experiencing a tragedy in the early 20th century, aristocratic Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), has resorted to a life of pacifism while living in his magnificent palace with his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), do-it-all-man Shola (Djimon Hounsou), and housekeeper Polly (Gemma Arterton). 

Orlando’s vow of anti-violence may soon end as criminal masterminds throughout Europe devise a plan to create war through the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Ron Cook). It’s up to Orlando and his companions to find the head of the syndicate and prevent further damage caused by WWI. 

Director-writer Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “Layer Cake”) and screenwriter Karl Gajdusek (“Oblivion,” “Stranger Things”) use the events of WWI as a framing device to explain the inception of the Kingsman organization — some of their creative decisions work and others don’t. 

Their best move is casting Rhys Ifans (“Notting Hill,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”) as Grigori Rasputin. Ifans chews up the scenery in an over-the-top, far too short performance. His Rasputin is funny, menacing and the Russian accent is so spot on, it could have been in “House of Gucci.” The makeup and costume on his character are exceptional, as well. 

Another successful casting decision is Tom Hollander’s (“About Time,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”) portrayal of all three leaders of the U.K., Germany and Russia — a nice gimmick since all three historical figures were distant cousins. The same goes for Arterton’s (“Clash of the Titans,” “The Escape”) Polly, who’s great in the action scenes and provides the movie with a necessary spark. 

Despite being the lead, the great Fiennes (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” “About Time”) is given a dull, generic father character arc — a tired trope that must be retired.  

Vaughn’s not-so-subtle and haphazard commentary on the Great War is disingenuous. In a pivotal scene, Conrad has a conversation with a wounded soldier — it’s heartfelt but feels grossly misplaced. In a movie and franchise where the M.O. is graphic violence, Vaughn’s intention to make a profound statement misfires. 

However, Vaughn still has a terrific knack for creating fun, exhilarating action scenes, even if they are misplaced. A wonderfully choreographed fight sequence between Orlando, Conrad, Shola and Rasputin is executed like a ballet with each punch acting as a dance move. Rasputin twirls and the excellent camerawork follows him to give a fast-moving, 360-degree effect. 

As a result, the film’s tone is all over the place. At times it can be dark and somber about the horrors of war and, suddenly, it turns into an elaborate action set piece. These transitions are poorly done and nearly give the viewer whiplash. 

Since the movie deals with real-world events, it tends to be predictable. Vaughn tries to keep the audience on its toes by adding the element of a criminal syndicate — a strong narrative device until the underwhelming head of the group is revealed. This decision by Vaughn is perplexing given the film builds up to this moment, only for it to be a total disappointment. 

“The King’s Man” works when it’s a true espionage action-thriller and less when it’s a war drama. In an attempt to make this movie different from the mainline entries, he’s taken away the aspects that make this franchise enjoyable. A direct sequel to “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is in the works and, hopefully, it can recreate the magic found in the original.

“The King’s Man,” rated R, is playing in theaters Dec. 22. 

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