Released with little fanfare, presumably to save on costs, Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to the two existing Kingsman films has been delayed, by my count, on nine previous occasions. Covid obviously played a part in this stuttering release, but it’s hard to imagine an alternate universe in which the erratic The King’s Man would be a hit. Rather than the smart-arse, vulgar James Bond parody of the first two films, this obtuse venture brings back none of the stars or characters previously featured, and instead sets the stuffy action back in the 1910’s. The uneven tone of this film suggests some meddling in the enforced switch from Fox to Disney, with unhappy results for Mark Millar’s proposed seven-film franchise.
So, instead of the teenage yob protagonist of the first film, the main character here is a rather different class warrior; Orlando, The Duke of Oxford. He’s played by Ralph Fiennes, who is in his sixties and nobody’s idea of an action hero; fortunately there’s very little in the way of physical action for Fiennes to navigate other than dropping his trousers for comedic effect. Orlando’s son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) wants to fight in WWI, but his dad forbids it. Instead, father and son embark on a dangerous mission to Moscow to assassinate holy-roller Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) who is controlling Russian interests in The Great Game of geo-political diplomacy. We all know what happened to Rasputin, but his protracted death reveals the influence of a true enemy, known as The Shepherd…
…who turns out to be an angry Scottish nationalist intent on revenge on the English for stealing his family mill; details are thankfully sketchy. The villain’s identity is concealed for nearly two hours of the 130+ running time here, a bold move that doesn’t make much sense, and provides for a flat final revelation. Apart from the usual slavering over the character and reputation of the old Empire, there’s not much to connect this story to the original films beyond a couple of logos on rings, and almost no other action to speak of; a fight in muddy hell of the Western Front, and a decent if standard action climax on a cliff-top in Scotland peopled by goats. The rampant misogyny of the first two films is missing, but it’s hard to find a consistent flavour in a two-faced film that revels in gleeful slaughter in the action scenes and then po-faced renditions of war poetry by contrast; the final sincere dedication and a jokey post-credits scene involving Hitler feel like the ends of two completely different films.
I’m running against the grain here, but I’d have to confess I found The King’s Man an improvement on the first two films; the juvenile emphasis on sex is given a rest for this outing. With a stellar cast including Matthew Goode, Gemma Arteton and Tom Hollander and a swanky production design, the result isn’t boring, but it is rather bland and won’t appeal to fans of the first few movies. With a reported cost of $90 million and no obvious avenues for recoup when it goes direct to Disney+, the Kingsman franchise looks likely to go the way of the much-hyped Kick Ass and Jupiter’s Legacy.
The King’s Man is out now; the promotional ‘dance video’ below is actually much more fun to watch than the movie itself.