It’s truly unfortunate that after so many delays, The King’s Man is finally going to see the light of day by living in the shade of an epic (and truly incredible) Spidey movie that will dominate the box office for weeks to come. And quite frankly, any non-Spidey attention will likely go to The Matrix Resurrections, which is also hitting theaters on the same day. But if I can make the case for a movie that will likely be buried by stiff competition and rising resurgence of COVID concerns, the film isn’t actually half bad.
The King’s Man isn’t exactly getting high praise by other critics, and to a degree I understand why. The tonal shifts throughout the movie, as well as the different feel that it has from its predecessors (of which the previous entry was quite poorly received) can be quite jarring for anyone expecting this to be like the first two Kingsman films. However, for what it’s worth, it’s a much stronger entry into the franchise than the abysmal Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and it has a surprising amount of heft and heart to it.
And credit where credit is due, I love that director Matthew Vaughn is actually trying to do something different and ambitious for both the franchise and the spy genre by heavily infusing it with shades of Sam Mendes’ 1917. This is sadly where I think critical and audience expectations of a franchise will ultimately damage the accomplishments of a film on its own merit. Because audiences are unfortunately prone to complaints about something that’s even remotely different from other entries in a franchise.
Unlike the 2014 and 2017 films, The King’s Man is a period piece exploring the origins of the agency seen in its previous installments. It exists as its own separate film, without the need to tether itself to the storylines of our fan favorite superspies Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton). This film takes place in the early 20th century, at the dawn of World War I, and tells the story of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a Duke and British aristocrat, who, after a tragedy, becomes a pacifist for better or worse. Oxford imposes this overprotective lifestyle on his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), who wants nothing more than to serve his country and do his part to fight off the impending forces of the Russian and German armies during the great war. Oxford attempts to convince Conrad that there are ways of serving one’s country other than fighting and dying for it, and shows him he’s been leading an underground spy service (which include Gemma Arterton’s Polly, and Djimon Hounsou’s Shola) to figure out and trace the circumstances of the war back to the shadowy nefarious conspirators who lit the powder keg (a syndicate including Rhys Ifan’s Rasputin). Together, they must team up to combine their efforts to stop history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds from destroying the globe!
The film has a chaotic good time telling its crazy revisionist take on the events of how World War I started, and how America got involved. It blends real life historical figures like Archduke Ferdinand and Rasputin with our fictional heroes, and gives a fractured and frantic interpretation of how the Kingsman agency impacted history in secret in the way only a Kingsman movie could. And that’s actually a lot of fun, because it’s giving us events we already know in a fun and unpredictable way. And in this way, it absolutely separates itself out from the rest of its franchise, making things feel a lot fresher than you’d expect.
Another way Vaughn separates this out from the other films is that there’s a level of gritty war drama in many instances throughout the film, particularly once it follows Conrad’s storyline. This is why I made the aforementioned comparison to 1917. While the film was intended to come out the same year 1917 did, and was more than likely not influenced by it, many scenes feel as if they’d exist comfortably spliced into Sam Mendes’ critically acclaimed hit. And we’ve never seen this in the Kingsman franchise or any spy movie for that matter, which I found remarkable.
Where the film does lose points, however, is that it does take an awful long time to get going. I’d say for much of it, I was left unamused and wondering where any of it was headed. It wasn’t until a single monument act in the middle of the film that the pieces of what this movie really is about begin to come together. And that moment ends up allowing all of the film’s characters to really grow, and allows the actors to switch into high gear and perform at their most admirable — particularly Fiennes and Arterton. Arterton in particular gives a seriously badass performance, and Fiennes acts his heart out in a bold and, at times, heart-breaking performance. Hounsou also does great work as Shola, and is given some of the most fun action scenes to accomplish.
A lot of attention has been given to Ifans’ Rasputin, and with great reason! Ifans is a legitimate scene stealer, giving the most bizarre and over-the-top performance that we’ve never seen in his filmography, ever. To think he can go from goofy supporting role in a rom com like Notting Hill, to Curt Conners in the Amazing Spider-Man series, to a gonzo mad monk with dance fight abilities is nothing short of astonishing. His chameleon skills are so on point, and the energy he brings to the film ends up being a sobering reminder that we are indeed watching part of the Kingsman franchise. He’s simply dazzling.
Apart from the Rasputin fight, there are very fun and crazy action sequences throughout the finale of the film. Notice however that I’m not praising the rest if the film’s action scenes in the beginning or middle of the film. That is because there aren’t many until said finale. Which, again, goes back to my criticism about the film really not being super engaging until the game changing event in the middle. However, in defense of that first half, the only reason the event in the middle is so effective is because of the table setting Vaughn does in the beginning. From a character and emotional perspective, it’s absolutely necessary.
The other thing The King’s Man lacks that its predecessors succeeded at was the wickedly biting humor of the first two. This installment is admittedly more serious than the previous endeavors, but I think for the context of this film, it really works. The film swaps out jokes for emotional impact and gravity, and I think it’s all the better because you’re so focused on these characters and their relationships to one another.
However, while I can justify the decreased humor and slowness of the first half, the one thing that absolutely doesn’t work in this movie is the main villain. Rasputin is phenomenal, but the puppet master behind him is, not only predictable, but a bit lame. The actor behind the role does a good job with some tremendous accent work. But the only way to not see the end twist in this film would be to remove your eyes out in the theater like a Potato Head toy as you’re watching it.
That being said, with strong performances, fun action scenes, and a deeply emotional and heartfelt script, the movie’s pros heartily outweigh its cons to ensure an (at most) entertaining time. Is it as fresh or fun as Kingsman: The Secret Service? That’s a hard no. But is it better than Kingsman: The Golden Circle? That’s a hard yes! The King’s Man may not be exceptional, but it deserves and earns the right to be accepted as a key part of this franchise.
Overall Score: B-
The King’s Man hits theaters today, December 22!