This holiday season there are a myriad of good films on which to spend your money and time but make no mistake, 20th Century Studios’ The King’s Man is not one of those films. It is a film so bad that it doesn’t merit your attention, which makes no sense given the talent on screen and with the design team. But those elements aren’t enough to save it from and clumsy story and poor directing choices.
The KINGSMAN franchise began with much promise in 2014 with the flawed but highly entertaining Kingsman: The Secret Service. That film introduced us to the top-secret British law enforcement agency, Kingsman. Highly original, with some fearless performances and distinctive staging of its exceedingly violent scenes, it captured the attention of the audiences and many critics. It was followed by a sequel in 2017, which continued the story of the main characters from the first film. Kingsman: The Golden Circle which was just as violent, but much less entertaining.
The King’s Man is the third movie in the franchise, but it is an origin story, not a sequel, with much of the action set just prior to, and during, World War I. Its main characters are Orlando Oxford, the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), and young son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), the epitome of the aristocracy. As rumors of war circulate, Oxford, a pacifist due to an early tragedy, tries desperately to keep Conrad from being lured into being a soldier by romantic visions of heroism. He also leads something of a double life working behind the scenes of the world stage, trying to prevent WWI from even happening.
Writer/director/producer Matthew Vaughn, who wrote and directed the first two films, was apparently inspired for this installment by epic films such “Lawrence of Arabia” for his blueprint. Though it was quite the departure from the previous films, oddly enough he came very close to achieving the same aesthetic, at least in the first scenes of the film. It is definitely a more sober approach than he is used to. But about a quarter of the way in, we finally get to the action-adventure story, and it is, unfortunately, the beginning of the end of what could have been a pretty good movie. It was as if lost his interest in that approach and decided to return to the more familiar turf of throwing out preposterous and absurd moments.
Of course, it is an action-adventure, not a drama, and the reason you buy a ticket to spy thrillers and action adventures is, after all, action. Some drama is good, yes, plus carefully choreographed fights, some mystery sprinkled about, and a healthy dose of humor. That makes for a great movie. But the action and the drama and the humor of this movie just never mesh into a coherent whole. I mean, chocolate chip cookies, artichokes, and steak are fine on their own, and can even make a nice meal together. But if Vaughn was the chef in this scenario, he basically took all of that and put it in a food processor. The result is just a mess of a film which left me both confused and hungry for the film it might have been.
Though there is quite a bit wrong with the film, there are some very good performances. Fiennes deserves some kind of award for covering the entire range from ridiculous to sublime. He did all that was asked of him, and you just have to applaud the work ethic. There were moments where he could have easily been forgiven for saying “No. Shan’t.” But he soldiered on. For this, the Oscars should add a category for going above and beyond. Bravo, Ralph.
Dickinson is affecting as the attractive, earnest, and naive Conrad. He is the film’s straight man, when appearing in some of the film’s more bizarre moments, and is the central figure in one of its more powerful segments. He manages to give us a realistic and relatable portrayal of a young everyman who, unfortunately, has no idea what awaits him on the battlefield. Quite a feat in this film.
Rhys Ifans appears as the villainous Rasputin, and he plays it for all its worth. But it is simply too much. His over-the-top performance of a creepy, disgusting character eclipses the absurdity of the scenes in which he is featured. Frankly, it is hard to watch and unnecessary.
The rest of the cast does well, with special mention going to Djimon Hounsou, who plays Shola, Orlando Oxford’s friend and (sigh) servant, as well as trainer/teacher to young Conrad. He is always a welcome addition to the screen, but in this case, he is simply underused. But he makes the most of what he was given, and is, as usual, superb.
Finally, kudos to director of photography Ben Davis, and production designer Darren Gilford for the amazing look of the film. Though the entire design team deserves to be applauded, Emmy and BAFTA award-winning costumer Michele Clapton really outdoes herself here. And though I stand by my original statement that there are many other films out there if you are looking for a great time at the movies, I have to admit, this one looks as good as, or better than many.
So, is The King’s Man worth a watch? If you are a fan of the franchise, you may enjoy it. As a bit of escapism for non-fans, it depends on what you go in looking for. For me, alas, it’s not a great fit.
As a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds gather to plot a war to wipe out millions, one man must race against time to stop them. Discover the origins of the very first independent intelligence agency in “The King’s Man.”
“The King’s Man” is directed by Matthew Vaughn and stars Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, with Djimon Hounsou, and Charles Dance.
Matthew Vaughn, David Reid and Adam Bohling are the producers, and Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, Stephen Marks, Claudia Vaughn and Ralph Fiennes serve as executive producers. “The King’s Man” is based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, and the story is by Matthew Vaughn and the screenplay is by Matthew Vaughn & Karl Gajdusek. “The King’s Man” opens in U.S. theaters on December 22, 2021.