Review: THE KING'S MAN, An Unnecessary Prequel to Redundant Sequel

Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Harris Dickinson, Djimon Hounsou and Rhys Ifans star in an action-adventure, directed by Matthew Vaughn, and opening exclusively in movie theaters this week.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE KING'S MAN, An Unnecessary Prequel to Redundant Sequel

An unnecessary prequel to a redundant sequel, writer-director Matthew Vaughn’s (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) The King’s Man delivers all of the not unexpected absurdity, excess, and ultra-violence of its semi-illustrious predecessors, Kingsman: The Secret Service (better than it had any right to be) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle (far worse than it should have been) while doubling up as an uncritical, unironic defense of the British Empire and everything questionable it stood for and continues to stand for (i.e., imperialism, colonialism).

It’s an odd, borderline bizarre tonal, ideological turn for a mid-tier franchise that all but gleefully prided itself on adding R-rated crudity, crassness, and vulgarity to a knowing, self-aware spoof of Ian Fleming's James Bond series and its many, decades-long onscreen iterations. Looked at closely, though, and it's abundantly clear The King's Man reveals Vaughn championing the pre-WWII British Empire over other European and non-European alternatives.

Initially set at the turn of the last century, The King’s Man opens in Southern Africa, specifically the Boer War between ethnic Dutch settlers and the British Empire over territory and material resources. Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a duke by title and bearing, works with the Red Cross to bring much needed relief supplies to ethnically Dutch prisoners-of-war.

Before you can type the word “fridged” into your browser, however, Orlando suddenly finds himself a widower, promising his soon-to-be-dead wife that he’ll keep their young, preteen son away from the killing fields of Europe. It’s a promise that Orlando spends more than half of The King’s Man’s running time attempting to keep, but one Vaughn undermines at every opportunity. (Pacifism is for the dangerously naive, willfully ignorant, or the unrealistically idealistic.)

Jumping forward time-wise more than a decade, Orlando remains unchanged both in physical appearance and/or his pacifistic beliefs. With his now (almost) adult son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats), eager to heed the clarion call of serving the British Empire as a soldier, Orlando continues to abide by his late wife’s wishes.

When the opportunity arises, however, for Orlando to serve the British Empire as a special envoy to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (Ron Cook), the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Enter dramatic irony (where the audience knows something the onscreen characters don’t): Orlando’s mission, like practically everything else he does or attempts to do in The King’s Man, fails to impact, let alone delay, any of the events of the “Great War” (later World War I), including the mass slaughter on the battlefields that left millions of young men dead or maimed.

Leaning heavily on comic book influences, specifically Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Moore and David Gibbons’s Watchmen (to a lesser extent), Vaughn and his co-screenwriter, Karl Gajdusek, posit a super-secret society controlled by a Scottish-accented puppet master eager to push Europe’s great powers into protracted warfare. That the puppet master, working with familiar and unfamiliar agents in position of power, including Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), the manipulative “mad” monk with an outsize influence on the private actions and public decisions of the Russian Tsar, Tsar Nicholas II (Tom Hollander). It’s enough to convince Orlando, working under the auspices of General Kitchener (Charles Dance) and the direction of the British king, George V (Hollander, again), that Rasputin must be stopped by any extrajudicial means necessary.

Hoping to keep Conrad from enlisting in the war, Orlando convinces his son to join him, Orlando’s body man, Shola (Djimon Hounsou), and their multi-skilled housekeeper, Polly (Gemma Arterton, wasted in a woefully underwritten role), on a super-secret mission to Russia to eliminate Rasputin with extreme prejudice in order to save Russia and the rest of Europe from an even greater cataclysm (i.e., even more millions dead). What feels like a mid-film side-mission is anything but: The protracted verbal and physical duel between Rasputin on one side and Orlando and Conrad on the other by choice or by accident ends up as The King’s Man’s high-water mark, the climax long before the actual climax pitting Orlando and his team against the puppet master character high atop a remote plateau. It’s filled not just with well-staged action choreography, but a sense of light, if history-averse, humor missing from the next, head-scratching section.

Vaughn loses any sense of tone or pacing when he pushes the overall plot to the background to focus on Conrad and a jarring, brutally realistic take on WWI trench warfare. It’s more 1917 than anything in the Kingsman series before or since and bound to confuse, perplex, or even irritate audiences who stepped into the movie theater expecting a light action-comedy, not a serious-minded war drama. It breaks, maybe irreparably, the unspoken contract-bond between filmmaker and audience. Filmmakers implicitly promise audiences a certain kind of film genre (e.g., action, drama, comedy) or even a blend of genres, but generally, those elements and with them audience expectations are set in the opening scenes.

Even when the trench scenes end, though, The King’s Man still has the better part of an hour to resolve its overarching conspiracy plot, one in which a revitalized Orlando finally sets aside any qualms about violence or pretensions of pacifism to kill for Queen, King, and Country. It’s there that The King’s Man resembles its predecessors the most, though given who and what Orlando serves and the sequel-ready ending, it’s just as clear that Vaughn unironically wants to celebrate a simpler, less complicated time, in in which the British Empire enjoyed an unparalleled preeminence and unquestioned dominance it would relinquish just two decades later.

The King's Man opens exclusively in movie theaters Wednesday, December 22 via 20th Century Studios.

The King's Man

  • Matthew Vaughn
  • Matthew Vaughn
  • Karl Gajdusek
  • Mark Millar
  • Ralph Fiennes
  • Gemma Arterton
  • Rhys Ifans
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Charles DanceDjimon HounsouGemma ArtertonHarris DickinsonKarl GajdusekMatthew GoodeMatthew VaughnRalph FiennesThe King's ManMark MillarRhys IfansActionAdventureComedy

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