The “Kingsman” franchise returns after a multi-year hiatus with a World War I-set prequel that is almost diametrically opposed in tone and content to its predecessors.
“The King’s Man” tells the origin of the franchise’s titular spy agency that operates independently of any government or organization. While the previous two films were essentially glorified spoofs of classic spy movies, such as James Bond or Jason Bourne, this latest entry is a much more serious and somber examination of duty, honor and the horrors of war. It’s much closer in tone to something like “1917” or “All Quiet on the Western Front” than “Kingsman” and “Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle.”
Ralph Fiennes leads a quality ensemble cast of veteran British actors that picks up well before World War I, in the British conflicts in Africa of the early 20th century. Fiennes’ Duke Oxford — once one of the empire’s most deadly soldiers — has become a pacifist in an attempt to prevent future conflicts. After seeing his wife shot and killed before him, he makes a promise to protect his son, Conrad, at all costs. A decade later, much of Europe is on the brink of war and King George calls upon Oxford to help defuse the situation. He brings Conrad with him to meet the ultimately doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It’s here that Conrad gets his first glimpse of the horrors of war to come.
“The King’s Man” blends true historical events and facts with the slightly over-the-top nature of the “Kingsman” universe, creating a somewhat confused tone throughout the film. It presents itself as a serious movie for the entirety of its extended 140-minute runtime, but also includes a James Bond-esque super secret plot to continue the war in perpetuity in order to punish the oligarchs and royal leaders who have carved up Europe for themselves. There’s a layer of commentary beneath the surface — somewhere — about how men in power don’t respect the lives of those men and women they’re sending to die. But the movie rarely does anything with it beyond the most basic of statements.
The movie also lacks a powerful or charismatic central villain to drive the story forward. Its main villain is always obscured in shadows or behind a mask at almost every point in the film up until the grand reveal. When said reveal does ultimately happen, it’s met with an audible indifference. The villain’s identity is easily predictable, but doesn’t do anything to elevate the story or the stakes. He’s just sort of there — the disappointing conclusion to more than two hours of buildup that goes nowhere.
Fiennes offers a commendable performance, as he always does, no matter what movie he’s in. Relative newcomer Harris Dickinson holds his own as Oxford’s conflicted son, Conrad, who wants to go to war to defend his country and right the wrongs he’s seen. Some of the best scenes in the movie are not the ornate action sequences and set pieces, but rather the philosophical conflicts and discussions between father and son. If there’s one thing this movie does well, it’s that father-son relationship dynamic.
The two are joined by Djimon Hounsou as Oxford’s right hand man, and equal fighter, Shola, and housekeeper Polly, who can handle a gun as much as any man. But they’re all outshined by Rhys Ifans’ Grigori Rasputin. His turn as the mercurial Russian monk is mesmerizing, and his climatic extended fight with the Oxfords plays out like a Russian ballet of death. He’s truly the highlight of the film.
“The King’s Man” is a strange film that isn’t sure of what it sets out to do, or what audience it’s aiming for. Franchise director Matthew Vaughn returns for his third tour of duty within the “Kingsman” universe, but his style feels more restrained and sterile here. It’s obvious Vaughn set out to make a more serious film that treats its setting with seriousness with a touch of levity. But there’s still just enough outlandish elements to alienate those who would be much more interested in a standard World War I historical film. And those that have enjoyed the previous two “Kingsman” movies probably aren’t interested in a war movie played relatively straight. But for that small niche of people whose interests cross across both genres, one could do worse — especially this time of the year.
“The King’s Man” is available now, only in theaters.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton and writes a weekly review column for The Lawton Constitution.