It is difficult to know what to make of The King’s Man, Matthew Vaughn’s long-delayed prequel to his two successful Kingsman action films (The Secret Service in 2015, and The Golden Circle in 2017). It seems likely that 20th Century Studios were not sure what to make of it either; the film has bounced from its original November 2019 release eight separate times to finally settle on its release now – more than two years later.
In The King’s Man, Ralph Fiennes plays the well-connected pacifist Duke Orlando Oxford, whose political and military alliances lead into a Europe-spanning conspiracy to spark of the First World War.
You could at least define the appeal of those first two Kingsman films. Based on the Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons comic miniseries, they allowed a somewhat childish and vicarious thrill in a pseudo-James Bond world where the posh, calmly spoken Colin Firth would say ‘fuck’ and shoot people in the back of the head, while European princesses would freely offer themselves up for anal sex. It was deliberately provocative stuff, albeit for an adolescent purpose, and while I met the films with limited enthusiasm I can at least see why a sizeable audience would take to them.
That sniggering sense of ‘taking the piss’, which all does feel remarkably English, is still present in The King’s Man, but in much smaller portions. I also feel both annoyed and obliged to note an ugly thread of homophobia through one of those sequences: obliged because in 2021 populist films should be better than this, and annoyed because now that I have noted it that is all some ‘anti-woke brigade’ readers are going to hassle me about.
Interspersed with the now-traditional debauchery is a surprisingly honest attempt to engineer a sort of “James Bond in 1914” pastiche, which should and does work remarkably well. In yet other sections of the movie, the action grinds to a halt for a deeply stereotypical drama about a father and son fighting over whether or not the son should go to war. It really feels like three separate movies have been interwoven into one. Sorted out into their respective styles, and you would probably have three half-decent movies (okay, perhaps not the war drama part). Mixed up together and you have a strange sort of Frankenstein’s monster that will frustrate people that both liked and disliked the original Kingsman, and completely fail to find an audience of its own.
To the film’s enormous credit, the casting works. Ralph Fiennes is a delight, and alongside his recent appearances in the James Bond films cements just what an outstanding 007 he would have been. The supporting cast includes a number of actors whose work I enjoy a great deal, including Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance, and Tom Hollander. Rhys Ifans is a particular delight as Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin; in fact, the only disappointment of his broad, positively eccentric performance is that Matthew Vaughn didn’t let it be pushed even further.
Individual action sequences are also impressive, including a spectacular three-on-one knife fight in Moscow and a positively disturbing no-man’s-land combat in the Somme. Photography by Ben Davis is regularly captivating, and only occasionally intrusive. A climactic use of World War I archival footage really is much too egregiously on the nose.
Ultimately it all comes back to those shifts in tone, and a catastrophic structural edit. The silly bits chafe against the serious bits, the combination of over-the-top action and the genuine horrors of trench warfare feels disastrous, and the constant shifts back and forth make a two hour film feel like four.
The King’s Man opens today in the USA and on 6 January in Australia.