Connoisseurs of cheesy, though fulfilling action features may not be able to forget the goodwill Matthew Vaughn had built over twenty years, between Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, producing Rocketman, and championing at least one decent X-Men film. Perhaps his most conscious, in-the-moment franchise, Kingsman, could not be any stronger. And yet, it was clear within the first thirty minutes attempting a deep-cut prequel was a huge, huge mistake for the otherwise sparkling hit maker. He just couldn’t realize what I know I could. The King’s Man is a very troubled, frustrating piece of cinema. Something I was hoping to find value in, and beyond maybe some minor aspects, it did so little for me, even posing a risk towards the franchise’s health as its inevitable trilogy capper prepares to roll for the cameras.
Vaughn and co-writer Karl Gajdusek (Oblivion) pull us very far back in time, to the early 20th century, to a rather crucial, scholarly time for Britain’s historical footprint. In the middle of that is Orlando (Ralph Fiennes), the Duke of Oxford, a man at a crossroads. Once a successful soldier in his own right, the grief of losing his wife forces him to choose a different form of protection, hoping to keep his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from ever going head-on into conflict. Of course, this is going down at the very cusp of World War I. The earliest signs that there’s a storm brewing fall with the plain-sight assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, a cowardly mercy killing sending shockwaves through the governmental chain. The first strike from a shadowed individual hiding amongst the Alps, associated with the likes of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl). And a major indicator Europe’s three greatest figureheads, Kaiser Wilhelm, Czar Nicholai, and King George (all portrayed with very little distinction by Tom Hollander) may all soon fall from grace.
Through sheer luck of the least apt variety, Orlando takes the lead on a task force of secret agents whose information could disrupt the otherwise calm waters of diplomacy by way of blackmail. With support from experienced specialists Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou), he earns a crash course on the ins and outs of espionage, with a most professional flair. And while dad attempts to think rationally in staving off Rasputin’s pale threats, Conrad’s determination forces him to take more immediate action, by confirming his eligibility for BAF service on France’s western front.
How Vaughn charts around the currents comes off rather messy and incoherent right off the bat, resetting rhythms familiarized in The Golden Circle, albeit very out of place. The typically fitting hyper-violence audiences expect to see just does not belong in this slower-moving piece. The mere placement of a raw, gritty battlefield is a distraction in itself, furthering a blind separation of story Vaughn is guilty of committing. Even with his best intentions on display, he struggles to stick to a single thread when necessary, effectively blurring viewers’ focus on an angrily sliding scale with every sharp swing.
There’s enough of a case for consistency in The King’s Man. To a certain point, we see the same typical pitter-patter of its far superior predecessors. But that is the problem, it can’t escape that knowing a very different plot is wrapped over it like blankets in winter. Modern sharp-shooting action collides with what would best be described as a B-movie war drama from the 50s. Rather unflatteringly, Conrad’s side story contributes little, as opposed to his father who’s the real star. Dickinson languishes, even at his most engrossed.
The lack of a fleshed-out antagonist is of zero help, either. Marketing will mislead many to believe Rasputin is THE bad guy to leave his mark with some diabolical plan to leave Oxford quivering. Not as such, as his presence only goes a certain distance, with a sociable Ifans still selling the bit with a convincing accent and physicality. The lone saving grace for Vaughn’s stagnant action quota, Ifans fuels the fire for those few cleverly staged scenes reminding us we’re still watching a Kingsman movie, or half of one. That energy best benefits Fiennes in the third act. Intentional heroics nudge him forcefully out of his stoic, dramatic comfort zone, and into pure action-comedy leading man territory. About darn time; it fits his range, somehow. Ditto for Ben Davis’s (Eternals) leitmotifs with the camera lens, keeping visuals tight and buoyant.
With that goodwill in mind, it is still a nonsensical story whose potential cohesion is thrown entirely out the window in too much of a hurry. Not even Editor Jason Ballantine’s (The Great Gatsby) steady hands could keep the compass on level. Every cylinder does fire off eventually, but never all at once. When every plot or prop aspect tries to link up, nothing ever feels centered. A persistent issue that left my head shaking before it was all over. Vaughn’s goals seem like a sure thing, break new ground and broaden his genre variety, no longer confining himself to a single form of screenwriting.
Regrettably, it’s far from a valuable usage of time, experimentation eventually wasting every ounce of potential it had carried on the way in. Beyond Fiennes’ fleetingly delightful performance and a divvy of trailer-friendly eye candy, The King’s Man will go down as one of the more significant cinematic letdowns in 2021. Fitting it is one of the last major releases to tread the boards on the calendar. Even to the franchise’s committed fanatics, it might be sound reasoning to patiently wait for a small-screen watch. Others are better off listening to that famed Boney M song. The effect would be longer lasting, anyway. (D+; 2/5 Horns Up!)
The King’s Man arrives in theaters December 22; there is a mid-credits scene featured, for those so inclined; rated R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material; 131 minutes.