- More Class Than Crass While Still Kicking Ass -
After the wildly questionable sequel of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, this prequel picture feels like an incredibly fresh start for this secret agent saga. Though based on the comic by Mark Millar, The King’s Man has little to do with its prior source material, which is pretty par for the course with any adaptation of Millar’s comics.
Ditching most of the camp and silliness, here’s a film with a dose of retro classiness and its wicked tongue firmly in cheek. There are no exploding heads or robot dogs but some fantastically shot sword-fights and tense historical battles. More grit than wink helps give this entry the most prestige.
A MAN OF WAR AND PEACE
It also doesn’t hurt to have someone as veteran as Ralph Fiennes leading this picture. He plays Orlando Oxford, a man who has seen the horrors of war and is hoping to lead a more pacifist life. That life seems hard to maintain in the early 20th century when World War I is just on the horizon. Having lost his wife during a violent exchange in a war-torn region, he vows to not only never kill again but make sure his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) will never no such tragedy. That may be easier said than done when conflict seems inevitable.
A dark and secret plot is at hand where history’s greatest masterminds join forces to stage a war. Led by a mysterious figure who wants to destabilize the United Kingdom, a show organization of conspirators grease the wheels of conflict. This includes the manipulative and mystical Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and the occultist schemer Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl). All of them collaborate in instigating a war by manipulating King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas, all three of them played by Tom Hollander.
A CRISIS OF CONFLICT
Thankfully, Orlando also has his own secret organization of conflict-stoppers, led with his trusty help of Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton). They have an entire network of butlers and maids around the globe that can easily infiltrate any organization, making them the most effective spy organization. Whether he’ll use their expertise, however, is another question, given Orlando’s reluctance to jump into an international conflict.
The decision for Orlando’s involvement is made all the more compelling by the acts of his strong-willed son Conrad. He desperately wants to join the war effort and prove himself in combat. This is much to the chagrin of Orlando who tries with all his might to keep his son out of the trenches. Such pushing, however, maybe his undoing as some tough lessons will have to be learned about not standing by when evil is afoot.
BURSTING WITH ACTION
Director Matthew Vaughn once more guns a gauntlet of wild action. There’s some somber pathos that hits kinda hard when watching Orlando endure death in the family. The scenes of World War I set in the trenches are also pretty brutal and shot in a rather horrific manner. But there are also plenty of exciting fights and exaggerated adventures. This is a film that’s clearly not aiming to be entirely historically accurate and has a lot of Indiana Jones-style fun with its staging.
By far the most unorthodox of scenes features Orlando engaging in combat with the conspiring Rasputin at a dinner party. But this is no ordinary portrayal of Rasputin. This long-haired conspirator performs healing mantras, licks wounds semi-sexually, speaks rather openly about sex like a teenager who just learned the F word, and performs Russian ballet kung-fu with knives. This scene also involves swords, guns, vomit, and a pie being shoved into Rasputin’s beard. Did I mention that Fiennes is pant-less during this duel?
A FIENNES FOR ALL SEASONS
Fiennes is in top form for this action picture without feeling out of place. He brings the class you want in a weathered soldier aiming for a more comfortable life amid the power he can wield. There’s a great range to how he can easily go from a proper spy with style to a bitter mess of a man grieving in a bottle. It should be noted that you get a lot of different looks for Fiennes in this film.
There’s the moment one would expect of him as a classic spy by strolling in a snappy suit and bowler hat with a cane in hand. But then you also get him being a dad with a knit sweater and then becoming a drunken mess with a beard and wearing a scarf by a fire. He’s far more than just a stoic intelligence expert and it’s great to see his personality reflect his rotating wardrobe.
You absolutely can’t forget the supporting cast though. Rhys Ifans brings real power to his presence but also a great signal for when things are about to get weird. His conversations with Fiennes during a dinner party are so wildly inappropriate that you just no some intense stuff is about to go down soon, especially with how openly he talks about his penchant for sex and his hatred of the British.
Gemma Arterton brings the right amount of sass and commentary to the action, her highlight punchline being that guns are more efficient than knives and swords. That may be true but then we wouldn’t get to watch Djimon Hounsou kick some major ass with his fast moves, where the cunning butler isn’t afraid to get in close for kills. Harris Dickinson also delivers just as much fierceness in his performances, getting shirtless for knife practice and down-and-dirty for trench warfare.
Every villain is also perfectly played up for their evilness, acting as capable and conniving as any classic Bond henchman. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for a brief supporting role by Stanley Tucci. I won’t reveal who he plays as it’s more fun to search for him in this cavalcade of a cast.
SERIOUSLY, THE ACTION IS GREAT
The action is a real treat considering how much it differentiates from the other Kingsman movies. A connection between the two in terms of direction is that both movies had that “one-shot” moment where it feels like a fight scene is rather long with a camera that whips around chaotic violence.
I’m pleased to report that Vaughn doesn’t fall back on this shooting style for this prequel. He gets crafty with cuts and finds some fascinating shots to mix things up. I particularly dug the climactic sword-fight where a few of the camera angles are from the hilts of the swords. The scene is also staged brilliantly for Oxford attacking the mastermind antagonist atop a high mountain in his barn where a film projector is running for the entire battle.
CAMPY YET COMPELLING
There’s a dynamic and earnest nature to how this film proceeds that it’s easy enough to go along for the ride. It never goes too overboard with the ridiculousness of exaggerating the setting but still goes into some odd places. Without giving too much away, the third-act mission involves a sex tape that is crucial in winning World War I. Sounds crazy, right? Yet Vaughn manages to make it a believable conclusion. After all, this mission is revealed after we’ve already seen Orlando deflect an assassin’s bullet during a parade and Rasputin lick Orlando’s bullet wound.
But the distinction between this version of Kingsman and its predecessors feels like night and day. Sure, there’s an oddness to how the picture plays with history, including a mid-credit scene that introduces another historical power player like he was a villain in an upcoming Marvel movie. Yet the film rarely winks at the viewer in a cheeky manner as the other movies. You don’t need that for an exciting moment where Fiennes jumps out of a tumbling plane and scales a snowy cliff with mountain goats attacking him. No punchline is required for such excitement or even the hilarious pay-off with the goats later on.
CONCLUSION: THE KING’S MAN
The King’s Man is a fantastic adventure with thrilling action as sharp as its style and wit. It’s a picture that manages to find some genuine character amid all its Rasputin ridiculousness and presidential sex tapes. The key certainly lies in Fiennes and his lead role, marching into this role with the utmost sincerity and classiness. His performance in everything from heated conversations to dangerous missions atop cliffs sells the excitement so well.
Combined with Vaughn’s ability to try out new angles in his fast-paced style, there’s a genuine surprise to this entry that may surpass Kingsman: The Secret Service to be the best of this series. This picture is elevated beyond just being a playful pick-and-parody of the spy genre, finding the humor where it lies but also the grit and pathos where it is needed most. It’s just an incredibly fun film and could easily be my favorite action movie of 2021.
- FILM INQUIRY
The King's Man is now playing at Light House Cinema!