2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was an unexpected delight. It was basically director Matthew Vaughnstealing the reins from the Bond franchise and making it his own with a mythology that clearly owed a lot to 007 while still having the freedom to do something new and unique. However, 2017’s sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle was a major letdown as it tried to do too much so that it felt constantly bloated and overloaded. Now Vaughn has retreated to the past for a prequel story—The King’s Man—that doesn’t even really seem to know what a Kingsman movie should be, so instead it’s a bizarre mish-mash of war drama, Drunk History, and occasional bits of espionage. It’s a movie that wants the benefit of deep pathos between a father and son but also a scene where Rhys Ifans tongues Ralph Fiennes’ leg. But the film really falls apart because while its characters crave peace, Vaughn is a director who relishes violence.
After a brief prologue, The King’s Man begins on the eve of World War I. Nobleman Orlando Oxford (Fiennes) has devoted his life to pacifism after his wife was killed during the Boer War, and her dying wish was to protect their son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from combat. However, Conrad is determined to fight in the looming war, which is being set in motion by a mysterious Scotsman known as The Shepherd and his league of criminals which includes such historical figures as Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman), and Grigori Rasputin (Ifans). As the Shepherd and his animals manipulate European powers into World War, Orlando, his servants Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou), and Conrad try to avert disaster while Orlando tries to protect his son.
It’s fine that The King’s Man wants to have an emotional core, and Fiennes and Dickinson sell that father-son relationship well enough, especially against the backdrop of a war picture. For all of Vaughn’s panache with action scenes, it looks like the movie he’s trying to make is a character drama about a father who doesn’t want to send his young son off to war and a son who wants to fight and achieve a measure of personal valor for himself (while Orlando’s motives make sense—he watched his wife killed on a battlefield and her dying wish was to make sure their son never saw war—Conrad seems to want to fight because he’s young and it’s a matter of personal honor, so his motives are never as compelling as his father’s). If The King’s Man didn’t have to be an action movie, it would probably be a lovely and intimate little drama.
But Vaughn is most comfortable when he has violence to fall back on, and while that served him in the spy genre, which is already heightened and fantastical, as a war film, he gets lost in no man’s land. It’s difficult to take war as anything but a serious, senseless thing unless you’re fully leaning into the absurdity (a la Catch-22 and M*A*S*H*), and the pathos The King’s Man looks to derive from the Oxford-Conrad relationship prevents absurdity. So on one side of the film, you have this deeply serious war movie and the other side you have a SPECTRE-like organization where Rasputin is drip-feeding opium to Tsar Nicolas II (Tom Hollander) and licking Orlando’s wounded leg in order to heal it. Yes, Ifans is doing “a thing”, but the film clearly wants Rasputin to be this fun, dazzling character, which would be fine, but then you can’t really treat your war scenes like you’re making 1917.
I’m kind of shocked that the tone of The King’s Man veers so wildly when it’s the third one of these movies and the only guy who makes them is Vaughn. Even if you want to make the argument that the purpose of this movie is to show how the Kingsman Agency came about, the whole “Kingsman” franchise feels largely tangential to the events of this movie. If you see the Kingsman films as James Bond riffs with looney villains executing zany plots, there’s something oddly perverse about being like “What if World War I—a tragedy that killed about 40 million people worldwide for no reason—was the product of an angry Scotsman looking to take revenge on England?” It’s a movie where there can be a brutal, but lovingly executed knife fight in the trenches and then a scene later has a character bemoan the “reality” of war. Again, it’s not that war can’t serve as an absurd background, but Vaughn constantly seems uncertain of how seriously he should take his own story.
The King’s Man is a movie that’s inviting you to have fun, but not too much fun, and the herky-jerky nature of its storytelling makes it difficult for Vaughn to ever settle into any kind of groove. Part of me wishes he had just thrown out the pathos entirely and gone completely insane, which would serve as not only a way to critique the absurdity of war, but it’s also the wavelength he seems most comfortable with for his movie. If you’re going to go the Drunk Historyroute, then you need to let folks know you’re in on the joke, but the King’s Man wants to be serious about the cost of war except when it’s exploiting it for more stylish action. It feels like at this point, Vaughn is simply using this franchise as a series of action-delivery vehicles, and The King’s Man shows that he’d be far better off in the realm of fictional spy escapades rather than throwing up the backdrops of historical tragedies.
The King’s Man opens in theaters on December 22nd.