The King’s Man (2021) Review
MANNERS (AND WAR)
MAKETH THE KINGSMAN
Back in 2015, moviegoers everywhere were introduced to director Matthew Vaughan’s visual spy action film Kingsman: The Secret Service. Adapted from the graphic novel Kingsman by Mark Millar (writer) and Dave Gibbons (artist), the film, which starred Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Caine, follows the journey of troubled youth Gary “Eggsy” Urwin as he gets recruited into the Kingsman, a British secret agent organization, and joins a mission to stop a global threat from the nefarious megalomaniac Richmond Valentine. Deriving from its comic book source material and Vaughan’s overall direction, Kingsman: The Secret Service was presented as a 007 spy satire, offering up a visual action-spy feature film with a splash of stylized violence. This mixture seemed does seem like an odd choice, but the film benefitted, with the movie getting praised from critics and casual moviegoers as Kingsman: The Secret Service grossed over $400 million worldwide ($411 million to be exact) against its production budget of $94 million. With its success, it was inevitable that a sequel would soon followed, with Kingsman: The Golden Circle being released two years later in 2017. With Vaughan returning to direct as well as Egerton, Firth, and Strong reprising their roles from the first film, The Golden Circle saw another spy adventure, with the Kingsman agency teaming up with their American counterpart, Statesman, after the world is held hostage by one Poppy Addams (Julianne Moore) and her drug cartel empire…. The Golden Circle. While the movie faced mixed thoughts and reviews, the sequel proved to be a box office success; raking in over $400 million worldwide against a production budget of $104 million. Now, four years after the release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, 20th Century Fox (under the release of Walt Disney Studio’s banner) and director Matthew Vaughan present the third entry in movie franchise with a prequel installment titled The King’s Man. Does this prequel adventure warrant a glance in seeing how the Kingsman organization began or is it just a flashy, yet dull escapade that plays “too fast and loose” with history and cinematic nuances?
The Duke of Oxford, Orlando (Ralph Fiennes), is a man who recognizes the changing ways of the world through brutality and violence, but his great personal tragedy is the loss of his wife, promising his beloved that their son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), will never see or partake the savage nature of war. Trying to make good on his vow to his late wife, Orlando watches in horror as his friend, Archduke Ferdinand, is assassinated, pushing Europe into a conflict of war, with a mysterious figure called “The Shepherd” pulling the strings as death and chaos ensues across the land. Joined by close intelligence operatives Polly (Gemma Arteton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou), Orlando takes command of a secret network of spies in domestic service roles, trying to piece together what is exactly is going on and how the various world leaders are being manipulative. But The Shepherd is looking to upset the global order of nations, sending a team that includes Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), and Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl) to do his bidding, forcing Orlando to break his promise and introduce Conrad to a world of secrets agents and dangerous covert missions.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Borrowing a several lines in my review for The Kingsman: The Golden Circle, I remember when Kingsman: The Secret Service came out as I went to see in theaters and was hoping it to be good. Thankfully, it was one of those movies that the marketing campaign got right as I found the film, rifting on the spy genre with a touch of Vaughan aesthetics of stylized action, and graphic novel violence. Basically, I called it “James Bond + Kick Ass = Kingsman”, which many will agree. Regardless of the excessive and sometime cartoon-ish violence, Kingsman: The Secret Service indeed made its mark on the 2015 movies that year, finding a unique and fun take on the classic spy genre as well as a capable young actor (Taron Egerton) in the lead role of Eggsy, a strong British supporting cast (Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Michael Caine), and some memorable villains (Samuel L. Jackson and Sophia Boutella). A few years later, Kingsman: The Golden Circle came out and I actually liked it. It really didn’t break any type of new ground in terms of storytelling or in cinematic nuances, but The Golden Circle had a lot of fun with its premise and actually proved to be more entertaining, especially with Vaughan returning to the director’s chair as well as several main cast members reprising their roles. Overall, I think that The Kingsman series (as a film franchise) has plenty of potential to expand with sequels and prequels entries on the horizon….and I think that moviegoers will want to see that as well.
This, of course, brings me back to talking about The King’s Man, third feature film in the Kingsman series and a prequel that precedes The Secret Service and The Golden Circle. Again, the success of the two Kingsman movies proved to be quite effective, especially at the box office. Considering that, it was almost a forgone conclusion that a third installment in the franchise would soon be commissioned and giving the “go ahead” by the studio. Yet, while a Kingsman 3 is in the cards, Vaughan, still spearheading the series, decided to go into the past and detail the origins of the Kingsman agency in a prequel entry. It’s not unheard of, but something that many were not expecting. Still, with Vaughan at the helm, and with the cast being announced (i.e. Fiennes, Arteton, Hounsou, Ifans, Hollander, etc.), I was definitely interested in seeing where this prequel Kingsman film (originally titled Kingsman: The Great Game). Soon, after the film’s various marketing campaign (movie trailers, TV spots, and promos) began to appear, which showcases a slightly different take on the secretive agency; showcasing the film being set in the 1900s and depicting the events of the film surrounding World War I. Still, the time period setting, didn’t dismiss me from wanting to see the upcoming film and I was pretty excited to see The King’s Man when it was scheduled to be released in late 2019.
Unfortunately, the actual theatrical release date for the movie saw numerous delays, which was due because of Disney’s acquisitions of 20th Century Fox (of which the Kingsman franchise is under) and because of the on-going effects of the COVID-19 pandemics. In total, the film saw over eight release dates from its original set for November 8th, 2019 to its final one on December 22nd, 2021). So, after the holiday rush and the beginning of the new year of 2022, I decided to check out The King’s Man. I did have a few other movie reviews that I had to get done prior to this one, which is why my review for the film is a bit delay. So, with all those ones completed, I finally have the time to give my opinion on this prequel adventure of Kingsman. And what did I think of it? Well, I liked it. While the feature does have its fair share of flaws, The King’s Man, much like the previous two installments, has a lot of fun within its storytelling through visual action cinematics and within its playful and charismatic cast. It’s not the best one in the series, but it still holds a cheeky and expressive play on the spy espionage genre for some engaging entertainment value.
The King’s Man is directed by Matthew Vaughan, whose previous directorial includes the past two Kingsman movies as well as other Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. Given his previous knowledge of helming this particular series, Vaughan seems like a suitable choice for helming this prequel endeavor; making this prequel endeavor a bit more ambitious with his combination of storytelling through a time of historical importance in Europe. Naturally, I’m talking about the events of the Great War (aka World War I) and how the important nations of Europe play their parts (and hands) in out this war was fought on a continental scale. Vaughan plays around with this aspect in the film by making the main villain be the mastermind behind it all; showcasing the machinations of how certain events play out (i.e. Rasputin being a member of the bad guy organization and how he causes trouble in Russia or keeping President Wilson out of the conflict, etc.). It’s not exactly accurate, but more of a slight spoof on history, with Vaughan being a little clever on how he handles such situation that have played out in history. The usage of history is definitely a new element, but it is perhaps this particular storytelling point is where I think that Vaughan makes The King’s Man stands out compared to the other two Kingsman features. That’s not to say that Vaughan changes up the formula of the Kingsman elements; finding most nuances to be incorporated into The King’s Man presentation featuring crazy action stunts, larger-than-life characters, and a few unhinged moments. Thus, this combination of historical backdrop in a Kingsman movie is something that makes the film memorable, unique, and fun to watch throughout.
Also, as to be expected, Vaughan does get to explore the inception of the Kingsman agency in The King’s Man. Naturally, the drops of hints, nods, and references are scattered throughout the feature, but we (as the viewer) gets to see how the spy agency gets underway with their first mission and how they formed a collective unit…. under the usage of Arthurian names and lore. I did like this particular aspect of the feature and it was fun to see Vaughan play around to see how it all began. Overall, I think that Vaughan did a great job in combining historical drama / war aspects of the Great War into his stylish action pieces for a fun and still entertaining prequel installment of the Kingsman franchise.
The King’s Man presentation is a solid one and, while it may not be nominated for any type of awards, the variety of technical achievements and backdrop settings are definitely great and fit right into the past Kingsman features. Unlike the first two films, this particular endeavor allows Vaughan and his crew to showcases a different time / era; transporting us (the viewers) to 1910s setting for the picture’s narrative; showcasing a wide variety of European locations throughout the movie from the grimy trenches to the halls of power. Thus, the collective background setting is delightfully delight and great in literally almost every scene. So, the “behind the scenes” team members on The King’s Man, including Darren Gilford (production designs), Dominic Capon (set decorations), and Michele Clapton (costume designs) as well as the entire art department team, for their efforts in making the film’s movie world both believable and cinematic at the same time. Speaking of cinematics, cinematographer Ben Davis, who has worked with Vaughan before on Layer Cake, Stardust, and Kick-Ass, is very much “in-line” with what one would expect from a Kingsman endeavor, with an expansive collection of camera angle / shots that have that signature taste that Vaughan is known for wanting to convey. This, of course, generates a lot of fun and unique shots / sequences that definitely work in the film’s favor. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Dominic Lewis and Matthew Margeson, is a firm and feels both adventurous and boisterously bold throughout; a great piece of musical composition that heightens all the various scenes….be it big action or soft dialogue moments.
Unfortunately, there are a few drawbacks that the film can’t overcome, which makes The King’s Man have a several criticism flaws within its overall execution. Perhaps the biggest one that is the most glaring is how overstuffed the picture is. With a runtime of 131 minutes (two hours and eleven minutes), it’s safe to say that the movie has a pretty standard length for an action packed movie. However, the narrative of The King’s Man has much more substance than working within the confines of this theatrical film. From the various hero characters to the machinations of evil bad guys, to famous events in WWI, to masterminding of world leaders of that time, there’s a lot of ground to cover in the movie and, while the script, which was penned by Vaughan and Karl Gajdusek, seems to gloss over events rather quickly. This makes the movie have a lot of expositional moments of explain things that are going on (historical speaking or in references to the feature’s characters in the story), which makes the movie’s narration more convoluted than it needs to be. It almost feels like Vaughan wants to tell a grand story, but overstuffs the movie of glossing over events and revelations.
In conjunction with that idea, the movie’s theme of anti-war commentary message is a bit clunkily handle. I definitely get where the message is going for and why it is placed in The King’s Man story (both character motivations and storytelling purposes), but it struggles to find a climatic revelations, with Vaughan and Gajdusek can’t quite figure out what it was to say on that matter. Additionally, the movie’s villainy motivations are a little bit scant to say the least. Discord, chaos, and war are the main beats of what the bad guys want to happen, which sets off the chain reactions of World War I, but the overall motivations of “The Shepherd”, the mastermind behind all the machinations, is a bit wonky and unclear. This, of course, makes the bad guy’s organization goals a little ambiguous and flat, especially compared the villainy found in the previous two Kingsman films, which were more straightforward. To me, that was disappointing.
Of the feature’s direction, I think Vaughan could’ve had a bit more action in the movie. As mentioned, the Kingsman features have always been known for their action sequences that border on the unhinged fashion and the stylish action. While there are some moments that capture those said sequences beautifully (mostly in one particular scene with Rasputin), the film does lack the grand spectacle action scenes that were in the previous two Kingsman endeavors. What’s presented is good and works, it seems that Vaughan is holding the feature back a bit in the wild action department; choosing to be more of a historical drama nuances with a sprinkling of madness “over-the-top” action heroics here and there. As stated, I love history, so this didn’t bother me as much. Still, I find the action sequences in Kingsman: The Golden Circle to be more superior than what was shown in The Kings Man….and I kind of wished the movie had more of that.
The cast in The King’s Man is overall a solid one; finding most of the charismatic selection of actors and actress up to the task of creating such characters in a way that is both fun and energetic throughout the feature. Leading the charge in the movie is actor Ralph Fiennes in the lead role of Orlando, the Duke of Oxford. Known for his roles in The Constant Gardner, Schindler’s List, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Fiennes has always been quite the capable actor; choosing a wide variety of roles from vicious villains, great supporting roles, and steady lead roles throughout his career. Thus, it comes at no surprise that Fiennes would choose such a role for Vaughan’s The King’s Man, with his portrayal of Orlando to be one that is suited for the actor to play; finding Orlando to be an upper class British aristocrat that has connection to various famous people historical figures of that time. Although, there is a deeper character motivations and lessons to be found within his character, with Orlando faced with the on-coming conflict across Europe as well as trying to keep his son out of the war. It’s a dilemma of a parent and I think that is probably one of the more compelling moments of the feature. Yes, the Kingsman movies has always been known for action and crazy sequences over story substance, but I think the character journey that Orlando goes through is more profound than anything else the series has produced, which I did like. Plus, having Fiennes in the role with such a good performance bringing that character component to light is such a treat and a delight. So, while fan-favorite Kingsman character of Eggsy is the franchise staple lead, I think that Fiennes’s Orlando is a close second.
The movie does offer a variety of supporting character players throughout the film, which are fun and make the most of their respective roles in The King’s Man. Who definitely fits in these respective areas are the characters of Pollyanna “Polly” Wilkins and Shola, two servants that work under Orlando, who are played by actress Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and actor Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond and Gladiator). Together, both Arterton and Hounsou have always played the supporting roles throughout most of their careers, with both finding each of their own personal rhythm in their respective characters, which are fine additions in the Kingsman series colorful and memorable supporting players. Perhaps the most interesting aspect that Vaughan does with The King’s Man is casting actor Tom Hollander, who is known for his roles in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Gosford Park, and Pride & Prejudice, in not just one role, nor two, but actually three roles; playing King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Of course, being a history buff, I do known that the three prompt rulers of Europe were cousins (connected through the bloodlines of Queen Victoria of England), so with Vaughan and his casting team deciding to select an actor to play three roles is no stretch of the imagination. Plus, I do think that Hollander is great in all three; finding each one to be a slight variation than the other. The only flip side is that is I kind of wish that the movie got to explore more of these rulers, especially in the Kaiser and Tsar. Still, what’s presented definitely works.
Sadly, the one character that shines the least in the movie is the character of Conrad, Orlando’s stoic son. Played by actor Harris Dickson, who is known for his roles in The Darkest Minds, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the character just seems a bit wooden and not really as not memorable as he should be. It’s not for a lack of trying from Dickson’s performance, who has proven himself to be a capable actor in his career, but the movie never allows (nor really fully gets the chance) to explore his character to the greatest extent, which makes more of a throwaway character; acting more of a plot narration device than anything else, which is disappointing.
Of all the supporting players in the film, actor Rhys Ifans actually shines the best in his role of Grigori Rasputin, the infamous monk priest to the Romanov royal family. Known for his roles in The Amazing Spider-Man, Notting Hill, and Snowden, Ifans finds a fantastic rhythm in portraying such an iconic Russian monk, with his performance of Rasputin to be entertaining, cheeky, and quite the fun. The downside, however, is that the film’s marketing campaign is a bit misleading as Rasputin isn’t the main villain in The King’s Man and most of his screentime has been showcased the film’s various movie trailers. This can be disappointing as I kind of wanted to see more of him, especially since Ifans did such a great job in the role. Regardless, the character of Rasputin is perhaps one of the most memorable character of the entire film. The other two villains characters in the movie (Erik Jan Hanussen and Mata Hari) are good supporting villainy roles in the feature, with actor Daniel Bruhl (Rush and Inglorious Basterds) and actress Valerie Pachner (A Hidden Life and Bauhaus) playing up the madness (and sometimes unhinged goofiness) of these non-fictional characters in history. Still, for better or worse, I like both of them in the movie.
The rest of the cast, including actor Charles Dance (Game of Thrones and The Crown) as senior British Army officer Herbert Kitchner, actor Matthew Goode (Watchmen and Downton Abbey) as Captain Morton, actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Tenet and Avengers: Age of Ultron) as British regiment soldier Archie Reid, actor Ron Cook (Hot Fuzz and Chocolat) as Archduke Francis Ferdinand, actress Barbara Drennan (A Touch of Cloth and Brooklyn) as Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, actress Branka Katic (The Big Picture and Public Enemies) as Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, actor August Diehl (Salt and Inglorious Basterds) as Vladmir Lenin, and actor Ian Kelly (War and The Children Act) as US President Woodrow Wilson, are delegated to other supporting minor characters in the movie. While some have large roles than others, with some being fictional depictions of historical people of the time, most (if not all) of these acting talents are solid in their respective roles; lending the feature noteworthy individual characters within Vaughan’s cinematic world.
As the events of World War I unfold, Orlando uncovers the truth behind it all, learning of the mastermind pulling the strings, and sets out to save Europe from total annihilation in the movie The King’s Man. Director Matthew Vaughan latest film returns to the Kingsman franchise, with the project acting as a prequel and setting up an origin tale of how the British agency begins; utilizing the backdrop of the Great War to stage the feature’s narrative. While the movie struggles in its storytelling by cramming too much into its runtime as well as a few lackluster nuances, the film still manages to be an exciting experience, especially thanks to Vaughan’s direction, thematic messages of war, a unique spin on historical events, a solid presentation, and a good cast (most notably Fiennes and Ifans). Personally, I liked this movie. Yes, some of the problematic areas indeed to be smoothed out a bit more and some storytelling elements could’ve been fleshed out more, but I felt that the movie was enjoyable and provided a nice cinematic playground and takes a few new directions in storytelling to make the feature’s efforts interesting and engaging. I would probably say that this movie is second favorite of the series, with The Golden Circle still being my favorite Kingsman entry. Thus, my recommendation is a solid “recommended” one, especially if you are a fan of the previous Kingsman installments and looking for a good distraction film to cinematic escapism. While it has been confirmed that a third Kingsman movie is moving forwards (taking place in present day with Taron Egerton’s Eggsy in the lead role), there has been talk of considering a continuation of the prequel adventure, especially since the film’s ending hints at a sequel. If greenlit, I would be excited to see The King’s Man 2. Nevertheless, The King’s Man is an historically ambitious, tediously overstuffed, and charismatically unhinged to make for a promising expanded tale of Vaughan’s world of secret agencies and full-throttle action sequences.
3.9 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: December 22nd, 2021
Reviewed On: January 30th, 2022
The King’s Man is 131 minutes long and is rated R for sequences of strong / bloody violence, language, and some sexual material