It’s odd to have watched a World War I-set spy-action film starring Ralph Fiennes and think, “Well, that was weird,” but here we are. The King’s Man is a prequel to the two Kingsman films, which focused on a top-secret team of gentlemen spies that rely on intense fight training and nifty gadgets to keep the world safe. They are James Bond riffs with irreverence and often a macabre sense of humor. This prequel removes much of that cheekiness in favor of something adhering more to the tone of a straightforward action film, with a few winks here and there. As a result, it comes off more as a chance director Matthew Vaughn had to make the WWI film of his dreams that happens to also be tied into a specific franchise.
While the film’s setting is informed by a collection of tyrants and criminal masterminds conspiring to create a war and wipe out millions, the plot primarily focuses on Orlando Oxford (Fiennes) and his attempts to keep his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) safe. You see, an early tragedy has Orlando feeling extra protective, though he may have to get more involved than he may like to stop what’s coming. Fortunately, he’ll have the help of Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton) to take on the likes of Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and other nefarious foes.
Originally developed as a graphic novel, The Secret Service, by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, I like this universe well enough. The first Kingsman was a breath of fresh air as far as being a fan of Bond films and stylish comic book flicks. 2017’s The Golden Circle felt like more for the sake of more, but it has its moments. However, the difference between those films and The King’s Man comes in a few forms, most notably, the stepping away from contemporary times. Being set in modern times meant playing around with today’s politics, making crude stances reflective of the powers in charge, and having a general self-awareness that could be tackled through an inspired action premise. The King’s Man, on the other hand, shackles itself to history.
This will be the true test for many. While recent years have provided more WWI-related media (the breathtaking effort put into 1917 comes to mind), The King’s Man is essentially redefining what this series is supposed to be while finding a way to connect this franchise to actual events. If anything, Vaughn should be commended for challenging himself with such a task. Rather than repeat himself, he takes on a film that strips away so much of what worked previously for the sake of a period film with all-new characters. Does it work out for him?
For the most part, yes. As an action film, while a bit convoluted, there’s a method to what’s taking place. There’s also a lot of considered research as far as tying in key aspects of WWI to this cinematic world and several good actors getting into crazy fights and whatnot. One could wonder who exactly this movie is for, given the range of lead characters versus the key demographic, but that sort of weirdness is what makes this movie work for me.
While 2014’s Kingsman introduced audiences to Taron Egerton, Dickinson is not on that same level, nor is he required to shoulder the weight of this entry. Instead, this really is a film placing 58-year-old thespian Ralph Fiennes as the action lead, with Hounsou and Arterton as support. It also features good sports like Tom Hollander (cleverly cast in three separate roles) and Charles Dance coming in to lend some authority. If there was a way to make Kingsman stiffer and more British, this is the film that does it.
Fortunately, this movie is also pretty nimble when it needs to be. I only wish that didn’t lead to the film peaking early. Ifans devours his role as Rasputin in a wildly entertaining piece of business that eventually finds him confronting our heroes. If you know your history, Rasputin has many crazy things happen to him, but the film’s propulsion is never taken nearly as high as we see it go during this segment. From there, plenty of emphasis goes into exploring the dynamics of WWI and weaving these characters in and out of events, but the focus is not as strong.
However, it’s not for lack of trying, and in this movie, trying means coming up with creative action sequences. Thanks to some unique locations, we get very stylish fights in No Man’s Land, on the side of a mountain, and other places that seem rather fitting for a Kingsman. The film even features one of the better sword fights I’ve seen in quite some time. Through all of this, Vaughn continues to equip himself well as one of the better mainstream action directors, thanks to the teams he works with. His films feature properly edited fight scenes that can incorporate visual effects as needed without removing the slickness of how these trained fighters move.
Does The King’s Man have more going on in its mind? Is there anything it really has to say about WWI that reflects where we are now as a society? No, not really. With a lot less emphasis on comedy, this is a much more stripped-down affair that attempts to highlight the intrigue of its plot and the broad emotions of the characters without finding deeper layers to investigate. None of this necessarily hurts the film, but there is an overall emptiness that, combined with the somewhat sprawling nature of the story, means the takeaway comes down to cool fight scenes and having a better understanding of where the Kingsman came from.
So, The King’s Man is ultimately a bit of a lark. It holds onto a level of seriousness, sure, but an audience has little to really walk away with aside from getting a kick out of seeing Fiennes delivering his best proto-Bond impression. With that in mind, I do like seeing what that looks like. The stylish action that’s a staple of this series still works for me. Add to this my enjoyment of seeing a film like this that doesn’t rely on pandering and easter eggs to remind audiences of the other Kingsman films, and there’s plenty that works for a standard period action flick. Getting down in the trenches with The King’s Man is not a bad place to be.