The Kingsman franchise has been an exercise in diminishing returns for the most part. The first was a tongue-in-cheek spy romp with far more credibility than most of the entries into the genre that play it straight. The second was slightly inferior in quality. And this third film, The King’s Man, doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Despite a strong leading performance from Ralph Fiennes and a few moments where it finds a certain spark, it’s an overwhelmingly staid affair. Tonally inconsistent and lacking in depth, fans of the franchise will likely be disappointed by The King’s Man.
In the third installment of the Kingsman trilogy, we go all the way back to the beginning, exploring the origins of the secret spy organization. Ralph Fiennes stars as the Duke of Oxford, a pacifist who has spent most of his adult life making sure that his young son Conrad will never have to see battle. This fulfills a promise made to his late wife before she was tragically killed amid the Boer War. The only problem? It’s 1914, which seems like a rotten time in history to be trying to keep anyone safe, let alone an 18-year-old Englishman eager to fight for king and country. The Duke desperately maneuvers, trying to stop war from erupting all over Europe. But there’s a shadowy presence pulling the strings on the other side, bringing together the combined powers of Rasputin, Erich von Ludendorff, and Gavrilo Princip (amongst others) to ensure that Europe remains on a collision course with disaster.
The King’s Man is a mixed bag in almost every conceivable way. On the one hand, from a historical perspective, it actually does a really great job of breaking down the origins of World War I for its audience. The decision to triple cast Tom Hollander as King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas of Russia is clever, highlighting the interpersonal dynamics between the trio of world leaders who would define the era. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, although seemingly exaggerated for dramatic effect, is actually remarkably accurate. The script goes to great lengths to integrate the Duke of Oxford’s narrative into real historical events in an almost-Forrest Gumpian way, and for the most part, it works.
That said, the narrative suffers at the same time from some serious tonal issues. There are moments of the film that want to echo the same tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that made the first film so successful, but it has difficulty striking an appropriate balance. You have sequences like the extended fight scene with Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) that seem to be trying so desperately to capture the same chaotic energy of Colin Firth rage-killing his way through a Southern Baptist church. (And, incidentally, if you like what Jared Leto was putting down in House of Gucci, you’ll love what Rhys Ifans brings to his absurdly over-the-top Rasputin.)
But at the same time, The King’s Man also has long stretches that are played excruciatingly straight and suffer compared to more straightforward war dramas. What a movie like this can accomplish under ideal circumstances is a certain wink to the camera during its action sequences, harking back to classic adventure films that were all about the fun. But if it’s going to take itself 100% seriously, well… we’ve seen plenty of other conventional World War I films do it before, and better.
Despite being nearly 60 years old, Ralph Fiennes is a delightful action hero. He pours every bit of himself into the role, and as silly as The King’s Man can be at times, we buy his character completely. His natural charisma pushes us through the film’s tediously melancholy lulls that threaten to bring its momentum to a complete standstill. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Harris Dickinson as the Duke of Oxford’s only son, Conrad. His character is frustratingly one-note, his only characteristic of distinction being his single-minded determination to join the war effort despite his father’s wishes.
Where Fiennes wrings comedy from unexpected places, Dickinson’s Conrad is bizarrely humorless, even when the occasion calls for a sense of whimsy. It’s hard to tell if this is a fault of the script or the performance, but Conrad should be a star-making turn like Eggsy was for Taron Egerton in the first film, and this just isn’t it. And while we’re on the subject of poor characterization, Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou deserve so much more. Their servants-turned-undercover-spies are woefully underwritten, making them difficult to engage with emotionally.
There is a real effort here, but that’s part of the problem: We can see how hard everyone is working to pull something coherent together, rather than presenting an image of effortless charm that is pervasive in the original film. The King’s Man gets points for its inventive historical narrative that cleverly blends real-life events with the chaos of its madcap plotting, and you can’t fault the leading performance from Ralph Fiennes. But these positives are undercut by a tonal inconsistency that makes it clear that The King’s Man, unlike its predecessors (for better or worse), struggles to decide what kind of film it wants to be.