The King's Man

The King’s Man, a 100 year earlier prequel to the Kingsman movies, is an interesting, if somewhat muddled, divergence for the franchise.

The King’s Man, a 100 year earlier prequel to the Kingsman movies, is an interesting, if somewhat muddled, divergence for the franchise. Preceding Kingsman movies veer wildly in tone but manage to keep things zany. The King’s Man is clashing harshly against a sombre World War I story and the big extreme Kingsman style action. Also, somewhat disappointingly, it is considerably less funny than the previous films. Although once the tonal whiplash is accepted, it works okay. This is very similar to director Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class where it mixes real historical events and comic book supervillainy. The action is at a frantic tempo, even if it takes itself a bit too seriously than a Kingsman flick usually does.  
In the early 1900s, British aristocrat Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) is looking after his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) with the help of his assistants, Polly (Gemma Arerton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou). With the Great War raging, Conrad wants to join the front lines, but Orlando won’t let him. The mastermind of the Great War is a mysterious man known as The Shepard who has a cavalcade of villainous assassins and crazed monks under his command like the Russian mystic Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) who holds the Czar of Russia (Tom Hollander) under his thrall. Also in the Shepard’s employ is Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl) who advises German Chancellor Wilhlem (also Hollander). Orlando, Polly, and Shola are running their own secret service intelligence organization intended to infiltrate these rogues steering the world towards destruction, however things turn difficult when Conrad disobeys his father and joins the war on his own.

The tonal shift from the first two movies to this one is pronounced. Those films are borderline Bond parodies with lots of high sci-fi gadgets and jokes. That isn’t really in this one; a lot of it is about the dramatic grind of World War I contrasted with the high energy spectacle from Kingsman movies. There’s a fantastic action scene set in World War I no man’s land where Conrad and his men fight against German soldiers in a near silent knife fight, and later Conrad is rushing to the trenches in something like out of 1917. It’s a dramatic scene but it doesn’t exactly feel funny/crazy like in Kingsman. Clashing harshly with the dramatic stuff is Rasputin fighting like a crazy kung-fu Cossack dancer. The King’s Man wobbles somewhat unevenly between extreme tones. There’s dramatic poetry reading about the horrors of young men going off to war, and then the Shepard doing crazy supervillain evil monologues. There’re a scant few jokes here and the last two Kingsman are funny. This gets heavier than expected from the Kingsman brand, although it is unexpectedly different.
Fiennes is basically in a character drama, although he does manage to get in a few quips when facing off with the bad guys. His character arc goes from pacifist to ass-kicker so suddenly it’s hard to notice. But it’s a nice change to see him play an action hero as he’s had so many villainous performances. The more difficult character is Conrad and Dickinson plays him as kind of an earnest wimp. He’s sort of annoying that he’s set on going to the front-line that will surely get him killed which is hard to sympathize with. Things get better when he’s deep in the front lines of World War I and realizes how dangerous it is but it’s a bit late. His best scene is when he and his father go and confront Rasputin, and Ifans performance is bombastic. There’s a whole bit when Rasputin is “healing” Orlando’s old war wound that is twisted. He’s such a loon that refuses to die which is close to how it really went down.
Another bit of shocking historical accuracy is when the assassination of Franz Ferdinand takes place and the assassin screws up throwing a bomb and then later Ferdinand unexpectedly drives by where the assassin gets a second shot. Hollander plays three European leaders in the film, British King George, German Chancellor Wilhlem and Czar Nicolas and each one is an upper-class twit. They’re portrayed as warring cousins having a petty family squabble that stretches across all of Europe. Arerton and Hounsou are decent sidekicks although their biggest part happens in the movie’s final moments that teases a direct connection to the later Kingsman movies. The ID of the actor who plays the mastermind Shepard is kept secret which is kind of irritating as the reveal really isn’t all that great, although his performance is quite fun. Bruhl as one of his minions is basically doing Baron Zemo from the MCU again with lots of menacing whispering, but he’s part of a mid-credits stinger that promises more real-world historical figures mixed in with the craziness should the prequel series continue.
The King’s Man is a departure for the series in that is heavier than expected and the juggling of tones isn’t as deft as it usually is. Although it is fun to see a wild and weird tour from World War I history portrayed with Kingsman ultra-violence. It’s kind of all over the place but at least it is entertaining.
The King's Man
4 stars
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou and Charles Dance

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