Coming after 2015's manically inspired Kingsman: The Secret Service
, and its bloated and incredibly dumb 2017 sequel, The Golden Circle
, The King's Man
is at least better than the last film that director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn brought us, but still can't match the fun of the first. This time, he takes us back in time to the early 20th Century to explore the secret organization's beginnings. Due to a confused tone that can't decide on what kind of film it wants to be, however, the movie feels like its spinning its wheels most of the time.
It would seem that this time, Vaughn wanted his irreverent action comedy franchise about some dapper British spies who save the world from evil while preaching good manners and proper etiquette to have a more historical bent. He sets the story around a real world event (World War I), and fills it with historical figures to interact with his fictional ones, such as King George, Rasputin (played here by Rhys Ifans as an over the top cartoon), Herbert Kitchener, and even a brief cameo by Adolf Hitler in a scene that plays during the credits. At the same time, the approach that Vaughn is going for frequently seems confused. Sometimes, he seems to be making a traditional Kingsman
movie, and throwing in a lot of vulgar, over the top, and lurid action, violence and inappropriate comedy. And during other moments, he wants us to be taking this stuff seriously, and show us the horrors of war.
Say what you want about the previous two movies (especially the last one), but at least they were consistent with their over the top tone. This one doesn't seem to know if it wants us to be laughing and shocked, or engaged and horrified. It leads to a sense that the filmmakers were never quite sure as to what kind of movie they were trying to make. And yet, there are things that stand out here, particularly the lead role by Ralph Fiennes, who carries himself wonderfully throughout this film's manic action and even more manic mood and tonal shifts. I'm all for the chance for getting to see Fiennes play a man of charm and elegance who happens to be very adept at kicking all kind of ass. I just wish he could have held out for a more confident project than this, as his performance here deserves better.
The film's plot finds a Scottish mastermind (who is kept in shadows until the film's big reveal near the end, though by using the law of averages, it's fairly easy for the audience to figure out their identity) that is trying to manipulate world leaders as World War I begins to break out. Fiennes has the lead role of Orlando, the Duke of Oxford, who wishes only to protect his adult son (Harris Dickinson) as War breaks out, and his son wants to fight on the front lines. The Duke would much rather have his son join his little spy group, which is made up of himself, and two of his personal servants; Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou). They hope to fight the war from behind the scenes, inspiring world leaders to join their cause.
From here, The King's Man
begins its severe tonal shifts that can shift from the absurd and the crude (the scene that plays out between Fiennes and Ifans as Rasputin almost has to be seen to be believed), to the real life horrors of war, and the two halves just never connect in a satisfying way. It becomes a battle between a madcap violent live action cartoon, and a gritty and realistic one. It gets to the point that the audience starts feeling confused about how to react. The movie shifts gears and focus so frequently and with such wild abandon, it's bound to lead to whiplash in certain viewers. If this prequel is supposed to lead to more movies (which the ending hints at), then it just simply doesn't instill a lot of confidence that anyone behind it knew what they were doing.
Yes, the movie has been made professionally, and all of the performances on display are sound, but what does that matter if you're never able to put a finger on just how you're supposed to react to it. It wants to be over the top, which it certainly is. But it also ends up being lost as it goes on, and never quite finds the sturdy footing that the original had.