THE KING’S MAN Review
It must be tough being a KINGSMAN fan. After the slick and enjoyable first entry offered a buzzingly cheeky approach to dapper British spies, the second entry failed to capitalize on the first’s extravagance (robot-murdering-Elton John notwithstanding) by doubling up on the skeezy-ness and losing itself among the attempts to shock. In just two entries, what could’ve been a promising franchise was now faced with a quick and forgettable shelving but as with anything in life, when faced with a downturn the best thing any franchise can do is look to the past and as a result we end up with the franchise’s third entry, THE KING’S MAN; a prequel that shows us the origins of everyone’s favorite spy agency. And if there’s one thing that exists , it’s KINGSMAN fans clamoring to see the humble beginnings of their favorite spy agency. Right?
Well, regardless of your answer, returning writer/director Matthew Vaughn is going to offer you some of that sweet, sweet origin story-ing. Set during the early 20th century, we follow the exploits of dashing royal, Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes, ever dashing), and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson, constantly having me confusing him for George MacKay throughout), as they work together to try and stop a shadowy organization from setting off a war that will kill millions. Truly, problems like these seem to constantly hound the Kingsman organization and THE KING’S MAN as a whole feels like the other previous entries, just this time with a World War I skin overlayed among the familiar snarky politics, stylish fight scenes, and general Britishness. In fact, as the film rolls along, one becomes fully aware of the air of needlessness that infects the film as this entry hardly establishes or enhances anything that we saw in future installments. By journeying to the past, the only thing Vaughn can muster with his story (which he co-wrote with Karl Gajdusek) is some snide observations on British politics in that era, which mostly boils down to the (admittedly funny) joke of Tom Hollander playing three separate roles as the Kings of England, Germany, and Russia, respectively.
Other than those sparse moments of tickling 20th century observations, THE KING’S MAN hardly does much to separate itself from other spy films, much less any of its own entries. There are inklings of interesting routes for Vaughn to take with his story as he touches on the strained relationship of Conrad and his father as well as the brutalities of war (which he nonetheless utilizes as admittedly cool set-pieces for his stylish actions scenes) but the writer struggles to balance the need for action against the need for creating credible characters and motivations. Sadly not helping matters is the rather dry performances from the two leads, which is disappointing considering they’ve shown their chops in other films before. As Conrad, Mr. Dickinson is just a boring kid who wants to be heroic, that’s all there is to his character; and Dickinson can only add so much to such a one-sided hero. Most disappointing is the utilization of Fiennes, who more or less faces the same problem as Dickinson in that his character of Orlando is a taken-at-face-value hero with hardly any flaws. While he finds some moments to portray the complex position of a man preparing his own son for a world overcome with violence, Fiennes just can’t overcome the boring hero he’s shelved with, spending the majority of his screen time glowering seriously and imparting words of wisdom on being heroic and whatnot. Granted, there are a few moments where, just like Colin Firth before him, the elegant actor gamely plunges into some fun action scenes with one particularly off-putting interaction with Rhys Ifans’ entertaining take on Grigori Rasputin combining the franchise’s penchant for school-boy humor and well curated fight choreography marking the high point for both the performer and the film.
It’s outside the confines of the story and our two leads where THE KING’S MAN remembers how to have some ridiculous fun. As always, Vaughn never fails to deliver at least one standout action scene in his films and here is no different as the director concocts a gloriously goofy dance/fight between Rasputin and the good guys with the director swaying his camera as gracefully as Rasputin’s surprisingly impressive dance moves. Utilizing slow motion, slick hand to hand fight choreography, and some unique camera angles, the fight scenes crackle throughout THE KING’S MAN’s sometimes laborious runtime. Adding to the fun times involves the supporting cast, who all get much more interesting characters to work ranging from the likes of Gemma Arterton’s role as Orlando’s hard nosed confidant, Polly, and the always enjoyable use of Djimon Hounsou as Orlando’s right hand man, Shola, once again showing off his talents for physicality and comedy. A bevy of other interesting characters, both good and bad, show up but they are simply sidelined as the film struggles to balance the humor and seriousness of its World War setting.
Nonetheless, mediocrity prevails in THE KING’S MAN. It doesn’t offer much in the way of an interesting story where even the appeal of a slightly ahistorical account of World War I leaves the film with a rather disappointing main bad guy (even though said bad guy’s performer has a pretty fun time with the Scottish accent). It doesn’t add much of anything to the franchise as a whole, except the occasional name drop or reference (if there is one person actually out there whose kept up with the lore). Outside of a few interesting pieces here or there, THE KING’S MAN ultimately feels like a cool history teacher talking about the most boring subject: fitfully entertaining but ultimately you’ll snooze through it.