The King’s Man is a tale of two films, neither of which belong in the other’s world.
Every year, there’s at least one. In the odd little release window between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Hollywood will offer up some star-studded, campy oddity, like 2017’s The Greatest Showman or 2007’s Alien vs Predator 2, presumably in the hope that audiences will have the free time to flock to it, if only according to the logic of: “This might as well happen”. This year, that film is Matthew Vaughn’s The King’s Man, the third in his Kingsman series, and a prequel, exploring the origins of the titular Kingsman spy agency. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Harris Dickinson, and even Rhys Ifans as Grigori Rasputin — this crew instead of the usual Taron Egerton and Colin Firth team-up — this third entry in the franchise has the difficult job of determining whether the future of Kingsman is destined to be one of diminishing returns, or whether it could have a viable future after the poor reception of The Golden Circle.
Kingsman has always been a slightly bonkers franchise, capitalizing on Vaughn’s magnificent lack of taste to create action blockbusters that tend towards the anarchic and highly stylized. Even those not endeared by Vaughn’s sensibility cannot deny that at least the Kingsman films have character, albeit character that is sometimes thoroughly repugnant. In this newest installment, however, Vaughn kicks up the tastelessness beyond mere lechery, and now has opted to into invoke one of the bleakest chapters in British history. World War One occupies an almost sacred space in British history, regarded as a senseless loss of mostly working-class lives, without the ideological righteousness of World War Two to justify the sacrifice; in The King’s Man, the war is a deliberate part of a convoluted conspiracy to regain Scottish independence, involving Lenin, Rasputin, and Gavrilo Princip. At the very least, it’s a crass angle to take, and that’s without even getting into the Boer War man-pain prologue. But Vaughn’s tacky approach isn’t necessarily bad because it’s liable to offend, but instead because, functionally, it sets The King’s Man on two conflicting paths. On one hand, there is the vaguely anti-war war-film that Ralph Fiennes is starring in, quoting Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” and monologuing about pacifism (courtesy of the script’s high-school level understanding of history, though shying away from any meaningful commentary, of course); on the other hand, there’s the goofy, garish action blockbuster that audiences have been conditioned to expect from a Kingsman movie. The result is that aside from one genuinely compelling plot twist, The King’s Man is largely inane, with two halves that cannot be balanced tonally or reconciled logically, each only capable of making the other look ridiculous by comparison.
The film’s few points of strength come when it leans into its in-built camp, allowing Vaughn’s style to do what it’s meant to and avoid being applied to anything weighty. The fight scenes and action set pieces (of which there are many) remain relatively creative and kinetic throughout, and retain the sense of play that has always animated the franchise. It’s here that Vaughn’s puckishness can make a mark — riffing on the mythologized assassination of Rasputin — and where his technical proficiency can be showcased, particularly in an impressive nighttime, hand-to-hand combat sequence that is almost entirely silent. Likewise, the actors, on both sides of the serious/camp divide, find room to impress; Fiennes is predictably engaging, Ifans delightfully hams his way through the whole runtime, and even without all that much to do, Daniel Bruhl, with his constant sinister whispers of “My Kaiser,” stands out amongst the ensemble. Still, despite such pleasures, these performances and the film housing them are undermined by a distinctly shaky construction, with the pastiche of the earlier Kingsman films failing to hold up to the misguided, heavier subject matter of this entry.