The King’s Man has an interesting issue. Director Matthew Vaughn has essentially made two movies. One is the bombastic, cheeky spectacle that we’d expect from this franchise. The other is a legitimate war movie that’s played with a straight face. Both are well-executed, but they don’t always mesh together. While The King’s Man is never dull, it’s hard to get a grasp on who will ultimately enjoy the film and who will leave unsatisfied. Either way, it’s a mixed bag.
The opening feels more like The English Patient than a traditional Kingsman movie. And no, that’s not merely because Ralph Fiennes takes center stage. Fiennes plays Orlando Oxford, an aristocrat who vows to keep his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) away from war following a tragedy. With World War I in full swing and Conrad getting old enough to fight, Orlando fears that he can no longer keep his vow. To steer Conrad away from war, Orlando instead enlists him for a top-secret mission. Along with loyal servants Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou), Orlando uncovers a global conspiracy. Several notorious figures have joined forces, seeking to bring the world to the brink of chaos. Orlando sets out to stop them, laying the groundwork for the organization that’ll become the Kingsman.
Vaughn maintains the wicked style and bombastic action of its predecessors. However, The King’s Man lacks much of the franchise’s self-aware humor. Granted, the first two Kingsman movies largely satirized James Bond. The King’s Man takes place decades before Ian Fleming even wrote the first Bond novel. So, it makes sense that this prequel wouldn’t be as meta. In a market oversaturated with spy thrillers, though, 2014’s The Secret Service stood out by not taking itself too seriously. Without playful laughs, The King’s Man loses some of the franchise’s signature charm. The same can be said about Kick-Ass 2, which Vaughn produced.
The King’s Man feels like a response to The Golden Circle, which some thought was too over-the-top. By the time Elton John showed up, it was borderline Austin Powers. Considering how many sequels/prequels rehash old formulas, The King’s Man deserves credit for taking a different approach. The action is still impressive with one section even calling 1917 to mind. Vaughn also once again proves that he’s not afraid to kill major characters, resulting in one of the franchise’s bluntest deaths. Of course, as Harry Hart demonstrated, death isn’t always permanent in these movies.
The best element of The King’s Man is Rhys Ifans as Grigori Rasputin. Despite being Welsh, it feels like Ifans’ career has been building towards him playing the Russian mystic. He has a ball chewing the scenery and cake with crumbs littering his beard. There’s an especially fun fight that blends martial arts with a Russian dance. When you think of Kingsman as a period piece, this is precisely what one would want. Unfortunately, Rasputin is only a secondary villain, despite being prominently featured on the poster. The puppet master is kept hidden in the shadows throughout. When they’re finally revealed, it feels like a downgrade from Rasputin.
Nevertheless, the climactic boss battle still delivers a fast-paced extravaganza that makes effective use of a mountain goat. Fiennes gives a reliably engaging performance, bringing depth to the drama with an occasional one-liner thrown in. Is it everything fans could want out of a Kingsman movie? Not exactly, but there is a fair deal to appreciate nonetheless. It depends whether you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of person. We’d all prefer a glass filled to the brim, but for me, The King’s Man quenched my thirst just enough.