Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman series has always, more or less, done its job. The live-action treatment Vaughn gave to Mark Millar’s 2012 graphic novel series The Secret Service in 2015 provided audiences with a bloodier, cruder, more adult-oriented action blockbuster to offset the burgeoning stronghold of superhero films. The Kingsman, of course, are a different kind of superhero: A private intelligence service founded by members of the British elite, who lost their children during the first World War and decided to put their fortunes towards making the world a better place. The Kingsman, whose name derives from a fictional London tailors’ shop, are equipped with a charming array of everyday items that double as lethal weapons, impressively choreographed hand-to-hand combat, big name A-list actors, Sofia Boutella’s breakout as an ass-kicking double amputee, fun fight sequences set to pop songs and also Mark Strong looking very handsome. The conservative bent of Vaughn’s films has made the franchise’s attempt at politics more goofy than anything, but beyond that, both Kingsman: The Secret Service and its sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle succeed at being exciting, entertaining, silly action fluff. So, it gives me no pleasure to report the The King’s Man, Vaughn’s attempt at prequelizing his series, has very little of any of the above livening details that made the first two films worth watching.
Going off the aforementioned origins of The Kingsman faction, Vaughn takes us back to the early 1900s, during which the Duke of Oxford, Orlando (Ralph Fiennes) has crafted a wide-spanning network of hired help working for him as a covert intelligence operation. Twelve years following the death of his wife (who preached that “people born into privilege lead by example”) during the Boer War, Orlando—a pacifist who begrudges his fellow British upperclassmen, championing the unsung worth of the servant class—and his war-mongering son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) end up embroiled in a scheme concocted by an amusingly satirical league of The World’s Most Evil Guys. Said villain group includes real-life names like Rasputin, Lenin, Gavrilo Princip and Mata Hari. They’re led by a shadowy Scotsman who does all but twirl a handlebar mustache as he orchestrates the attempted decimation of the British empire—leading to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, naturally, World War I.
Orlando shudders at the thought of his son going off to serve in a war he’s actively trying to prevent. He would, instead, prefer Conrad to protect his country under his own watchful eye with the as-yet-unnamed Kingsman. This leads the film to its most enthralling component: Rasputin, played by a heavily-makeuped Rhys Ifans making a meal out of the scenery with his gratuitous Russian drawl.
Understanding Rasputin’s puppeteering influence on the Czar and the potential for a world war, Orlando and his son—accompanied by their own servants, Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton)—attempt to thwart and eliminate Rasputin by having Conrad seduce and poison him. You see, in The King’s Man’s universe, documented homophobe Rasputin has a predilection for young, beautiful men. But Rasputin ends up taking a liking to Orlando instead of his son (it’s true; who among us can resist the charms of Ray Fiennes?). He sequesters the Duke of Oxford in a room where he gorges himself on a slice of poisoned Bakewell tart, after which the fearsome mystic proceeds to perform a bizarrely sexual leg-tonguing ritual to heal Orlando’s crippled appendage—which sports an unmistakably, ah, vulvar scar. This beguiling scene is quickly followed by The King’s Man’s only truly thrilling fight, in which Ifans’ choreography against Orlando and Conrad is interspersed with a series of dynamic pirouettes and set to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, peaking the film at around the midway point. Past that, the story trudges on in spite of a lackluster arc, even duller emotional beats and a banquet of thematic hypocrisies. (Despite how often Orlando touts his respect for the servant class, his film backpedals its own sentiments by giving Arterton and Hounsou very little to do.) The series possesses a spirited ability to wink at its own ridiculousness, part of the charm and pseudo-satire of the whole thing, but this prequel places all its best chickens in Rasputin’s basket.
Otherwise, The King’s Man stalls as its inane and not particularly funny historical revisionism clashes with its dull plotting and half-formed characters. The first two films are, amidst all the silliness, powered by the emotional core of underdog Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and his fatherly connection to Kingsman mentor Harry (Colin Firth). Here, Fiennes blubbers through a teary scene that is comical in how unconvincing it is, and is forced into a romantic entanglement practically pulled out of thin air.
The Kingsman films thrive on inconsistencies—allowing women the dignity of kicking ass while also reverting them to sexual objects won after saving the world—but The King’s Man is not nearly amusing nor exciting enough to divert from how tedious and contrarian it is. The Kingsman series is also not enough of an IP behemoth to delight audiences with references to the origins of phrases like “Manners maketh man” and “Oxfords not brogues.” The King’s Man is an off-putting installment in a series that should have already ended. A once-welcomed, R-rated departure from family-friendly blockbusters is now a reminder of an industry reluctant to unshackle itself from the safety of known IP.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Matthew Vaughn, Karl Gajdusek
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance
Release Date: December 22, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.