As the third entry in the Kingsman series, with The King’s Man, director Matthew Vaughn has gone the prequel route, examining the origins of the Arthurian-inspired spy agency. In a prologue set during the Boer War, the pacifist yet Victoria Cross recipient Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), loses his wife to sniper attack, leaving him to raise their young son Conrad (portrayed by Harris Dickinson as an adult). Twelve years later, with international tensions building, during a visit to Orlando’s friend, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the two men fail to prevent the murder that will kick-off World War I.
Using his influence with Lord Kitchener to prevent his son from joining up with the war effort, the first few years of the war pass with frequent uneasy debate between father and son about the younger man’s desire to enlist, and the older man’s wish not to see his only remaining family put in harm’s way.
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With Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) exercising his influence over the Tsar (Nicolas II, Kaiser Wilhelm, and George V, all portrayed as cousins by Tom Hollander), the British King sends Orlando to kill the mad monk in the hopes of avoiding Russia exiting the war and condemning the British to certain defeat. Conrad is allowed to join, with his father believing this will settle his son’s need to serve his country. At this point the duke reveals his extensive spy network that will become the agency we will all come to know.
Reaching the age of 19, Conrad is finally able to sign-up and sets off to war, while Orlando must work with his servants/agents Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou) to uncover the mysterious figure controlling everyone from Rasputin to Lenin in destabilising the Russian administrations, undermining the US efforts to join the war, and risking British and Europe’s safety.
The King’s Man is an odd mix of the familiar and the different, leading to an end project that is tonally confused, if very entertaining. There is a great deal of family drama that leans into the pain that Fiennes’ character lives with and is only slightly undermined by the blandness of Dickinson’s performance. Although there is no plausible way the Eggsy character played by Taron Egerton in the first two entries could appear here, the presence of a similar type, of a similar age in a role that appears at the outset to follow a similar arc (if with none of social deprivation that Eggsy suffered) does mean that the point of comparison is there, and Egerton does far better out of this. By the time we get the impression that he has had 2-3 years of pestering his father at breakfast each morning about national duty, he does become tiresome.
On the other hand, the rest of the cast is outstanding, with Charles Dance as Kitchener, Hollander, Arterton, and Hounsou all impressing. This is Fiennes’ film, however, and he essays a layered character, a fine founder for the organisation, and is never less that interesting to watch. The issue is that the film still wants all of the cartoonish hyper-stylings of the first two entries – the multiple Hollander roles being the broadest example, and, unlike Colin Firth – who seemed in on the joke – Fiennes doesn’t always seem to play a character from that type of film. So, it is a mess, though a very enjoyable one. The pacing is such that characters stressed in the trailers are long forgotten by film’s end, as with the reveal of the film’s ultimate villain, who was seeded in the first act, which feels about two films ago before we get the reminder they ever existed.
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What the film has, though, is plenty of heart, with characters facing genuine stakes and tough decisions to make. Seeing familiar places and motifs in an earlier time also has its charms. Action is decent, although it falls – as with the film sometimes – into the gap between leaning into the series’ inherent absurdity and honouring the more grounded tone within this story. So, we end up with fight scenes that don’t always know whether to go big or small.
In short, The King’s Man is a film that generally succeeds in that it makes the service feels timeless, and does engender the desire to see more, whilst forcing the contradictory feeling that perhaps this series should never have progressed beyond the first entry, as any attempts to broaden the canvas tends to leave the aforementioned confused tone. With the first entry having felt like a fun one-shot, and the sequel suggesting, already, that the series was running out of steam, The King’s Man falls between those two entries in quality, and reinvigorates the IP, whilst showing us the inherent weaknesses in trying to prolong it.
The King’s Man is out now at cinemas.