A British aristocrat and devout pacifist is drawn into the world of international espionage during World War I in The King’s Man, director Matthew Vaughn’s surprisingly straight-faced prequel to his two over-the-top Kingsman movies adapted from the comic book series created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.
Delayed for more than two years from its original release date in November 2019, The King’s Man ultimately attempts to cover more real-world intrigue than can be reasonably delivered within two hours. But it really soars during three extended adventure movie set pieces, and a breathless portrayal of Ralph Fiennes as an old-fashioned Errol Flynn-like hero is an absolute delight.
Fiennes stars as Orlando, Duke of Oxford, a Red Cross humanitarian whose wife is shot by a sniper during a visit to a South African concentration camp during the Boer War. Orlando’s young son also witnesses the attack, and a dozen years later he’s played by Harris Dickinson as a gung-ho recruit aiming to join the military in the days leading up to the First World War.
Orlando, meanwhile, has publicly retreated from a life of espionage in efforts to protect Conrad; privately, he runs a secret network of house servant spies alongside nanny Polly (Gemma Arterton) and butler Sholu (Djimon Hounsou).
As international tension mounts during the lead-up to war, pressure from Field Marshal Kitchener (Charles Dance), Captain Morton (Matthew Goode) and even King George of England (Tom Hollander) force both Orlando and Conrad back into action. Their first gig: accompany Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Ron Cook) to Sarajevo. History buffs might guess how this turns out.
Meanwhile, atop a rural Kazakh mountain, a shadowy figure manipulates Europe using his own network of spies to ensure the outbreak of war. Those spies include real-world figures such as: assassin Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman); Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), who manipulates Tsar Nicholas (also played by Hollander); Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), who has the ear of Kaiser Wilhelm (Hollander once again); and even Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), who here seduces and blackmails U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly).
With all this real-world intrigue handled in a less-than entirely factual manner, The King’s Man could easily come off as an extended episode of Drunk History. But because it’s all played largely straight, and accurate enough (at least in terms of the major events), it simmers at the level of mildly involving if never truly compelling.
Downside: because The King’s Man attempts to cover so much real-world history along with its fictional backstory, it plays out at the level of montage throughout most of its running time, and most of these flavorful performances and colorful characterizations get lost along the way.
But there are three exceptions, isolated sequences that are given the proper amount of time to breathe, and during these scenes The King’s Man really delivers on its promises. In the first, Orlando and Conrad visit Rasputin, with Ifans’ vivid performance commanding the screen; the second follows Conrad in the trenches of WWI; and the third presents a climactic assault on the Kazakh mountaintop.
Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle starred Taron Egerton as a hooligan recruited into the ranks of a upscale espionage agency; they contrasted a refined James Bond atmosphere with a flippant irreverence, creating the feeling that anything could happen, at any time.
The King’s Man, meanwhile, is an entirely different beast: we know exactly what will happen (at the historical level, anyway) and the movie displays a genuine care for both its characters and the real world they live in; the attitude of the earlier films has been stripped away.
Bolstered by three standout sequences and a number of colorful performances, The King’s Man is the best of the Kingsman films yet, even if its overall narrative never congeals in the expected fashion. Best of all is Fiennes in the central role, and his transformation into a refined Errol Flynn hero really leaves us wanting more. Even if a post-credits setup for a sequel is a less attractive proposition.