The first two Kingsman films are synonymous with their gonzo action-comedy style. But the third one — a prequel, to be exact — sees returning co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn taking a drastic turn by meshing the franchise’s tongue-in-cheek espionage-movie romp with a revisionist World War I historical drama. And it’s more serious in tone too since The King’s Man actually emphasises heavily on the historical side — a result that might divide a lot of fans of the Kingsman franchise.
But before I dig deeper into the review, here’s what the prequel is all about: Following the tragic death of his wife Emily (Alexandra Maria Lana), Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) has since become a committed pacifist. Fast-forward to a few years later, we see Orlando is overly protective of his now-grown-up son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson). And that includes keeping him from joining the military to fight for the country for the impending World War I.
So, in his effort to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and most of all, prevent the war from happening, he chooses to operate behind closed doors with the assistance of his faithful servants/allies, Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton). They rely on their network of domestic and international servants to help spy on their respective masters. Of course, a Kingsman film wouldn’t be complete without a criminal mastermind and this time, it involves a shadowy organisation tied to the war consisting of fancy villains, namely Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner).
I have to admit that Vaughn’s creative decision of shifting different tones seems like he’s trying too hard to keep the franchise fresh. It’s jarring and throughout the film, I can’t help thinking The King’s Man is equivalent to a beverage experiment with all the familiar and odd ingredients thrown into the blender. All to see whether the concoction would end up tasting surprisingly good or downright weird.
The result is more of a combination of both, with the good ones being Vaughn’s keen eye for distinctive visual flair. This includes his usual stylised camerawork and slow motion and at one point (no pun intended), there’s a creative angle from a thrusting sword’s point of view. Also, take the elaborate moment involving Rasputin (Rhys Ifans hams it up pretty good here), where he showcases his dance-like movement during the acrobatic fight scene against Orlando and Shola, for instance. It was one of the best and most thrillingly-staged action set pieces ever seen in the Kingsman franchise.
But such a scene only happens sporadically since you have to sit through some of the tedious moments in between. Not to mention the bloated 131-minute runtime that shared the same overlong flaw seen in 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle. A tighter edit would have been much appreciated, particularly during the expository-heavy first half of the film.
Vaughn is no slouch when comes to depicting gritty war sequences either, notably during the extended moment that takes place in the no man’s land. There are a few surprises too and one of them really caught me off guard. Cast-wise, apart from the aforementioned Rhys Ifans’ memorable antagonist role, it’s nice to see Ralph Fiennes is back in a physically demanding, action-oriented role for a change. And the last time I can remember him pulling off such a performance is the ill-fated but stylish The Avengers back in 1998 (and no, it has nothing to do with that certain Marvel title). Here, aside from his fight against Rasputin, he also owns the scene during the rousing third act involving a spectacular freefall and later, a showdown atop the mountain lair.
His co-stars mostly deliver solid supports. Tom Hollander shows up not only in one but three different roles, where he gamely plays King George, Tsar Nicholas and Kaiser Wilhelm. Harris Dickinson, who plays Orlando’s headstrong but naive adult son Conrad, deserves equal mention as well. This is especially true during his engaging performance in the entire no man’s land sequence. Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton, in the meantime, made quite an impression in their otherwise underutilised roles playing Orlando’s loyal servants-cum-allies.
The weird part? There’s a particular eyebrow-raising moment that is kind of distasteful and even awkwardly misplaced, considering the largely serious tone of this prequel.
Despite some of its shortcomings, The King’s Man has its fair share of worthwhile moments that prevent this otherwise long-winded prequel from a complete disaster. For fans of the Kingsman franchise, Matthew Vaughn has recently revealed a fourth film — or more appropriately, the third one that involved Taron Egerton’s Eggsy — will start filming in September 2022.