Review: Jumping Back in Time a Century, a Bawdy, Unsophisticated The King’s Man Sets Up the Future of the Franchise

To be clear, this 100-years-earlier prequel to director Matthew Vaughn’s original 2014 Kingsman: The Secret Service (as well as its abysmal 2017 sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle) does not portray the first adventure of the secret Kingsman agency during the early years of World War I. Technically, The King's Man shows us the events that lead up to the formal creation of the Kingsman by Orlando Oxford (the Duke of Oxford, played by Ralph Fiennes), a sworn pacifist who is drawn out of his vow of peace to protect king and country, mostly by blackmailing U.S. president Woodrow Wilson into committing U.S. forces to the war.

The King's Man Image courtesy of 20th Century.

Working from a screenplay by Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek (based loosely on the comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons), The King’s Man begins years earlier when Oxford’s resourceful wife Emily (Alexandra Maria Lara) is killed in front of him during a previous battle in which he is engaged. She was a staunch Red Cross supporter and emissary, and she is cut down in front of Oxford and their young son Conrad trying to bring help to those in need. As a result, Oxford takes a vow of pacifism and promises to use his connections to the king to keep his son from ever having to serve in the military when he gets older.

Naturally, as WWI grows closer, Conrad grows up (and is played by Harris Dickinson, of Beach Rats, The Souvenir: Part II) and wants very much to do his part and fight on the front lines, like any good British citizen would. His father is against it and arranges with military connections (played by Charles Dance and an assistant played by Matthew Goode), he manages to keep his son out of any possible war, driving a wedge between them. The Duke’s trusted associates (Hola, played by Djimon Hounsou, and Polly, played by Gemma Arterton) have been training Conrad in nearly every conceivable fighting style and weapon, but I guess he wasn’t supposed to get the urge to use these skills in any actual fighting.

Meanwhile, a collection of historical super-villains and criminal masterminds is gathering at the behest of a mysterious leader (well, it’s meant to be a mystery, but there’s a clear frontrunner as to who it really is among the cast of good guys), plotting to kickstart WWI by killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Among those in this evil super-club are super-spy Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), famed mentalist Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), and Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), who is perhaps the vilest human being in movies this year, although the filmmakers also find a way to use his lustful urges and dance background as a means of enhancing his fighting style and personality.

Although he doesn’t want his son fighting in the war, he does allow him to help stop it from happening by bringing him to help fight Rasputin, something that almost gets them both killed in the process. Shockingly, there’s a great deal about The King’s Man that tends to contradict itself. Before taking his son on the road, he brings him to the familiar Kingsman tailor shop to get new clothes for the journey, suits that allow for fighting but also look sharp. The tailor has private dressing rooms that double nicely for secret meeting spaces for Oxford to meet with his contacts before heading to confront Rasputin.

While the action sequences and the playful way Vaughn treats history can be enjoyable at times, a great deal of The King’s Man still resorts to cheap, unfunny jokes; genuinely sexist attitudes; and even the way the Hola character is positioned feels more like a manservant than an actual peer of the Duke’s. That shouldn’t come as a surprise but I thought the filmmakers might make more of an effort. And not to be overly patriotic about it, but even the way Americans are portrayed here (especially considering how many died in WWI) seems pretty distasteful, from the drunk, horny President Wilson on down—although there is a nice cameo here from Stanley Tucci as the American ambassador to Britain.

The film does have a few smaller, nice moments, including the surprise inclusion of Kick-Ass star Aaron Taylor-Johnson as an army recruit who unknowingly switches places with Conrad so that the Duke’s son can fight in the war. Taylor-Johnson is sent to deliver the news of Conrad’s deception to the Duke, who is mortified as a result. Also, I’m not sure the gimmick of having Tom Hollander play the triple role of King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas is going to make sense (or even register) with most viewers, but he does the best he can with the assignment in a film that doesn’t seem nearly as committed to the bit as the actor is.

The climactic showdown between the Duke and our mystery menace is decidedly anticlimactic, but I do admit to enjoying watching Fiennes engage in an actual fight scene rather than simply being one of the finest actors of his generation. I wish Hounsou and Arterton had been given roles that are little more than second fiddle. It’s helpful that there is a secret acknowledgement that both are instrumental in Conrad’s upbringing as both a young man and a skilled fighter, but it’s also clear that they boost Oxford when he needs it (and he needs it a great deal in this story). Now if only they’d been given screen-time consummate to their significance to the story.

If you’re a fan of the first Kingsman movie, it’s clever where this film leaves us, but a crazy post-credit sequence almost implodes the proceedings with the addition of an up-and-coming prospective villain. The King’s Man might have succeeded better if it hadn’t so frequently resorted to so much bawdy humor (I love a good low-brow joke myself, but this is a film about a more sophisticated brand of hero), but I don’t think a cleaner version of the humor would have saved the movie. It has its moments, but the film is largely predictable, flat and dull. I won’t say it’s unnecessary, because I think there’s great potential in exploring the early years of the Kingsman, and if there’s an attempt at a sequel to this prequel, it might fare better now that the organization is in place, fancy code names and all.

The film opens in theaters on December 22.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0vKejp3rvA

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.